Saturday, January 08, 2005

Bette Davis: A Brief Appreciation

Bette Davis has been so often charicatured -- the stacatto speech patterns, the cigarette-holding hand waving round in circles -- that it is sometimes difficult to remember that she was a very fine actress. Fifteen years after her death, it often seems that all that is left is the "camp" reputation fostered by her late-career horror film appearances, led by the horrendous Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
The quality of Ms. Davis' acting has hit me by surprise a few times in recent years. A year or two ago I watched All About Eve on television and was startled by the quality of her performance. She captured Margo Channing's insecurities and fear of aging superbly.
This morning, I watched The Letter, and while found myself marvelling over her acting, chiefly in the scene in which her lawyer tells her husband about the existence of the incriminating letter. Ms. Davis is silent during this scene, but her changing expressions speak volumes.
The physical feature that Bette Davis is best known for are her eyes -- round and prominent, yet heavy-lidded and infinitely expressive. What is startling in a good Davis performance -- especially when one's memory has been clouded by endless comic impersonations -- is how expressively she uses her eyes. She was a master of her craft and in her best performances was both subtle and intense. Most importantly, she was nothing to laugh at.
She could also be awful, as she was in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and its ilk. Here she lived down to the camp reputation, showing off shamelessly, opening herself up to charicature. I remember enjoying Baby Jane as a child, but when I watched it again a few years ago, I was taken aback by how poor it was. Truly ghastly. I mentioned this to a friend, who defended it as a camp classic and, like the superbly funny All About Eve, a touchstone for the gay culture. I must say that I fail to understand why the gay culture would embrace something so truly bad, and couch it in the same terms as something well done like Eve, but that may be a subject for another essay.
In the last few years before her death in 1989, Ms. Davis regained some of the dignity she lost in during her horror movie decade, the '60s. I remember a television movie in which she played the estranged mother of Gena Rowlands. And recently I managed to see her final film, The Whales of August, in which she was joined by Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price for a terrific curtain call. The movie is not great, but the acting is memorable, especially since we know that it was a last moment in the spotlight for all four of these fine performers.