Friday, January 23, 2009

Film Persona: Bette Davis Part 2- The Torn Down Bitch

The Torn Down Bitch
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This next slew of films is what many critics and fans alike may call Bette Davis’ golden age.  In these films, Bette plays powerful women who are a victim of circumstance. Amidst a period where her contemporaries where fading and labeled box office poison, Bette thrived and became the hot ticket.  No longer did Bette need a leading man or a gangster movie; she made her own kind of genre: a Bette Davis movie.

Jezebel (1938)
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Many considered this movie to be Davis’ consolation prize for not getting the Scarlett role in Gone with the Wind.  Yet I believe this to be Bette Davies version of the story, fittingly so. The film co stars Henry Fonda as the object of Bette’s affection.

She plays a spoiled southern bell who makes all the wrong decisions, yet I can understand end empathize with her passion.  With the break of the civil war, Bette’s character soon channels her passion into more practical causes (than petty ones, like shocking people with what dress she wears).

The most memorable scene for me (probably because they show this clip a million times during the TCM commercials) is when Bette’s character shows up to her debutant ball in a brazen red dress, causing shock and scandal in the town.

This movie marks the beginning of Bette’s fruitful partnership with director William Wyler as well as her second Oscar win.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
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Playing her namesake, Queen Elizabeth I, Bette explores the circumstance of a woman in power (a struggle familiar to the actress and which she articulates in All About Eve). 

Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland co star. Bette shaves her head in this movie filmed in Technicolor.

Dark Victory (1939)
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If  you are unfamiliar with Dark Victory, then you probably are not a Bette Davis fan or a classic film fan. 

This is probably my favorite Bette Davis performance.  She exercises control over her trademark temper and evokes a great connection with the audience.

She plays a spoiled socialite who discovers she has a terminal illness.

Look for Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Reagan in the film.

The  Letter (1940)
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The Letter has all the ingredients which cooks into a great Bette Davis film: director William Wyler and a Somerset Maugham adaptation.

Bette plays the scheming wife of a plantation owner in Malaysia. She is under trial for murder. The film involves blackmail and adultery.

Bette is incredibly sinister in this movie.

With the end of the 1930’s, Bette entered another phase in her film persona as Bette herself uncontrollably aged. And as it usually goes in Hollywood, roles for women as they grow older grow more scarce. This is the phase in which Bette Davis plays discontented women.

Part 3

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