Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 2

To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here

We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.

2) Bette Davis

It’s fair to say that pretty much any year between 1938 and 1946 was the year of Bette Davis, but for me it’s the middle of that hot streak that takes my breath away. 1940 is a relatively lean year as far as that goes, with only two credits. Regardless, the films of that year contain two of her greatest performances, as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter and Henriette Deluzy-Desportes in All This, and Heaven Too, and more than that they stand metonymically for Davis at her best. In The Letter, Davis’ penchant for wickedness burns through deliciously. In All This, Davis’s underutilized but still peerless ability to get us weepy and sympathetic kneels hyperbolically at our feet.

Davis as the bitch is pure hypnosis. Like fellow Warner Brothers stars Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, misbehavior was at a premium for Davis. In those movies, Rico Bandello and Tom Powers could get us off on the thrills of gunfire and gangland violence. Davis does not have the benefit of glares on the screen, only of hardness in her famous eyes. Her misbehavior in The Letter is not flashy, nor is it likely to inspire generations of college-aged boys to put her on their dorm room wall. It is the wrongdoing of someone who has been pushed into a corner, who has lost her head, killed with hidden savagery, and now must do the work of fearfully covering up her crime. The only boldness in Leslie Crosbie, a woman who we increasingly understand to have no real human value, is in the way that she attempts to save her own skin. The man she killed (whom she loved, by her own loud admission late in the picture) has a playboy reputation further sullied by his Eurasian wife; the first choice she makes is a canny one, and that is to claim that her womanly honor was at stake. This gets her some distance, but at the next hurdle (an incriminating letter in her hand to the man she killed) she wraps her lawyer up in the plot by getting him to purchase the eponymous epistle, knowing that asking him to do so could get him disbarred en route to a criminal trial of his own. This is the point where it becomes practically impossible for us to root for Davis anymore, and yet we still have to see what she does next, still must know the direction where she will take her dangerous, selfish scheme. The comeuppance for Leslie Crosbie is rather more harsh than it is for some of her other nasty heroines, but then again Leslie is an especially venal individual even for Davis. The Letter is something of a rarity for her in that we never can believe that she’ll come out on top. It’s possible to believe in a victory for Julie Marsden or Regina Giddens or Stanley Kingsmill. Leslie is doomed from the moment that she killed Geoff Hammond, maybe even from the moment that she first set eyes on him. You can almost hear the powerless scrambling in her gestures, the same kind of sound as a rodent desperately trying to get a grip as it scurries to some brief safety. For Davis, who is not exactly remembered for her work in light comedy, this qualifies as range.

In this slightly different version of this awful woman we get a brilliant variation on type. Leslie Crosbie recalls the breakout role that Davis got herself loaned out to RKO to make, the slatternly Mildred of Of Human Bondage. Both women were written originally by W. Somerset Maugham; both women possess sexual desire mixes which awkwardly at best with their plans to make sure others cared for them in some style. (Herbert Marshall and Leslie Howard, who play the men that Davis takes advantage of so boldly, both fit that mealymouthed, henpecked Englishman type; both of them were capable of playing more forceful men, but it’s fitting that Davis cuts fops and fools to ribbons.) Like Leslie, Mildred winds up dead in the end, killed by disease and deprivation in her whore’s garret, a downfall which is sadder than Leslie’s and less justified. But while they lived, they dominated with a kind of coy ruthlessness. In screwballs of the same period, you watch men resist comelier women like Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert. In these movies, Davis wields her irresistible sexuality like it’s a revolver pointed at a man’s temple. The sexuality is important in films like Jezebel and In This Our Life, and in The Little Foxes and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the fact of her past sexuality hangs over the picture, well, like a revolver pointed at a man’s temple.

There’s not such a great difference between an Englishwoman living on a rubber plantation in Southeast Asia and a Southern belle living on a cotton plantation, with the emphasis on semi-courtly manners and the terrible judgment of a woman who crosses the line from amusingly mischievous to socially dangerous. Thus Julie of Jezebel, the role that isn’t my pick for the greatest Davis performance but would be the place where I’d suggest a newcomer to her should start. Granted, Julie doesn’t do anything so bad as shooting her lover, but a great pride must be mortified nonetheless. This is the starting point of a series of films in which Davis, born in Massachusetts and the product of Yankee boarding schools, defined white Southern womanhood on the screen and did so by making that symbolic woman a stone-cold bitch over and over again. In 1941, Davis in The Little Foxes allows her invalid husband (poor Herbert Marshall again) to die of a heart attack, coldly refusing to help him retrieve the pills that might save him. This she does for personal gain which ends up alienating her from all of the members of her family, even the nasty ones. The next year, Davis in In This Our Life plays a Daisy Buchanan offshoot who, in a plot which is all too understanding of America’s racial injustice, tries to pawn off a fatal hit-and-run collision on a Black servant. And in 1964, in the wake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte plays an older woman who is widely believed to have hacked her fiancee to death, a crime she was innocent of, only to crush with stonework the people gaslighting her into madness. Davis finds the pathology of this type of woman, praised unceasingly for too long before becoming an object of terror for others. There is less and less redemption for this kind of woman as time goes by. In 1938, we can watch Julie Marsden can sail off to Yellow Fever Island (that’s the scientific name) and prove her undying life by, presumably, nursing her lost man until she dies too. In the 1940s, Regina Giddens and Stanley Kingsmill are damnable; in 1964, the year of the landmark Civil Rights Act, Charlotte Hollis, cooped up in a plantation house that’s fodder for the bulldozer, is taken away in a police car to rot somewhere else for a change.

Inevitably, there’s more to say about Bette Davis playing the bad girl, the dangerous woman, Alex Forrest for people who might still call it “the Great War.” This is fitting; most of the truly great roles of her career fit that mode, and Bette Davis, one of the most sophisticated managers of her star persona that we’ve ever seen pass through Hollywood, understood that people liked watching that version of her. Davis’s ability to play truly sympathetic characters remains largely unmatched in popular American cinema; her only heir in this vein is Meryl Streep, one of the rare figures who has transcended likability for the ability to stir us up for tragedy. People have loved Davis from the get-go for weepies and comedy dramas alike. The blindness presaging death in Dark Victory. A bitchy figure (who doesn’t seem so much unlike Bette Davis) outpaced over a series of bumpy nights by a treacherous ingenue in All About Eve. The mother of an illegitimate daughter who prefers her true aunt to her false one in The Old Maid. A woman with a saintly husband prepared to lose him but not her son in Watch on the Rhine. Paul Lukas gives a good performance in that picture, but that Best Actor has more to do with what Davis is doing opposite him than it does with Lukas himself. “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Sacrilegious as it is to skip over all of these for the less popular, less remembered All This, and Heaven Too, I’ve never been more moved by Davis than I was watching her play this governess so proper and wonderful that she unwillingly turns a household against its mistress.

Henriette is so good, and so completely surrendered to her self-restraint, that it’s possible to believe for much of the movie that she is not in love with her employer, Theo (an almost equally brilliant Charles Boyer), a French nobleman with four children. She cares so assiduously for his children. She is so modest in her interactions with the duc and duchesse that it’s impossible to imagine her giving offense. But the duchesse, a fanatically imbued Barbara O’Neil, is a temperamental woman who is quickly outstripped by the kind and reasonable governess. In a lengthy but essential sequence, the youngest child falls deathly ill after the duchesse takes him out in a fit of pique, and it is Henriette who saves him from the brink of death. The boy lives for his father and his surrogate mother, not the real one, and there is this real tenderness and thankfulness in that scene where they understand that the boy will live. It’s easy to believe that these are his parents, for they are the two people who love him best; it’s impossible to forget that this moment of enormous relief and deep intimacy is being shared between his father and his governess. And still, Davis is so good that she keeps the repression of her feelings at the forefront of the performance. It takes a long time before she admits that she has feelings for him that she’s kept locked away, although she continues to keep an adequately chaste distance from him. It allows Henriette to look the duchesse in the eye and insist on her virtue, even though we understand that there is the rawest turmoil brewing inside her. She even downplays the love she feels and the love she has received in some dialogue: “In your unhappiness you reached out your hand for help, and in my loneliness I took it.” But it’s more true for her to say, as she does in one sequence, that if love is not right, “there is no worse agony, nothing more bitter.” All This, and Heaven Too is stagey, a little reliant on an unnecessary framing device, probably a little overlong. All that can be forgiven because of Bette Davis, very possibly the best actor to make her career in American movies, giving an interior performance which rivals Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter.

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