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Bette Davis’s Greatest Hits

I’ve recently watched a bunch of movies starring first-rate movie star Bette Davis.  She has always been one of my favorites–a sharp-tongued and audacious, chain-smoking, face-slapping, go-for-broke actress who made some of my favorite movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Here are some watchable examples of Davis’s innate awesomeness.

The Letter (1940)

From the files of 40s era exotic intrigue pictures, Bette Davis plays an American woman living in Malaysia where her businessman husband owns or runs or a rubber plantation.  In the beginning moments of the movie, she shoots a man in her house and tells the assembled authorities that he was threatening her, that she feared for her life.  She and her husband work with a lawyer to develop her defense, but the more information the lawyer uncovers, the more he thinks her story doesn’t add up.  Not even pretending to be innocent, Davis offers the lawyer a large sum of money to buy and bury an incriminating letter that is the key piece of damning evidence.

One thing I found interesting about the movie was how it stood as sort of an examination of guilt and, for lack of a better term, karma.  The lawyer character has an ethical dilemma about using or not using the letter, of course.  But Davis’s husband and high-society friends also seem shady, all of them in the camp of “what does it matter if she did or not?”, a not terribly socially responsible attitude.  Finally, the ending features one of those narrative punishments reserved for characters who get away with awful things—again, karma.

One thing the movie doesn’t do, however, is leverage the exotic setting for a story about east versus west.  Those attitudes would have been so much more alarming and complicated if the root of it all was racism—if she had killed one of the plantation workers, a local.  (It was just a white guy.)  Maybe that would’ve been too hot-button for the 40s.

More movies (plus clips!) if you click ahead

Now Voyager (1942)

Davis opens the movie as the haggiest heiress you’ve ever seen, and then has a nervous breakdown, largely because everyone in her family treats her so disrespectfully.  She goes to a sanitarium, and comes out looking like a glamour girl, because even back in the 40s filmmakers knew that feeling good about oneself inside is best illustrated via a makeover.  Not being a mousy old spinster anymore means a new host of problems for Davis, however, including trying to recalibrate her relationships with her family members, and falling in love with a married man.

It’s a classic Bette Davis performance and a pretty effective romance, too.  Probably everyone has seen the moment when Paul Henreid (as the married man), puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights both, and hands one to Bette.  Then they…blow smoke in each others’ faces.  In the 40s that was high class, however.

What I really like about the movie is that it prizes self-improvement above and beyond the guy-getting benefits; Davis’s character is truly happier and more fulfilled after her theraputic experiences, and even finds a little shy plain girl that she can mentor in the ways of developing self-confidence.  The story doesn’t wrap up too neatly, either.

Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory, like Now Voyager, is about Davis’s character in crisis.  She plays a spirited young woman discovers she has a brain tumor.  She doesn’t want to go to the doctor about her blackout headaches—it’s nothing, how dare you!—but soon she finds herself there and then the worst is confirmed.  And the movie follows her through the medical procedure, which is fascinating from a modern day perspective, a real time capsule for doctor-patient relations.  Davis asks the doctor “Where?” meaning, where on her brain will he be operating? and he responds with the most paternalistic response, “Oh, now that’s my concern not yours,” and a Dr. Hibbert-style chortle.  “Will you have to cut off my hair?”  “Yes, but it will grow back.”  As it happens, they just have to cut off a little chunk of hair on the back of her head and so she goes around for the rest of the movie hiding it under a goofy beanie.  (see above)

But what’s really amazing to me is that Davis, by all accounts a glamorous movie star, even agreed to be in the movie.  When the doctor tells Davis not to worry (i.e. to quit asking impertinent questions and just be a good patient), she agrees that it is “distasteful, isn’t it?”  In that era there was a mystification of medical issues—everything was glossed over, addressed via euphemisms, not discussed in polite company.  The interactions in the film bear that out obviously enough.  So, can you imagine how people felt seeing a movie where the character goes through a horrible illness?  Has surgery?  DIES?  Not of something “romantic” like when Camille succumbs to her tuberculosis ([delicate cough]) but of a brain tumor?

Look at how hilariously out-of-step this promotional shot is from the rest of the movie.

The movie is quaint by today’s standards, of course—but to an audience in the 1930s it must have seemed positively crude and thus Davis’s performance seems courageous and unflinching.  (Until she does actually die, which is the haziest, most romanticized moment ever.)

That’s kind of Davis’s stock in trade, though; she made gutsy choices and then played them to the hilt, without the slightest hesitation.

The Little Foxes (1941)

I watched this movie based on its placement on AFI’s 50 Greatest Villains list, the villain being Davis’s character, Regina Giddens.  I was surprised to find that she didn’t seem overtly villainous for the majority of the movie.  I think she made it on there based on one key moment in the movie where Regina, who is battling her estranged husband over an investment deal, watches dispassionately while he has a heart attack.  Which, granted, is not something a good person does.  But so much happens prior to that—and so many of the other characters are also awful—it seems reductive to make it all about that one scene.

That’s especially because, as a movie, it was first-rate.  It’s set amongst an aristocratic family in the deep South at the turn of the last century.  Davis, who was still relatively young at the time, is striving to be the all-powerful matriarch of this family, and get her cut of the family fortune, but she is continually closed out of things by the men.  Unfortunately, any proto-feminist message is destroyed by her being an awful person and all.  The redeeming character here is Davis’s daughter, played by the ever-wonderful Teresa Wright.  The older generation uses her as a bargaining tool in their money games, and then she gets to wonderfully and self-righteously tell them all off and follow her conscience right out the front door.  Again, classic soap operatic entertainment.

The Great Lie (1941)

This movie is fun mostly for its soapy, dubious plot: George Brent plays a guy who has a long-term steady relationship with Davis but marries socialite playgirl Mary Astor on a whim.  They are married for a week, then discover that her previous divorce was never finalized, and thus, their marriage is not legal.  By that time they are beginning to regret their rash leap into matrimony, and agree to just part ways.  Brent returns, contrite, to Davis and marries her.

Then: complications!  Brent, a pilot, crashes in South America or somewhere and is presumed dead.  Then Astor approaches Davis in public and confesses that she is pregnant and doesn’t care to be so.  Davis convinces her to hide out in the country with her, carry the baby to term, and then give it to her, Davis, so she can raise it as her own.  There are some great moments between these two women who are, when all is said and done, hated rivals, as they hole up in a country house and bicker over things like whether Astor gets to smoke.  Mary Astor had sort of an aristocratic appearance, but damn, she could be funny.  The movie also raises some serious questions, ethical, legal, psychological—it is, for the most part, a drama—especially when, in a not-very-surprising twist, Brent is found alive, after all!

Davis is very young here and playing largely against type—her character is a small-town girl, almost earth mothery.  Which is probably why no one has heard of this movie.  Still, I would say that it works; Davis wasn’t just a recognizable character, she was a legitimate actress.  Nice to see her get to change it up a bit.

Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Later in Davis’s career, at the beginning of her grotesque period.  Unlike many of the glamorous actresses of her day, Davis didn’t obligingly shrink out of the public eye when her birthdays grew too numerous.  She made a choice to utilize her scary eyes and witchy voice and spent another thirty years gainfully employed playing a series of old crones.  (Joan Crawford—Davis’s hated nemesis—made a similar career move, and the two women squared off as sisters in the iconic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?)

So it all starts with the typical witchy beats.  Davis’s character, Charlotte, is kind of a Southern Gothic recluse, hidden away in her daddy’s plantation, not having left it since her lover was murdered gruesomely at a party there twenty to thirty years earlier.  Charlotte beat the murder rap but has been shunned by the community and so never wants to step back out into it.  Unfortunately, the state has bought her property and wants to build a freeway through it.  Some workmen come by to do the initial work and Charlotte chases them off with a shotgun.  Charlotte is nuttier than a fruitcake.

Olivia de Havilland plays Charlotte’s cousin, who has been retrieved from her big city life to come home and convince Charlotte to leave, though her real motives for coming back are a mystery.  Actually, Hush was surprisingly sensitive in its treatment of Charlotte, and the tragedies she’d endured.  Not bad at all for some classic horror.

All About Eve (1950)

This is Bette’s most iconic role: she plays a diva of the Broadway stage who is beginning to age out of ingenue roles (Davis was 42 at the time) and who is struggling to keep her ambitious assistant, Eve, from using her as a stepping stone to fame.  The movie is full of acerbic repartee, behind-the-scenes in-the-wings action, and all-around high-class bitchery.  Davis has got an extra crispness in her voice (which, according to IMDb, was from all the yelling at her soon-to-be ex-husband she was doing at the time) and a kind of larger-than-life charisma I imagine she didn’t have to try too hard to fake.  Yet beneath all that you can feel her vulnerability.  What a frickin’ star.  (Also, behind the scenes, Davis got over her recent divorce by romancing and marrying her younger male co-star Gary Merrill, which is a pretty badass diva move, don’t you think?)

Here, from All About Eve,  is the most famous moment in Davis’s career:

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