One has to lament the way things have changed in Hollywood, and not for the better. A recent viewing of All About Eve has me wondering — has there ever been a greater or better or more versatile and ego-free actress? Davis is the antithesis of Katharine Hepburn and Vivien Leigh; she was never dependent upon her looks. Could anyone else have played Margo Channing with as much color and complexity? Hepburn would have done a good job at playing the proud side of Margo. She could have done the vulnerable side of Margo. But she couldn’t have managed the grotesque and monstrous side of Margo.
If you look at the difference between Davis and Leigh in their portrayals of Southern Belles, in Gone with the Wind and Jezebel. Two completely different characters in some ways, but in other ways not so different: both vain and selfish, both seductive, both women scorned. Maybe Jezebel wasn’t Bette Davis’ best part. But then you look at her multi-decade long career — her early career with films like The Petrified Forest, Of Human Bondage — and on through her portrayals of Queen Elizabeth I – and then All About Eve and through to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and one marvels at her willingness to be whatever the part required, no matter how ugly or old.
The only other actress who can touch Davis in terms of versatility and courage is probably Meryl Streep. Streep is not ready to stop any time soon, and still many great roles in her. ¬†But even she must be in awe of a rarity like Davis. ¬†There really is no other actress who can compare.
So when you find yourself irked that Meryl Streep hasn’t won an Oscar in so many years, remember Ms. Davis. Not only did she lose the Oscar for Margo Channing to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday (good performance, but come on), but she only won two Oscars — one for Jezebel (richly deserved) and one of Dangerous, both before 1940. Davis was nominated 11 times.
Can you believe she didn’t win Best Actress for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She lost to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker – which proves the theory that Oscar voters often vote for the character in the film rather than the performance, not to diss Ms. Bancroft, who was great in that role. Brancroft only won one Oscar, so it is understandable she could have beat Ms. Davis, who already had two of them. ¬†No one was going to vote for an unlikable character like Baby Jane. ¬†Nowadays voters are more inclined to do so.
I don’t know why things have changed so drastically – why there is a need for actresses to stay young. Each and every time I see an older actress with their face sewn and contorted in an effort to look younger – Lily Tomlin, Faye Dunaway, Meg Ryan – even Glenn Close on Damages seems to have had something done. One finds oneself staring at their face, trying to figure out what in god’s name did they do to themselves.
But then when an actress comes along who has refused to get any work done and consequently has so many wrinkles one is distracted by them it is almost understandable why actresses get injected and stapled as they do: it has become the standard. But not every actress is blessed with fine bone structure, like Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn. Sharon Stone is about to appear on Law and Order SVU and that woman will never need plastic surgery because she has those bones to do the work for her; she will always be beautiful.
But Ms. Davis did it. She grew old and accepted parts that suited her age. Moreover, she discusses this very topic in All About Eve, in that great scene in the kitchen where she worries about playing a part meant for a much younger actress.
Despite the popularity of Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren (was happy to see Ms. Mirren in competition for Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive issue) — both seem to be speeding up with age and really hitting their strides as performers, audiences have been conditioned to wait for the next hot young thing. And when their time is up, their time is up. Few of them can manage to endure, warts and all.
And so we tip our hat to Ms. Davis — one of a kind. As George Sanders tells her in All About Eve, “you are maudlin and full of self-pity. You are magnificent.”