Friday, April 4, 2008

Bette the Great

Her one hundredth birthday is this week. She is among the greatest actresses of all time. Of Bette Davis' many films my personal favorites are Jezebel, Now Voyager, All This and Heaven Too, Juarez, and The Old Maid. It is always great fun to watch her as "Margo Channing," as one article describes so well (via LRC):
And in one of her most celebrated roles, as the panicky aging actress Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "All About Eve" (1950), Davis trots out every bad habit she'd developed over the years, every "Bette Davis" mannerism, and makes them all seem, strictly speaking, necessary: real aspects of an unmistakably real woman. It helps, obviously, that Margo happens to be an actress. (This was a specialty of Davis's. She played actresses in no fewer than five of her pictures, including "Dangerous," for which she won her first Academy Award in 1935. The other was for "Jezebel.") She can get away with gestures and intonations that might be considered somewhat over the top in, say, a real estate lawyer; theatricality is part of who she is, maybe the largest part.

But - and this is the beauty of the performance - it isn't all she is. It would have been easy for Davis to play Margo as a pathetic drama queen. What she does is much more interesting: the performance is dry-eyed and free of camp posturing, the portrait of a woman whose theatricality is natural, both as an expression of her self and as a tool of her peculiar trade. It's something she's learned to live with, and to make a living from. Bouts of insecurity and emotional neediness are occupational hazards, as is a certain inability to resist the dramatic moment - standing on a staircase at a party, for example, to announce, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night" - but on balance Margo, mannerisms and all, seems a surprisingly level-headed woman. In the end she's a trouper.



Terry Nelson said...

I think "All About Eve' was her greatest role.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, many people think so!

Anonymous said...

TCM had a special night of her movies Sat. night!! she was great!!

elena maria vidal said...

Yes! I was watching!