Friday, April 11, 2008

Bette Davis

It was 100th Birth anniversary of Bette Davis last week. New York Times published a fine appreciation of her career and work:

Bette Davis, God knows, could supply some personality. Versatile though she was, she was never an empty-vessel sort of actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. Part of the strange thrill of watching her perform is the tension you feel between the demands of the role and the demands of her outsize self, constantly threatening to breach the boundaries of the character.

In her bad movies, and there are many, you can always sense her impatience with the material she’s been given. She’ll start working her huge eyes a little more, bulging them out for emphasis or hooding them like a snake about to strike. Or she’ll pace restlessly, her clicking heels punctuating every clipped, spit-out line. Or she’ll do something tricky with her (ever-present) cigarette, holding it in an unusual way or stubbing it out abruptly or amusing herself by varying the rhythm of her exhalations. She’s like a kid with too much energy; when she’s bored, she fidgets and colors outside the lines.

It is true for many other Hollywood stars of that period too. Most of them brought their own personality, with their own tics, mannerisms, style and personal experiences, to the roles they played and this is what I think makes them joint-auteurs of the films they made.

That said, I must admit that I don't like her. (My feelings for her arch-rival Joan Crawford are also similar.) In fact my feelings were more extreme but I have been questioning and thinking about these things recently. First, the kind of roles she played - mostly of "screaming, hysterical harpies" as one of the characters says about her in All About Eve - and she played them as if they were extensions of her own personality, are so remote from my own personal temperament, which is cold, aloof, discreet and orderly (at least on the outside) that I generally found it difficult to appreciate the skill and craft that went into her portrayals without being judgmental. There was also, I think, a subconscious gender-bias in my judgment - if a woman's emotional outbursts makes you uncomfortable, label her "hysterical." What made Davis different is that she had no qualms about being perceived as unlikable or difficult. As she says in All About Eve, "Peace and quiet is for the libraries" - she will scream and raise hell and if you don't like her that's your problem.

It is also not just that she played a lot of "bad girl" roles. She is very different from other standard "bad girls" of film noir which makes men (me included) drool - like Rita Hayworth, Jane Greer, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and others (Barbara Stanwyck, my personal favourite "good girl" and "bad girl", doesn't belong there. She is in a different league but more on that later). They are bad but not "messy" and worse, they are not "real" at all. They are mostly creations of male subjectivity with its own mixture of sexual desire, paranoia and fear. A very good example is William Wyler's 1940 classic The Letter which can be technically called a film noir but its Bette Davis' femme fatale is so very different from the standard prototype and not just because she plays the lead role and is at the centre of the story but because she is "real". We don't see her through the eyes of men around her, we see her as she is. It is really a wonderful film with an uncharacteristically subtle performance from her. It is certainly one of her best alongwith All About Eve. That said, I still have to see a lot of her films.

An excellent essay on The Letter by self-styled siren here.


puccinio said...

I'm not a big Bette Davis fan either. Part of the reason has to do with the fact that Davis like Crawford really didn't appear in a lot of classic films. Not as much as Barbara Stanwyck who was a star of Pre-Code classics like ''Night Nurse'' and ''Baby Face'' and still made great movies in the 50's like ''Forty Guns''.

But that said she's a great actress. Her films with William Wyler are excellent and ''All About Eve'' is superb as is ''Baby Jane''. She's definitely a great actress. Much better than Crawford.

Crawford nowadays has better cred with cinephiles since she appeared in Nicholas Ray's eccentric mock western, ''Johnny Guitar''.Of course her being out-acted by both Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge is indubitable of course but she's great in that film even if she made Ray's life miserable.

My favourite classic actresses in the American Sound Era is Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine(the Great) Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner.

Alok said...

Actually they acted in a lot of classics.. only not in the films of cinephile's favourite auteurs - Hawks, Hitchcock, Capra, Cukor, Lang, Wilder. Actually Joan Crawford acted in Daisy Canyon which was directed by Preminger ... People like Curtiz or Wyler are not very well-served by the strict auteurist mode of film histories. And both made most of their films with such directors.

I love Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn too but none of them had this larger-than-life persona that these two actresses had - a personality and presence so powerful that they would practically rewrite the roles they were playing without explicitly intending to that. That's why I mentioned actor as an auteur... I don't think you can say that for many actors... certainly not actresses.

puccinio said...

People like Curtiz or Wyler are not very well-served by the strict auteurist mode of film histories.

But they are. William Wyler was a favourite of Andre Bazin, though not of the New Wave who didn't care for him. Wyler later lost all remaining good will at Cahiers, even Bazin, after making ''Ben-Hur'' for which he has never been forgiven. In fact the irony of Wyler is that his reputation has suffered because of that one film of his which so many Oscars, that it's coloured how people look at his films.

Then Curtiz is well liked to by some auteurists. And Fassbinder liked his two Crawford films, ''Mildred Pierce'' and ''Flamingo Road''.

I love Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn too but none of them had this larger-than-life persona that these two actresses had

You are kidding. I mean have you seen ''Sylvia Scarlett'' and ''Forty Guns''? But then I suppose that they tended to play realistic characters while Davis and Crawford were theatrical and mannered.

And actually I agree with you about actors and actresses at time capable of being auteurs. Like John Wayne is a good example, Bogart definitely, Brando naturellement.

As for actress-as-auteurs...Louise Brooks is as much the auteur of her two films with Pabst as her director is. Same with the Dietrich-Sternberg films. Garbo in any movie(save for her film with Lubitsch).