Bette Davis, The Hard Way. Movies reviewed: Jezebel, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, All About Eve

Posted in 1930s, Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Movies, New Orleans, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

jezebell_01I see hundreds of movies a year, and I think I have a pretty good grasp of current cinema. But what do I know about old Hollywood? Next to nothing. So when I heard that TIFF was running a retrospective of a famous star through December, I thought I’d finally take a look at what all the fuss is about. I had always avoided these movies, so this really is the first time I’m watching her movies.

That actress is Bette Davis, and they’re playing a selection of her films in a series called The Hard Way. She’s unusual looking — huge round eyes, a narrow nose, not conventionally beautiful but quite distinctive, especially her voice. I’m starting to understand her fame. She plays strong – often tyrannical – women, but ones who don’t necessarily end up getting what they want. She conveys her meaning with a grand gesture, a cruel slap or a dismissive flick of her fingers.

This week I’m looking at three of her movies, one from each stage of her long career. First, from her days as a huge star in the late 1930s, a romantic drama set in the Old South;  in her comeback in the early 1950s, in an amazing drama set amidst Broadway theatre; and, with her second comeback, a dramatic horror movie set in Hollywood in the early 1960s.

jezebell_03Jezebel (1938)

Dir: William Wyler

It’s antebellum New Orleans, a land of strange customs. Chivalry prevails: a gentleman can be challenged to a duel at dawn merely for besmirching a woman’s name. But, at the same time, half the people there are enslaved to the other half. In the middle of this world is Julie (Bette Davis), a strong-willed southern belle living on a halcyon plantation. She loves one man only, a businessman named Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda). But she also loves her freedom: riding horses and asserting her own opinions, damn the rest. But she commits a social faux pas at the ball by appearing in a red dress, not the requisite white one. What a Jezebel! The audacity! The horror! Pres heads up north without asking her hand in marriage.

He returns a few years later a changed man. Julie – struck by melancholy — is sure he’s jezebell_02come back for her. But has he? When the plot turns, she sets in motion a series of intricate revenge plots among her friends, schemes that could lead to death. This is all done in the midst of a plague of yellow fever among the swamps, a symbol of the putrefaction of the entire pre-war south. Will Julie change her ways and feel regret? And will Pres ever love her again, or at least respect her?

This movie is an interesting look at another era, but it was so removed from now that it was hard for me to sympathize. A red dress? Honour? Chivalry? Jezebel is not a pro-slavery movie; it shows the pre-Civil-War south as a decadent, outdated culture on the verge of collapse. But how can you take a movie like this seriously after seeing Twelve Years a Slave, one that takes place during the same time period, but about the people who were really oppressed? Still (not a spoiler), the closing scenes in Jezebel do provide a suitably dramatic conclusion to this epic drama.

babyjane_01What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)

Dir: Robert Aldrich

Baby Jane Hudson is a tap-dancing child star of vaudeville, known for her blonde bologna curls and frilly white dresses. Her father flogs life-sized Baby Jane dolls at every performance. Her plain sister Blanche depends on her income. But with the dawn of the talkies, Blanche’s Hollywood star rises even while Jane’s falls. But when Blanche is crippled after a deliberate car crash, Jane becomes her nursemaid out of guilt.

Now, it’s the early 1960s, and they still live in the same rat-infested old Hollywood mansion. The adult Jane (Bette Davis) still has her blonde curls, but she’s an old woman now with inches of white pancake makeup slapped on her cheeks, and grotesque black eyeliner and misshapen lipstick. Blanche (Joan Crawford), in a wheelchair, is isolated in a room upstairs and can’t come down. They exist in a sort of a truce. But when Blanche’s old movies are revived on TV, Jane is overcome by jealousy and anger. She should be famous. She should have a comeback, not her sister. She becomes increasingly unhinged, flashing from 10-year-old girl to her hideous and cruel self. Can Blanche escape this hell-hole of Hollywood torture and decay? Two aging cinematic icons playing themselves, battle it out to the end.

And the final scene is just amazing.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, though a schlocky, much-imitated horror movie, did work as a comeback for Bette Davis, who carved out a new career as the queen of fear.

allabouteve_01All About Eve (1950)

Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz.

Margo (Bette Davis) is a great broadway actress at the peak of her career. Eve (Ann Baxter) is a superfan. She shows up at every single performance in a trenchcoat and a crumpled Tilley hat. When they actually meet, Eve’s earnest story of love and loss entrances Margo and all her friends with her freshness, innocence and sincerity. Margo gives her a room in her home and Eve becomes a combination maid, confidant and personal assistant. But Margo gradually becomes suspicious when she sees Eve studiously imitating her every move. She’s not worshipping her… she’s trying to become her! Margo’s friends dismiss her fears as an aging actress’s egotitistic paranoia.

Soon Eve becomes Margo’s actual understudy and, due to some manipulation by Margo’s friends, Eve wows the critics, especially the all-powerful and all-knowing theatre critic Addison Dewitt (George Sanders).

Is Eve the ingénue she pretends to be — or an ambitious psychopath? All About Eve won a slew of Academy Awards, and, far from feeling dated, it really is a masterpiece, showing the pettiness, deception, artifice and manipulation in the dog-eat-dog world of theatre, and by extension, Hollywood. Perfect script, fantastic acting, flawless direction.

All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Jezebel are part of TIFF’s program The Hard Way: the Films of Bette Davis, curated by James Quandt. Go to tiff.net for listings. Also opening today is Empire of Dirt a Canadian drama about three generations of stubborn, first nations women, who are thrown together for the first time.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,culturalmining.com

 

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