Sign up for the Film Comment Letter today to get original film writing delivered to your inbox every week! >>

Bette Davis

Part of our midsection on milestones

The lady is seventy.  In the old days they called her “Bet,” as in best.  For the last decade or so it has been Miss Bette Davis.  She likes to call herself Mother Goddam.  By any name, title, sobriquet, or a.k.a. (The Little Wren, Banjo Eyes, La Lupa, The Fourth Warner Brother), the dame remains by lasting, the fairest contender for the all-American talking pictures Best Actress palm.  She lasts, the great performances last; the life becomes the legend.

Proposed text of a BD Birthday Cantata:

“Ah’d luv t’kiss yuh, but Ah just washed mah haih!”

“A cripple!  A cripple!  A cripple!”

“Press, I’m kneelin’ to yuh.”

“A large order of prognosis negative!”

“Ann, I know what I must do…Be my best friend; go now.”

“It’s me bringin’ up.  I never knew from one minute to the next who me mother was.  Shook me nerves!”

“Robert, I swear to you I didn’t write that letter!”

“I hope you die.  I hope you die soon.  I’ll be waitin’ for you to die.”

“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon; we have the stars.”

“There are things you just don’t do.”

“It’s late, and I’m very, very tired of youth and self sacrifice.”

“What a dump!”

“Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke!”

“Bill’s thirty-two.  He looks thirty-two.  He looked it five years ago; he’ll look it twenty years from now.  I hate men.”

“I detest cheap sentiment.”

“Ya didn’t eat ya din-din.”

Four supreme characterizations lead the histrionic roll.  In order of appearance: Julie Marsden, Judith Traherne, Charlotte Vale, and Margo Channing.

Julie Marsden, a.k.a. Jezebel (1938), is BD’s first stops-out screen triumph.  The performance is both highfalutin and low-keyed.  The magic of the fire and the music is here for the first time evenly balanced.  The manic energies and the mordant reflective attitudes—the one displayed as early as Of Human Bondage (1934), and the other displayed wispily in The Petrified Forest (1936)—are here precisely calibrated by Davis and William Wyler to create a contemporary self-styled “executive” woman, disguised in ante-bellum hoopskirts and sausage curls.  It is also the first of sever renunciation-and/or-death melodramas that made BD the arch symbol of the valiant depression-into-wartime woman: physically capable, exhibiting great mental alacrity, armored with fortitude, and in the end, in most cases, with secular spirituality and a democratic decency—all putatively quintessential American virtues circa the Forties.

Judith Traherne is BD’s supreme cinematic achievement.  As Camille is to Garbo, as The Wife in Intolerance is to Mae Marsh, as Lucy in Broken Blossoms is to Lillian Gish, Judith Traherne is to Bette Davis. Every color on the Davis palate, every semitone in the voice, every elegant, frenzied, awkward, and wistful physical flourish is employed to achieve a self-directed, self-propelled realization of…The Self, forthright, energetic, driven, desperate, broken, reclaimed, resigned. The fade-out on Judith Traherne in Dark Victory is the single most perfect shot of BD’s face on film—an exquisite blend of stubborn, steadfast, set-ways Yankee womanhood, and nun-like angelic invocation.  The Davis performance, skirting the edge of madness, rocketing along on some eerily informed impulse, radically instinctual, is her 4-0 carat best.

Charlotte Vale offered BD the longest, widest histrionic gamut of her career, the most spacious area in which to play. Transformation fantasies are the core of every dream life, the stuff of all dream work.  Transformation fantasies realized—from Cinderella to Odette in Swan Lake, from the risen Christ to Analysand X working on individuation this evening in consultation with Analyst Y—are the happier endings our wills espouse to make do while we yet live.  In Olive Higgins Prouty’s superlative Now, Voyager, BD found the character closest to her own self in terms of ethnicity, age, nascent psychic potential, and eventual stance.  The trek from Rochester road-company reject to Empress of Burbank and environs—by way of a long voyage and the besting of an overbearing parent-entity (Warner Brothers)—nicely parallels the Charlotte Vale excursion and return, from Beacon Hill to the leafy bins, to Rio, and back home.  As Charlotte put the Vale gelt to benevolent use, so BD, having atoned after her defiant Thirties lawsuit, dragged the proletarian studio into the kingdom of high Forties art, meanwhile also building a few sound stages.  And then the matter of the upsweep.  As the emblematic hairstyle of the Forties, the upsweep symbolized the utmost control—the direct opposite of the frantic Thirties “letting your hair down.”  The upsweep wedded sophisticated bearing to compassion.  Nobody ever wore the upsweep like BD.  Charlotte Vale, transformed from Miss Without to Lady Bountiful, is BD’s own spiritual bio up to 1942.

Margo Channing, Mythic Celebrity.  BD’s performance, her best-known the world over, demonstrates her genius for precision timing above all.  She delights in the characterization—dissecting, while performing, the ways in which it is made and sustained.  Margo is somewhat clownish.  She’d as soon say “ain’t” as not (or “aren’t,” as in “Aren’t we, honey?”).  Instead, she lets Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) say “ain’t” and prudently observes, reaping the benefits of her companion’s salty savvy.  Of all the relationships in the picture, the Margo-Birdie bond is the strongest: a comical Phaedre-Oenone turn, a sisterly bond.  Margo may chide Birdie, a vaudevillian, but BD plays Margo as just frowsy enough for late vaudeville—“a fur coat over a nightgown.”  Margo Channing is BD’s most frankly sexual creation; and for BD sex is essentially comical.  Her timing in All About Eve (1950), all drawls and slanted epigrams, is almost Mae-Western.

What BD’s MC is finally all about is honest stardom.  Not self-service take-out fast-fabulous fame that all seek after in their lives, but forthright, downright honest stardom, tinged with domestic concern—a state of being and performing in which husbanded resources come to pay off (in the long run, don’t-cha know).

Seven more performances: top drawer, rear compartment.  In order of appearance: Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage; Elizabeth Tudor, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; Leslie Crosbie, in The Little Foxes; Kit Marlowe, in Old Acquaintance; Rosa Moline, in Beyond the Forest; and Baby Jane Hudson, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Mildred Rogers.  The Cockney accent is an absolute bust, but there’s a lot of brio in the attempt.  The genius of BD’s performance is in the rhythm—now listless, now spastic—in the body work, and in the truly frightening Salome-like pudgy lust that rumbles along underneath the dialogue.  BD’s Mildred is also slatternly-androgynous, a wickedly pre-Twiggy tormentor.  Historically, this is the performance that put the lady on the moompix map.  The orage (“A cripple! A cripple! A cripple!”) reveals as well the link between BD and the flaming Jeanne Eagels.

Elizabeth the Queen glows with Cheshire-cat personal actress satisfaction (deftly skirting self-regard).  In a tinsel vehicle, attended by a gorgeous sap, he queen cavorts.  The famous emblematic, oft-guyed open-close fist gesture is rampant, on a field of brittle t’s.  The eyes in the made-up crone’s skull glow with a morbid dread, a consuming fever.  An actress’s ambition, nakedly displayed in the heaviest costumes she ever had strapped on her back, stamps out Devil-Doubt, and wins the day (for BD, star performer).  The impact of history is cordially acknowledged.  BD’s name-day fantasy, a crown jewel.

Leslie Crosbie, all technique, all fanatic discipline.  The earlier performance of the part, by Jeanne Eagels, smacked of the calculatedly berserk—and survive as the more astonishing reading.  BD is all but the complete mistress of her resources in this one.  The performance comes over as a survival (there were apparently rumbles on the set), and is somewhat compromised by the lazy quasi-suicidal retributive death-turn at the very end.  The element of the berserk is given over to Gale Sondergaard, playing an exiled Chinese princess in a situation that called for more of a frump.  The Davis genius is most evident in the silent passages—Leslie at her needlepoint—and, of course, always in the eyes, a tormented soul’s mirrors.

Regina Giddens: product of another Wyler-Davis slugfest.  The problem: How not to imitate Tallulah.  The solution: Don’t try.  The Result: svelte.  The play is a very slender melo.  Wyler’s solution is to emphasize the furniture: the holdings, the foodstuffs, the accouterments, the clothes, the drapery, the rugs, the lamps.  In the middle of it all there is one (just one) great scene for BD, featuring a devastating closeup in which she appears to be pre-embalmed—a murderess executed and still breathing.  The raucous laugh is the best mannerism.  As Regina, BD is supremely efficient.  She never explodes out of her stays.  She applies Yankee methods.  She navigates expertly.

Kit Marlowe is an altogether sublime creation.  If BD had not been busily occupied being the paramount film actress of her generation, she might well—given that touch of Radcliffe that Margo bitches Karen for having acquired—have turned into a real-life Kit: cosmopolitan author.  As it is, she is Kit Marlowe on the silver screen.  Kit is the great Forties American freewoman.  She loves, loses, loves, wins, loves, decides.  She pays her dues; she takes the cake; she carries on.  BD, in best attire and highest sprits, lavishes her qualities on Kit Marlowe—every downright, forthright, and askance aspect.  What’s in a name!

Rosa Moline has been very seriously maligned, mainly by Bette Davis.  The fact is she is wildly spectacular.  “You’re something for the birds, Rosa, something for the birds,” Minor Watson quips.  Thirty years later, it turns out, Rosa was an avatar.  BD remains tight-lipped about Rosa, taking a leaf from the Merman Book of Wisdom to declare in effect: “It was a mistake; that’s why they put erasers on pencils!”  It’s as if she were saying “I swear to you I didn’t make that picture!”  Whereas: Rosa Moline is one of the most truly exasperated performances BD ever flung at viewers.  It is entirely 103-degrees febrile, and wonderfully raw.  Seizures featuring disoriented behavior—as opposed to rant, shenanigans, and primal screaming—are seldom successfully depicted on the screen.  Rosa is an extension of Marie, in Bordertown (1935), and she bears more than a passing resemblance to Empress Carlotta, in Juarez (1939).  King Vidor certainly seems to have known what he was doing.  Perhaps the BD Yankee ego never faced the BD-Rosa id in waking life, but in this dark, tranced performance there is more than meets the jaundiced eye.  The greatest moment in the picture: BD, supine in front of the blazing fire, dangling a shoe of a certain style off her demented toes.  Rosa Moline is a head-to-toe dementia.  BD was never more flamboyant, never scarier.

Baby Jane Hudson is a geriatric Electra in a Venetian carnival sideshow (Venice, California, though).  Plus she wears Rosa Moline’s old shoes.  The delectable zest with which Miss Davis…etc.  The performance is a great field day (said term defined as a day of military exercise and display).  Apart from the sheer joy of watching BD twist Joan of Crawford on the rack, viewers are treated to the headily erotic-necrophiliac gargoyle show-stopper turn “I’m Sending a Letter to Daddy.”  And to the magic regeneration (shot through a sock) of the BD face as she sits on the Pacific shore, Fellinily, lapping up vanilla ice-cream while sister Blanche goes off to God.

These eleven performances make a suitable anthology.  Many others hover close.  Then there are, to paraphrase Mary Wickes in the wonderful June Bride, the real McKinley stinkers—like Stanley Timberlake in In This Our Life, the mom in The Empty Canvas, Bunny O’Hare, and some few others.  But better to salute BD at seventy with another roll call of next-best performances, performances any actress in pictures could be proud to have given: Fay, in 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing; Marie, in Bordertown; Gaby Maple, in The Petrified Forest; Mary Dwight, in Marked Woman; Charlotte, in The Old Maid; The Empress Carlotta, in Juarez; Henriette Deluzy Desportes, in All This and Heaven Too; Fanny Trellis Skeffington, in Mr. Skeffington; Lilly Moffat, in The Corn is Green; Kate and Patricia Bosworth, in A Stolen Life; Christine Radcliffe, in Deception; Susan Grieve, in Winter Meeting; Linda Gilman, in June Bride; Margaret Elliot, Of Miracles; Charlotte Hollis, in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Happy Birthday, Bette Davis. Do go on.

Dream project. A film, in one long take, of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, starring Bette Davis.