Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Fasten your seatbelts; it's gonna be a bumpy night"

Davis's career-saving star turn in 1950's All About Eve.
Because of any number of capricious quirks of Academy voting, many of the best outings by great actors have been eclipsed on Oscar night. Bette Davis, for example, was passed over for her stellar performances in All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Two engrossing books on film I'm dipping into at the moment give canny perspectives on Davis's persona and career trajectory.
From Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema, here's Gary Giddins on her breakthrough role in Jezebel and on Baby Jane:
Wyler seemed to recognize her for what she was: a magnificent gorgon, a whirlwind of short-fused energy, and a bowstring waiting to be plucked. In their subsequent films, The Letter and The Little Foxes, the material is almost as taut as Davis. Jezebel is southern-friend malarkey, but never as languorous, smug, or racially oblivious as Gone with the Wind. From the moment Davis whirls through a ball in an inappropriate dress, even Henry Fonda is outclassed.... Davis's admirers often observe that she lacked vanity in her willingness to look ugly and incarnate evil. What her vanity could not abide was playing small. In Baby Jane Hudson, she created a gargoyle for all time.
In Matinee Idylls, longtime film critic Richard Schickel devotes a chapter to the Davis phenomenon as well.
The brisk way she clipped her words and the singular pauses she often made between syllables— nobody took command of the language in quite the way she did, bending it to her inner rhythms rather than submitting to its tyranny. The abrupt gestures that accompanied her speeches—it was as if she were brushing aside the gnats of insincerity and indecision that so often distract ordinary mortals. The impatient twitch of her shoulders, indicating something less than gladness in the face of foolishness, even on occasion her own—it strongly implied she could bear tragedy, if that's where fate was leading her, more readily than she could stand dither.... Her pictures all ran on her energy and stand the test of time because of the tensile strength, that inimitable electroplating of heedlessness and vulnerability, her soul’s chemistry provided them.

Schickel also offers a deliciously long chapter on Charles Laughton, a particular favorite of mine. Laughton played Javert in Richard Boleslavsky's film version of Les Miserables.
His Les Miz, broodingly photographed by the great Gregg Toland, remains the standard by which all film and theatrical versions of the Victor Hugo classic ought to be judged. The same must be said for Laughton's Javert, so tightly wound, so  aware of the monstrousness of his pursuit of the unhappy Jean Valjean yet equally aware of how helplessly he is entrapped in his own obsession.
Wondering how Schickel would rate the Miz that was up for Oscar consideration this year, I found a review on the website Truthdig. I really agree with him on the dynamics of stage vs. screen vis-à-vis musicals:
On the stage, the show’s cast of dozens crammed into a limited space achieved—or so it seemed to me—a genuine jostling energy. There was always something afoot with them. They were busy and wayward and alive. You succumbed to them, almost against your better judgment. They believed in this enterprise and they carried you along with them.
But a big budget movie can do pretty much what it wants to do. Does a scene require a crowd? OK, Hooper will give you a crowd—in spades. And, paradoxically, nothing is left to our imagination. The force and focus of the stage presentation is thus dissipated. There are times when a cast of dozens, working intensely, is actually superior to a cast of hundreds working routinely. And that’s case with this movie.
Will anyone who has seen the Laughton Les Miz give us their take on it? I'm looking forward to revisiting more favorite films and stars with Giddins and Schickel, as well as discovering new ones. Giddins (who mostly writes about jazz)  has some interesting things to say about Hitchock in rating several boxed sets.
His films have achieved something better than timelessness; the older they get, the more astutely they function as social critiques. They may be frostily schematic, but long after we know who did what to whom, we return repeatedly for the nuance, the humor, the stylishness, the daring, the frisson, and the sex, which is invariably delayed, frustrated, or undermined with perversity.
Above: cover illustration by Nick Morley from a British Film Institute monograph on the movie some consider Hitch's masterpiece.


  1. Two of my all-time favorite actors--how happy I am to see your post!
    Bette Davis made certain she would never be ignored in anything she did. I recall her in "Of Human Bondage" ("You know what I did after you kissed me? I wiped my mouth!") And she said that with the verb in capital letters, and an emphatic back-of-the-hand recreation.
    Charles Laughton made THE best Quasimodo, period. He ran after Henry Daniell with doglike servitude, but then turned to Esmeralda with his half-human face and said, "You wouldn't think there could be anything else wrong with me, but there is." His beloved bells had made him deaf. In that moment, the full weight of his tragedy fell on the beholder--he was as sensitive as any of us, and aware of his state.
    Unforgettable acting!

    In case I never see these words again,

  2. Bette Davis is the female counterpart of Marlon Brando: when they were at their best, they were simply the best. Unfortunately both made numerous career missteps that resulted in a checkered legacy. Much like Elvis, they became parodies and then worked hard to maintain that image. That said, I consider Bette Davis’s performances in Now Voyager, Dark Victory, Jezebel, and All About Eve to be so spectacular that they partake of magic rather than mere acting. These days, Oscars are handed out for mimicking famous people or simulating mental illness; Bette Davis made her mark with a dark, mysterious charisma and a sense of timing that cannot be learned, only admired.

    1. I do like that observation about Oscar winners today.(e.g. Meryl Streep's impersonation of Margaret Thatcher). I would add to the list of Bette Davis performances "The Little Foxes", in which she played a cold-blooded wife who denies her spouse his heart medication, while he dies.
      There was no question about Bette being a liberated woman. She had never been caged, nor could ever be.

    2. AB - How I savor your delineation of Davis! It's so beautifully expressed I have been reading it over and over. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  3. "Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood."--so ran an ad in Variety placed by an aging Bette Davis. Why are the mummified remains of Clint Eastwood more attractive than an aging star with attitude?