Editor's Note: A huge thank you to my trusted right hand woman in Old Hollywood love. Anne Marie is filling in for this particular edition of "Seasons of Bette" (a sidebar series to "A Year With Kate" as we investigate Bette's Oscar roles whenever they appear in Kate's timeline. I'll be back next week to talk "Dark Victory" - Nathaniel.
After an iconic film for Kate this week, we have an Oscar-winning, career-defining film for Bette Davis as well! Jezebel could have been easily dismissed as another Gone With The Wind wannabe, pining after a romanticized Antebellum New Orleans where the women were lace and steel and the men fought for honor instead of money. It would be high melodrama, except for the contributions of two people: Bette Davis and William Wyler. The subtle theme played beneath the movie is Honor: who has it and who insults it and whether a good action is defined by it motivations or its method. At the heart of the story is Julie Marsden, a Southern debutante whose actions, good and bad, are motivated by love and vanity.
Once again, Bette’s character is gossiped about before she even appears onscreen... [More]
In the first scene, the mere mention of the name “Julie Marsden’” sparks a duel between two gentlemen. In the next scene Julie is finally introduced via a dramatic entrance astride a spirited colt, late to her own engagement party. She bursts into the party in her riding clothes, alternately shocking and charming her guests, and by extension the audience. She’s a sparkling, vain, iron-spined lady. S
he will tease you. She’ll unease you, just to please you. She’s got Bette Davis eyes...
Julie Marsden is one of Bette’s more nuanced performances. Davis brings her innate fire, tempered by subtlety and emotional range unseen in her previous vamp roles like Of Human Bondage and Dangerous. Davis, like Julie, has a tendency to go too far too fast, and the result could mean uneven acting choicese. The temperance of her performance is thanks in large part to her first time collaboration with William Wyler, one of the few directors Davis is said to have admired. Wyler forces Davis to turn her frenetic physical energy inward, channeling the angry outbursts of Mildred and Joyce into the flashing eyes and quick gestures of Julie Marsden.
Preston Dillard, Julie’s fiancee, shares her unconventional views, though not her vanity. Henry Fonda as Preston is a perfect foil for Davis, especially after her previous milquetoast leading men. Preston is the epitome of silent and strong; he doesn’t bend to Julie, though he is charmed. Often, Preston acts as a solid rock against which Julie’s various tempers crash.
The crowning achievement of the first act is the infamous red dress at the Olympus Ball, a product of Julie’s vanity and petty jealousy towards Preston. Julie’s sudden decision to forego maidenly white to wear the red dress is emblematic of her petulance. Though Preston and her Aunt Belle beg her not to be foolish, Julie can’t see beyond the game she’s playing until it’s too late. When they get to the ball Julie gets her first taste of shame and realizes the mistake she’s made, but Preston’s honor is now at stake and he forces her to stay. Though the film is black and white, the humiliation radiating from Davis and the quiet fury of Fonda render the gown a vivid scarlet.
The film could have ended there, with the heartbroken Julie learning a painful lesson in humility and declaring something along the lines of, “With God as my witness, I’ll never wear scarlett again!” However, thankfully the film continues as Preston leaves New Orleans and returns a few years later with a Northern wife in tow. Julie’s speech to Preston upon his return is Bette in top form. Julie is once again making a grand gesture, only you wouldn’t know it from the stillness in her voice and movements. All her energy is channeled through her eyes. Then, when Preston’s wife is introduced, you get the very real idea of how lethal “shooting daggers with her eyes” can be.
Of course, there’s more happening in New Orleans than just Julie’s love life. Soon, Yellow Fever strikes the city, catching Preston in its wake. Here is where the story starts to lose me, though not because of Davis’s performance. Ultimately, Julie makes a plea to Preston’s wife to allow Julie to tend to Preston at the Yellow Fever colony offshore. This is supposed to be Julie’s Unselfish Sacrifice, cleansing her of her past sins and purifying her love for Preston through this grand action. But Julie’s done nothing but grand, impulsive actions over the course of the film. She’s simply trading her red dress for a martyr’s robe. Still, Julie gets her big action, because the only thing more dramatic than a Southern Belle is a Hollywood movie.
There are very few film performances that I think unequivocally deserve the Oscars they win. Bette Davis’s performance as Julie Marsden is one such winner. A year later a Brit would take home Oscars gold for playing another headstrong Southern belle, but only a fool would try to compare Julie Marsden and Scarlett O’Hara. There are rumors that Davis only got Julie Marsden because WB pulled her from Gone With The Wind. That’s not quite true - the timeline is off. As for Julie Marsden and Bette, I think her Aunt Belle said it best: “Maybe I'll love her most when she's meanest, because I know thats when shes lovin' most.”
Next Up: Dark Victory (1939) on April 11th and a special Hit Me With Your Best Shot to celebrate Davis's deadly performance in The Letter (1940) on April 15th. (She had a lot of consecutive Oscar nominations in this period)