The Magic of Bette Davis
Remembering the Little Fox
Few stars hearkening back to Hollywood's Golden Age elicit the unequivocal reverence and regard afforded Bette Davis. She remains a unique figurehead of a bygone era in which the creation of larger-than-life screen personas defined cinematic art under the fabled studio system.
Her steely ferocity remains a source of inspiration for younger actresses, along with a classic demeanor-or hauteur, if you will-reminiscent of the great stage performers of the past, as so elegantly demonstrated in roles like The Little Foxes and The Letter. Davis' work feels modern, timeless, urgent, unfettered by self-consciousness but flavored with her special brand of sarcastic detachment-as if she had just emerged into a hostile environment and was simply there to test the waters.
On this, the centennial of her birth, a stunning new biography, Ed Sikov's Dark Victory, titled after one of her greatest roles, appears alongside the third DVD installment of the "Bette Davis Collection." Both are notable commemorative tributes to her unparalleled legacy. 2008 also marks the 70th anniversary of Davis' first truly great role, her Oscar-winning performance in Jezebel, which would be followed by a string of memorable roles during the following 10 years.
But it could not last forever. While modern audiences remember Baby Jane and All About Eve (Davis' brilliant if only slightly demeaning self-caricature), these films do not reflect the magnetism of her glory years at Warner Bros. From 1937-1948, she redefined screen acting with a series of mesmerizing characterizations that laid the groundwork for contemporary screen acting.
Even then, her prestige as the screen's greatest actress needed little publicity gimmickry. Moviegoers remained awed at her uncanny ability to edge out the most dissonant truths in her characters, astonishingly reinvented in film after film, placing her well underway to the realm of legend. The final stamp of that legend had worked its way into filmgoers' consciousness by her next signature role, 1939's Dark Victory, which has been called "a master class in creative acting." Wishing to be beautiful like Garbo or Hepburn, by 1940 she had surpassed them both. Garbo, the screen's greatest poet, was already gone, and Hepburn then worked best in comedy.
Davis seemed to find the undecipherable truth within each character in a series of unique, unadorned screen images that were fascinating to audiences accustomed to "movie star" presence. The famous mannerisms-the bug-eyed expressions, the hand-waving, were nothing more than signifiers tuning the viewer to the core of her characters, while liberating her to effect motivational development, often in midscene. Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep speak of discovering in Davis the range of what was possible.
In her greatest roles Davis could transform characters with ease. "These are an old maid's tears of gratitude," she weeps to Paul Henreid in Now,Voyager, an episode lauded by actor James Woods as one of the most moving on screen. With "It's getting dark, but I can still feel sun on my hands," she will approach blindness and death with renewed resolve in the unforgettable Dark Victory. She will opt for redemption and accept resignation again in Jezebel as she pleads with Henry Fonda's wife to be allowed to follow him to certain death: "Help me make myself clean as you're clean," she entreats in a moving conclusion to what TheNew Yorker's David Denby recently called "a great film."
There is no redemption or salvation in The Letter, however. "I still love the man I killed" is her final cry of anguish as she meets her comeuppance courageously. Oliver Stone has always admired her remarkable character transformation in the quintessential Davis vehicle, Mr. Skeffington, one of her most complex performances.
Not all of her films were of equal quality, of course. She appears strained in Elizabeth and Essex, doubtless because of Errol Flynn, and strident in Juarez, but still wields the magic of her star power in lesser projects such as The Great Lie and the underrated Old Acquaintance.
But the magic did not last forever. She became more demanding on her sets. With advancing age, unhappy marriages, increased temperament and a bit more booze, her talents became more institutionalized, less spontaneous, though still formidable. She had always been altruistic, however, having founded the Hollywood Canteen during the war years. But when she left Warner Bros., her disaffection might well have been expressed by that famous line from the rivetingly campy Beyond the Forest: "What a dump!"
In retrospect, film historian Jean Basinger best encapsulates the Davis mystique: "There are two parts to the Davis persona, exterior and interior. The exterior has the set of mannerisms suitable for mimicking-the bug eyes, the swinging pelvis, the restless hands-but there is an inside to her performances-a depth of feeling, of power, of emotion-difficult to relate or define. It's just there. It's what makes her a star."