Seasons of Bette had a headache this week but is feeling much better now, thank you. Counterintuitively it was probably the gunshots in The Letter that chased the fogginess away. Herewith, your catch-up episode on Dark Victory (1939)
it was the ghastliest feeling, everything went fuzzy.
Fallen out of order, have I. That's awfully dreadful of me given that the great revelation of both Anne Marie's brilliant A Year With Kate and my own intermittent Seasons of Bette series is that you can actually watch a movie star grow in power and nuance and embrace of their own specificity if you watch their films chronologically.
This is true, at least, of the studio system where stars were invested in for the long haul rather than dabbled with for a few months at a time if agents, lawyers, producer, directors and stars could agree on a one-time contract. The old system had its drawbacks of course, giving thespians less agency in their own filmography and less ability to test their range in different genres and with left turn character types. Despite that, and even because of it, it was uniquely ideal soil for the true movie stars to grow like majestic redwoods. You know the kind of superstar I'm talking about: they are emphatically always themselves no matter how well they play any particular character. [more...]
It's been so exciting to watch Bette develop: Her name-making role (Of Human Bondage) was all sloppy potent id; then came a brief downgrade in power due to repetition (Dangerous) but, within it, a wider range of feeling; And with Jezebel (which Anne Marie covered for me) she really soared past previous limitations. I think back to something Nick Davis once wrote about that Oscar winning performance:
Jezebel finds her taking a first stab at mixing up all these sides of her persona. It's like she's entertaining herself with the confidence that she has made herself a star, and is testing out the flexibility of that star persona to see how far she'll be able to ride it.
Which brings us to her 1939 dying woman melodrama Dark Victory. In the film Bette plays stubborn socialite Judith Traherne who ignores her headaches and blurry vision for months as she parties with friends (Ronald Reagan as her good time pal Alec) butts heads with her horse trainer (Humphrey Bogart, returning Bette's fire memorably in a pre-superstar role) and confides only in her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald who was having a great year in 1939, Oscar nominated for her supporting role in Wuthering Heights) and a brilliant brain surgeon (George Brent). The surgeon is horrified to learn that his patient's condition is irreparable despite his temporary fix. Her only warning before death will be blindness, hence the film's title. No one tells Judith this in a fit of stupidy. Don't they know it's impossible to hide things from Bette Davis; those giant darting eyes see all.
Until of course, they don't in this gorgeous weepie.
Bette Davis's iconography is even larger than those immortal eyes. She is so much herself, always, that it's easy to miss the gifted actress when considering the star. Bette gets much softer in feeling this time, as befits a weepy melodrama. And yet, she finds in her performance, ample room for a full display of that early take-no-prisoners fire in the middle of the picture when Judith realizes she's been perpetually lied to by both her well meaning doctor and best friend. Somehow she alchemizes her already familiar poisonous potion, making her inner she-devil feel nothing like true character as it previously has but like external armor. It's a brilliant subversion of her persona; her bark and bite (this time) are all wounded animal adrenaline, rather than core instinct. Inside she's a romantic loving woman and amiable friend. She simply wants to life her too brief life to the fullest whether she's flitting manically about her parties, riding her beloved race horse, or throwing herself willfully into a grand love affair.
Straight talk: Bette Davis is remarkable in Dark Victory. As with Jezebel, she retroactively converts those early legend-making star turns into mere warm-ups as if to say 'you ain't seen nothing yet.' And, rather impossibly, her subtextual boasting was true. Her best work was still years away.
Addendum: Dark Victory was nominated for three Oscars in 1939 (Picture, Actress, Score) the year that's oft called the greatest in the history of cinema. I'd love to explore that historic ten-wide Best Picture roster during this, its 75th anniversary if you're with me? But you'd have to be with me. Would you be game to watch and discuss them all? (Perhaps you already have). If you are, consider this the first of several celebrations of 1939's remarkable vintage. If you love it maybe we'll even make it a huge deal with a retroactive Film Bitch Awards in early 2015?