Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Bette Davis Persona

This is my Contribution to the Bette Davis Contest over at FilmClassics. Go and check out the other contributors too!


What is the Bette Davis persona? Well, for anyone who has ever seen more than one of her films, you'll know that she always played a similar kind of character. Most often she is being too confident and then gets her comeuppance - justly or unjustly (All About Eve, Mr Skeffington). Or she might undergo an amazing transformation from either a selfish girl or a dowdy mouse (Dark Victory and Now Voyager respectively) - but it's quite likely she is simply an evil genius (The Letter, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane - more insane than anything else in this one, In This Our Life, The Little Foxes). But all of these characters seemed to suffer so darn much. Even if it's only going through an emotional hardship, they are gonna meet up with some sort of trouble. Believe me.

Bette Davis made her mark in the popular "Women's Pictures" of the 30s and 40s, which were so named  because they feature a female character who is either more powerful, or more important in the story, than the man. This was Bette Davis's ticket. She was used to the stage and, well, Hollywood was no Broadway to her. She didn't really like what the motion picture industry represented. It was all a bit too fluffy and silly for her. She wanted the grit of traditional theatre, and she tried to emulate it with her "Women's Pictures". And the result isn't at all bad.

Most actresses back then had a distinctive character style. Joan Crawford (Bette's sworn nemesis) usually played glamourous ladies who were really ladylike ("Why am I so good at playing bitches? Well, I think it's because I'm not a bitch. Maybe that's why Ms. Crawford always played ladies." - Bette Davis) Greer Garson was made by her studio to play lovely English women who were beautiful as well as being "accomplished", much to her dismay (she tried to break the mould with Julia Misbehaves, but...).  Katharine Hepburn was interesting, in that she had her own type of role - the independent woman - but she was also open to other roles too, much like Bette Davis. So it wasn't uncommon for audiences to be familiar with an actress's "screen persona", but with Bette Davis it seems that the audiences kept coming back and didn't get bored.

With Spencer Tracy

Claudette Colbert said to Bette Davis just after the unfortunate back injury that cost her the part of Margo Channing, "I envy you your career. Do you know why? It's because you played older women before you had to. Now you'll never have to cross the age bridge." Which is really quite true. She played an old spinster in The Old Maid (1939), and grew into an ageing socialite in Mr. Skeffington (not one of my favourites of hers), and did it really well. She never seemed very old and never very young - she was always just Bette Davis. The same could be said for Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and James Stewart, who always looked the same age to me.

So while all the other stars on the lot were brainstorming and writing out plans of action for their, "Triumphant comeback to the screen!" - most of which failed anyhow - Bette Davis was knitting and having a better idea. When her career as a leading lady went flop, she started to get herself roles as mothers, aunts, and older women - who nevertheless had interesting characters and story-lines. And the public were more interested in her when she made that move than all those other stars who played boring older women competing for their younger leading men (Zzzzzzzzzz....).

I've chosen three of her most interesting character choices and why I think they ARE the Bette Davis persona.

Charlotte, The Old Maid (1939) Directed By Edmund Goulding

I find The Old Maid an interesting project choice for Bette, because at this point, she hadn't ventured much into roles that aged over the course of a film, and none of them were as successful as this one. In this same year she made Dark Victory, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex and many others. I admire her for choosing this film as one she wanted to do. Unfortunately, it meant her working with the reportedly super-harsh British film director Edmund Goulding, with whom she also made Dark Victory, amongst others. I lover her portrayal of Charlotte - though she really didn't like the meek role and proposed that she play both Charlotte and her cousin Delia (this two-of-her-on-screen-at-once wish wouldn't be fulfilled until A Stolen Life in 1946).

This typifies the Bette Davis persona for me because it shows that she wasn't afraid to take risks in several categories. In this film she not only ages into a snappy, haunted old maid, but she has an illegitimate baby, wears un-flattering dowdy clothes, a grey wig wrought up into a tight bun, and has drawn-on wrinkles. Hardly the status quo for movie stars in those days. I also like this role because she makes the seemingly less interesting character of the film a lot more exciting than the somewhat irritating Delia.

Regina Giddens, The Little Foxes (1941) Directed By William Wyler

"Take us the little foxes. The little foxes that spoil the vine." {Shown on the first title card.}

This is one of my very favourite films. Everything from the amazing Patricia Collinge to the heartbreaking and lovely Herbert Marshall is completely perfect - especially Bette Davis's performance. Again breaking one of Hollywood's oldest and most revered customs: "Never play the mother of someone who is old enough to be marrying the male lead instead of you." Well, at only 33, Bette Davis played Regina, the mother of Teresa Wright, a young woman in a Southern aristocratic family, the Hubbards. Teresa Wright goes on to finally find out about Regina's wicked deed, coming out as the revered and rooted-for character in the movie.

Regina Giddens to her frail husband Horace: I hope you die, and I hope you die soon. I'll be waiting for you to die.

Though I've watched Bette Davis play almost everything from Society girls dying from brain tumors to mentally unstable former child-stars who smother themselves in caky foundation and red lipstick, I've never truly hated her character, and wanted her to lose the whole way through. And in a way, both the public and the studios didn't expect anyone to. But while watching this I found that I wanted Bette Davis's character to lose. Her acting is wonderful and spot on, but she chose to play such a nasty character who purposely lets her husband die of a heart attack for his money, that I just had to root for Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge. That's why I think that this represents exactly the Bette Davis character. She chose the role of Regina Giddens not because she thought it would win her popularity among audiences as a character, but because she knew it was a spectacular part.

Margo Channing, All About Eve (1950) Directed by Joseph Manciewicz

Plot, Read my big post about it here.

Bill: Oh you've heard this one before, the one about the time I looked through the wrong end of the camera finder!"
Margo: Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.

Full of biting dialogue and witty quips, All About Eve is regarded by many as Bette Davis's greatest achievement. This is one of my favourite films ever, and Bette Davis's performance as Margo Channing is one of my favourite characterizations. She only got the part because the intended actress for the role, Claudette Colbert, broke her back while filming another movie. The crew considered all kinds of actresses. Everyone from Ingrid Bergman to Gertrude Lawrence. But in the end they knew that the one who could do justice to Margo Channing would be Bette Davis. There were a few tricky things that happened during filming. But they all got over them, fueled by the great script. And it is a fantastic script. One of the best.

Watermarked awesome GIF is obviously not mine :-)

There isn't much I can say about Margo Channing, or Bette Davis as Margo Channing, that hasn't already been said. But lots of things happened to Bette Davis after this movie. She was robbed of a best actress Oscar; she gained a husband (her leading man, Gary Merill); and among other things, she gained the confidence of her audience back after a series of flops in the mediocre pictures she was turning out at the time. Women's Pictures were out, but with All About Eve she discovered a new type of movie that she could do well. This sticks in my mind as the Bette Davis film. I don't know whether it's because it was the first one I saw, or whether it's the one I know most about, but to me Margo Channing is Bette Davis. Some of her husbands said as much to the newspapers, and she would have probably denied it, but it's what I think anyhow.

Those are the things that I really feel represent the "Bette Davis Image"



annaflax said...

here is a message for all fans of Bette Davis. check it out, click on Bette Bette   

Kate Gorman said...

I love Bette Davis and All About Eve! xx

Nola West said...

Beautifully done... I mentioned Your Blog on Pinterest, after borrowing pictures from your blog! I hope that was OK! Thank you for your "Tribute" to the Stunning & Talented Star: Bette Davis! There's a reason they call Exceptional People "Stars"....
~ Peace to all, Nola

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