Sunday, December 14, 2008

Almost Sex in the City: Betty Davis Womens Pictures

Bette Davis rocks. I loved Dark Victory and Now, Voyager. Both are torturous melodramatic plots that border on the absurd and both are entirely carried by the fierceness of Bette's acting. The New York Times put it this way: " either because of the Hays Office or its own spurious logic, endlessly complicates an essentially simple theme. For all its emotional hair-splitting, it fails to resolve its problems as truthfully as it pretends. In fact, a little more truth would have made the film a good deal shorter." That was a review of Now, Voyager, but it could have easily done for Dark Victory as well. The truth the Times is hinting at is the truth that the empowerment so long fought for by the heroines of both these movies, is all about sex.

In Dark Victory, the hint of sex lies behind the wild nights of "wastefulness" that Julie Treherne seems to want to indulge in with young Ronald Reagan and Humphrey Bogart. Reagan plays a party boy who is never sober and Bogart plays an unconvincingly Irish horse trainer who is at least convincingly impertinent. Julie toys with both of them, but in a pre-code movie she would have gotten them over and done with in a few quick scenes before making the inevitable realization that her Dr. Steele (George Brent) is the man for her. The story is easily dismissed as women's romantic nonsense. After her brain surgeon falls in love with her, he discovers her tumor is inoperable. His surgery will only manage to give her a few healthy months before she dies. In what had to have been a malpractice suit in the making if I ever saw one, Steele decides to hold back the truth. The pair get engaged, but of course she finds out and that's when she returns to her playboy and her stable boy, imagining that the good doctor was only marrying her out of pity. Is that something doctors once did, along with making house calls, I wonder?

The ending of Dark Victory is really quite interesting and the strongest part of the film for me. Julie's tumor will conveniently leave her completely healthy until the last few hours of her life when she will suffer an increasing blindness. When she begins to realize whats' happening she packs her husband off to a medical convention and kicks her secretary out the door. Poor Ann, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald is left to apparently wander the roads until she thinks Julie has had enough time to die. One imagines a parody where she comes back awkwardly and finds her still alive a few times. Then Julie says goodbye to her dog and her maid and lies down on her bed alone to die. Davis is riveting as she plays this simple silent scene.

Now, Voyager is a strange but good movie in which Davis plays an awkward old maid who suffers a nervous breakdown as a result of her completely dysfunctional relationship with her over bearing mother(Gladys Cooper). Charlotte is saved from her fate by the talent and charm of a psychiatrist (Claude Raines). After a few weeks at his hospital, a sort of summer camp complete with tennis and crafts, Charlotte is mostly cured. She is sent on a cruise and rather than show her going through a makeover from frumpy maiden aunt into glamorous socialite, the audience is surprised by a sudden reveal of her new look on the cruise ship. At the same time Charlotte is revealed to us, she is spotted by the handsomest ineligble guy on the boat, Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid). The pair become friends but things are complicated when they are stranded together in the Brazilian jungle alone at night. The movie goes to great length to prevent us from making any assumption about what went on, substituting copious amounts of cigarette lighting for love scenes.

If the movie ended shortly after the cruise, showing how Charlotte had used love to conquer her confidence problems it would have probably been the better for it. As it is, there is a bizarre and clumsy third act in which Charlotte's mother dies causing a crisis in Charlotte's recovery. Fleeing back to the safety of the "hospital," she meets Jerry's daughter who is a younger version of Charlotte, institutionalized after having difficulty with her mother. In the completely insane world of psychiatry in the movies, Claude Raines allows Charlotte to adopt Jerry's daughter and take her care under her advisement. He does this knowing about the relationship between the girl's father and Charlotte. In the end Charlotte and Jerry are reunited in a way, agreeing to remain friends whose only contact is relating to the care of the child. The famous "let's not ask for the moon when we have the stars" ending feels a bit forced as I couldn't help but thinking such a relationship would be really difficult to maintain as well as ultimately probably damaging to everyone involved, not least the reputation of Raine's hospital.

I know the makers of the film had no choice but to portray the relationship between Charlotte and her married friend the way they did, but I can't help but remember smart movies in the forties that managed better with restrictions placed on them. In The Philadelphia Story the movie plays the "did they or didn't they?" question to its comic advantage before revealing the truth and In Name Only makes the friendship between married Cary Grant and widowed Carole Lombard sweetly funny at times, as close to a romantic comedy as the material will allow. Still, Bette Davis gives a great performance and her scenes with Cooper and Henreid are unforgettable.


AbbyNormal said...

I totally second "Bette Davis rocks". Before watching some of her films I wondered why she was such a star - she didn't look like a typical leading woman. Well, duh, she is a star because good golly she can act.

"Now, Voyager", to me, is all about that need all of us has to be loved. Bette plays that so well and she gives love back to the girl because she is so thankful to have experienced love, even if the situation is most imperfect. The film is very remniscent of "Summertime" in that theme - Hepburn was so thankful to have been loved like she had always wanted, that she could go back to her life and be happy knowing she didn't miss feeling that way, at least once. Hepburn was amazing in portraying that vulnerability too. The whole "need to be loved" and "now I can die happy" theme sounds so very corny - especially as I type it here. However, it is the strength of the actors that take it from corny to riveting and believeable.

I am glad you are getting into Bette's performances. You have many more movies to enjoy. :-)

Anne said...

These both sound like good candidates for a Malpractice Filmfest lineup. I'm envisioning commentary by real-life ambulance chasers... Also I'm starting to understand where Days of Our Lives gets some of their plot points.

That Bette Davis, though - what a pistol. I'd even go see High School Musical 7 if she was in it.

SteveQ said...

Completely unrelated (of course): I can't believe Mickey Rourke's actually acting well in a very good movie, "The Wrestler." Who's next? Sharon Stone? Rob Schneider? Pia Zadora? The mind boggles.

kda0121 said...

I was slow in being a devotee of Bette. It just took me a while to warm up to her. But once I did, I realize how many fine performances she gave.