April 5 will be the 100th birthday of Bette Davis. There will be tributes and retrospectives and dozens of memorial essays. Terrence Rafferty excels at elegantly distilling an actor’s persona to its essence, as he does in this New York Times remembrance.
…on the occasion of her centennial, it‚Äôs worth remembering Davis as she was in her prime, in the 1930s and ‚Äô40s, when she commanded the screen with something subtler and more mysterious than the fierce, simple will that carried her through the mostly grim jobs of work that followed. (Though the will was there from the start, and her formidable technique never wholly deserted her.) In her heyday, as the reigning female star at Warner Brothers, she was as electrifying as Marlon Brando in the ‚Äô50s: volatile, sexy, challenging, fearlessly inventive. She looked moviegoers straight in the eye and dared them to look away.
…Late in life Davis ruefully told an interviewer, ‚ÄúThe more successful an actor, the less he or she gets to act.‚Äù She added, ‚ÄúPeople come to expect a personality, and that‚Äôs the kind of parts you get offered, ones to suit audience expectations of your star‚Äôs persona.‚Äù
Bette Davis, God knows, could supply some personality. Versatile though she was, she was never an empty-vessel sort of actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. Part of the strange thrill of watching her perform is the tension you feel between the demands of the role and the demands of her outsize self, constantly threatening to breach the boundaries of the character.
After the cut, Rafferty explains why he thinks that over-sized theatricality was never over-the-top without a reason:
And in one of her most celebrated roles, as the panicky aging actress Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‚Äôs ‚ÄúAll About Eve‚Äù (1950), Davis trots out every bad habit she‚Äôd developed over the years, every ‚ÄúBette Davis‚Äù 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‚Äôs. She played actresses in no fewer than five of her pictures, including ‚ÄúDangerous,‚Äù for which she won her first Academy Award in 1935. The other was for ‚ÄúJezebel.‚Äù) 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 ‚Äî and this is the beauty of the performance ‚Äî it isn‚Äôt 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‚Äôs something she‚Äôs 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 ‚Äî standing on a staircase at a party, for example, to announce, ‚ÄúFasten your seat belts, it‚Äôs going to be a bumpy night‚Äù ‚Äî but on balance Margo, mannerisms and all, seems a surprisingly level-headed woman. In the end she‚Äôs a trouper.
All About Eve is one of great movies of all-time, and my favorite Bette Davis role. What’s yours?