Tuesday, May 06, 2008

LACMA Launches a Tribute to a Great Bad Girl

Moving 675 miles south to Long Beach to start a new job has already reaped a huge benefit, as the switch allowed me to be present for the first and second nights of the LA Museum of Art’s (a.k.a. LACMA) month-long film series honoring the 100th birthday of Bette Davis (the tribute’s official title is Fasten Your Seatbelts: The Essential Bette Davis). TCM host Robert Osborne was there on opening night to help present an unveiling of the beautiful artwork for the upcoming Bette Davis postage stamp (showing Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve). The classy Osborne uncharacteristically and refreshingly dropped his proper demeanor at one point, drawing the biggest laugh of the evening with his observation that, somewhere in heaven, or someplace, Joan Crawford is gritting her teeth, thinking to herself, “Bette has a stamp now, and I don’t have one yet.” Kathryn Selmak, Davis’ onetime friend and assistant, also joined in the fun, concluding her thoughts on the screen legend with the quip, "If Davis was here tonight I’m sure she’d say, ‘I’d like to kiss you, but I just licked my stamp.’”

I enjoyed viewing Davis' Oscar-winning work in her first teaming with director William Wyler, Jezebel, but the print was not of the best quality which, considering the event at hand, was disappointing. The movie’s showcases Davis in one of her finest roles and performances, and the 1938 film was an apt choice to kick off the series. As Julia Marsden, a selfish, indomitable Southern belle, Davis glows with a vibrancy few stars have ever matched, and the audience is on Julie's side, regardless of (and maybe because of) the character's frequent lapses of deceny. In Davis’ hands, you sense Julie’s unbreakable spirit will overcome the formidable obstacle she’s dealt at the film’s fade-out, impossible odds against her be damned. And, although Vivien Leigh is truly peerless in Gone With the Wind, Davis’ performance in Jezebel does make me wonder what she might have done with Scarlett O’Hara. It certainly would’ve been a very different film, but I bet she would have triumphed.

I’d never actually made it through the second feature of the evening, The Old Maid, and I only kind of managed to this time, as I kept falling asleep as this dated (even for 1939, I’d suspect) tale of a sacrificial mother slowly unfolded. Through my dreamy haze I did take notice Davis was remarkable in her transformation from innocent lass to the bitter title character. She’s mesmerizing to watch in the later sections of the film, and her acting therein demonstrates Davis could manage to do a 180 on her usual larger-than-life on screen persona and still transfix, unlike her deliberately toned-down, and fairly uninteresting, playing in The Man Who Came to Dinner and Watch on the Rhine. Davis, looking tired and lost, employs a low, quiet tonal quality in her voice to suggest volumes of depth and feeling have been stored up in this repressed woman, and her realistic, subtle playing is fascinating.

Davis’ famed feud with Crawford is the one everyone talks about, but the lesser-known Miriam Hopkins was probably the co-star that Davis despised the most. Watching Maid, I was surprised to find few traces of the “upstaging” tactics Davis accused Hopkins of engaging in. Although in her first scene Hopkins’ forced playing appears artificial, she actually works well opposite Davis, and appears to conduct herself with more professional decorum than her co-star gave her credit for (for example, I didn’t notice Hopkins trying to steal the spotlight through the use of flamboyant gestures or inappropriate blocking). Hopkins is, after all, the same artist who made vivid impressions in films such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. In any event, much to possibly both of their chagrins, the Davis/Hopkins teaming worked well enough for the two to be reunited a few years later for another successful weepie, Old Acquaintance, wherein Davis (on screen, at least) was finally able to get her hands on her nemesis, in the film’s most memorable moment.

The second night of the festival I returned to watch Davis at her apex in All About Eve, and ascending in Of Human Bondage. I’ve already jotted down my thoughts on Eve- it was a kick to finally see the film with a large audience of film aficionados. Just as Dorothy senses Kansas is somehow, and suddenly, a distant memory, as I listened to the enthusiastic reaction to Joseph Mankiewicz’s brilliant dialogue and Davis’ magnificent playing of Margo Channing (of course there was thunderous applause when Davis uttered “Fasten your seatbelts . . .”) I understood the Eden I found myself in bore no resemblance to the rural surroundings of my childhood and, until now, adulthood. I look forward to attending every showing of All About Eve that I can find in the LA area as I continue my love affair with the metropolis.

Maybe I needed to see Bondage on a large screen to fully appreciate what the young Davis pulls off in her star-making role as Mildred, probably the coarsest waitress in film history (in Mildred Pierce, the nasty, snobbish Veda is dismayed to find out her honorable mother is a waitress, when she should be proud of the hard-working Mildred. However, if this Mildred was her mother, all bets are off). It certainly helped that LACMA managed to obtain a decent print of the film, as I’ve only viewed Bondage in those God-awful public domain VHS and DVD versions. From my previous looks at the movie, the only images that really lingered was Davis peering seductively over that champagne glass at Leslie Howard and, of course, her showy hissy-fit near the end of the film, when she spews venom at Howard after he rejects her amorous advances, ripping his character to shreds before (in the next scene) performing the same service on everything else in his apartment (“All those paintings gone!” “His life’s work!” “What a bitch!”) and burning the bonds that could see him through medical school (“Make that a super bitch!”).

I always thought Davis came across as electric but overly mannered in the film, but it all came together on a big screen. For the first time, I sensed how much truth existed in the star’s emotionally-gripping work, and how intelligent her playing was (she clearly invested all her considerable talent and energy into bringing this Cockney tart to life). Mildred is a larger-than-life character, so it’s entirely fitting you can’t keep your eyes off Davis, and it’s easy to grasp how, amid all the genteel screen heroines of the period, the star's vicious, unsympathetic playing of Mildred blew everyone away. At times Davis invests Mildred with at least a tiny sense of compassion for the smitten Philip (Howard, in a fine, understated performance), allowing the actress to suggest a trace of humanity does exist in the character. Still, most of the time Mildred is a horrible, spiteful pain-in-the-ass to the noble, kind Philip, and Davis clearly relishes the chance to dig into the meaty histrionics. Philip only wants to care for and love Mildred, but Davis’ wench is having none of it, thank God. Philip finally gains his redemption after meeting the lovely Frances Dee (Dee’s acting is lovely, too). However, due to Davis’ incredible presence, Mildred is missed when she’s not around making the lovesick Philip miserable, and one eagerly looks forward to her popping up unwanted on his doorstep once again in a progressively-sorrier state of mind and body.

I’m looking forward to seeing at least a couple more films in the series, before work beckons me back to reality. Here’s the rest of LACMA’s roster for the Davis tribute:

Tuesday, May 6th-
1:00 p.m.- Mr. Skeffington

Friday, May 9th-
7:30 p.m. - The Letter (A Davis peak!)
9:15 p.m. - Beyond the Forest (A Davis valley! The Davis valley! Or the peak of the valley, depending on your tastes. I think Forest is can’t miss cinema, and I can’t wait to watch the movie with a “camp” of Davis supporters- I have a feeling not too many people will leave the theater after The Letter has screened, and some new arrivals might be present. “What a Dump!” Hell, “What a movie!” Love Dona Drake as Jenny, the ineffectual housekeeper (hence the dump), retorting after being chastised and insulted by Davis' Rosa (if you look carefully, it appears Davis writes the word "slut" in the dust on a kitchen table after she states to Drake the table's so dirty she can write Jenny's name in it), “Mrs. Moline, don’t let us start calling each other names. I’ve got a few fancy ones I've been saving up that are just aching to be used.” How often I’ve wanted to state something to this affect to a condescending boss.

Saturday, May 10th-
7:30 p.m.- Now, Voyager
9:40 p.m.- Old Acquaintance (with Bette still hating Miriam to a fare-thee-well)

Tuesday, May 13th-
1:00 p.m.- Front Page Woman

Saturday, May 17th-
7:30 p.m. - The Little Foxes
9:40 p.m. - Payment on Demand

Tuesday, May 20th-
1:00 p.m.- Dangerous (most feel Davis received her Oscar for Dangerous because she was overlooked for her work in Bondage. Watch this film without the bias that it contains a “lesser” Davis performance, and you’ll be surprised how vivid and great Davis is in it).

Friday, May 23rd-
7:30 p.m.- Dark Victory
9:30 p.m.- Marked Woman

Saturday, May 24th-
7:30 p.m.- The Star
9:10 p.m.- The Catered Affair

Tuesday, May 27th-
1:00 p.m.- Juarez

Saturday, May 31st-
7:30 p.m.- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (I’ll see you there as we once again watch Davis screech her way through "I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy" and the mortified Crawford trying to rise above her screen sister’s plethora of extremely rude shenanigans, to no avail)
10:00 p.m. – The Nanny (What? No Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte? Oh well, Davis is definitely demented and interesting to watch in this one, too, and she's miles away from Fran Dresher- or, at least, several city blocks away).

General admission to all evening double features is $9.00, and includes admission into the art museums, so get there early. Admission to the Tuesday matinees is only $2.00 general and $1.00 for seniors 62 and over. Tickets can be purchased at the museum’s box office or at lacma.org. Parking across the street is $7.00, but if you check out the side streets you might (especially in the evening) find a free parking spot near the museum.


At 6:56 PM, Blogger StinkyLulu said...

I'm so thrilled to see this post!

And I had no idea you'd moved! But I am thrilled to look forward to more LA-area movie adventures. (Plus, I get to LA a lot so perhaps we can undertake some movie adventuring in tandem.)

At 6:29 PM, Blogger The Siren said...

You're back with a bang with this splendid overview. I love your defense of "Of Human Bondage" which is often called hopelessly dated these days - I think you've totally nailed what Davis was trying to do. Part of the character's nature is endless self-dramatization and Davis understood that so well.

Davis, god rest her, had an enemies list to rival Richard Nixon's but you're right, Miriam Hopkins was way up there, even though Davis admitted her rival had great talent (something she never said about Joan). I agree, Miriam's famous scene-stealing doesn't much show on screen--judicious editing?--but we have the word of many costars that it was quite real. I love The Old Maid and don't think it would be nearly as good with a lesser actress opposite Davis. (I wrote up Miriam ages ago at my place; I'm taking the liberty of linking it here if you want to see.)

Anyway, I hope you see Mr Skeffington (because I love it) and that this post heralds much more from you, now that you are safe and happily ensconced in new digs.

At 12:56 AM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thanks you both for your kind, encouraging words. I hope to post more, but it would require me pulling my head out of the clouds (or someplace else) on a more frequent basis, so I can't make any promises (I'm hoping for a John Travolta "Phenomenon"-like experience to turn it around for me). I really must buckle down before your Madeline Kahn Appreciation Day arrives, Stinkylu, and get something posted for the special day (and Campaspe, not to be pushy, or maybe to be pushy, but please write about Kahn if you have time as I, along with many others, would LOVE to hear your take on her during the blogathon). I really admire the fact both of you continue to turn out great blog work amid your busy schedules.

Davis really was something in The Old Maid, and I should take a second, closer look at her work in the film. She sure digs deep into that woman's psyche.

I didn't catch Mr. Skeffington this time around, but the movie certainly caught my attention when I first saw about half of it on TV as a teen. When it finally arrived on DVD I watched the whole thing and found it engrossing and, paired with Now Voyager (can't honestly state I remember much about Juarez, the first time Davis and Rains were in the same film), it demonstrates what a great co-star Davis had in Claude Rains (and the movie must have a very special appeal for some- a couple years ago, I lent a slew of classic DVDs to a young coworker who was into classic cinema, and Skeffington's the lone title I had to replace due to her not returning it). Davis clearly loved working with Rains, and he makes invaluable contributions to Voyager (forget Paul Henreid, Rain's Dr. Jaquith is the real romantic hero of the film, as he enables Charlotte to gain the courage to find her identity and tell her formerly domineering mother, "Sorry mumsy, I'm too sophisicated and fabulous now to care about your disregard towards me.") and Skeffington, wherein he makes you believe his Job Skeffington really does have the patience of Job, as he endures Fanny's vapid self-indulgence and endless flirtations over the course of several decades. However, I have to admit I prefer the third major Davis/Rains collaboration. Maybe Rains had enough of acting nobly while Davis had all the fun, as in Deception he gives Davis and Henreid a very hard time, and appears to be relishing the chance to illustrate Alexander Hollenius' every underhanded move. Davis' isn't as vivid as she sometimes is onscreen, but her star power is still incredibly formidable- I put Deception on the TV behind me as I typed up this response, and I wasn't really listening to it, until Davis' first line to Henreid- "I thought you were dead!" reverberated through my studio apartment like a shot out of a cannon, and I whipped my head around to find out what the hell Davis was doing. This is not a star to be ignored- ever.


Post a Comment

<< Home