Tuesday, April 26, 2005

No two icons resemble each other but I guess there probably won't be another one like Bette Davis. Six years ago TNT India planned to show Gone with the Wind. In the grand build-up to D-day, they had a month of flims that starred all the different actors associated with it. I remember that Davis' Jezebel was screened then although I didn't get to watch it. Davis apparently was determined to be Scarlett (and I think she'd have made a good one) for Gone with the Wind but David O'Selznick had other ideas.

As a trade-off, Davis, got her own Southern vehicle in Jezebel. The movie doesn't stand up to scrutiny but it's amazing what she can do. Her character Julene is supposed to be a misfit, a young woman born ahead of her time but it's hard to see which time she would actually fit in. Julene is petty and wilful and stubborn and she would be trouble in any world, modern or medieval. Julene alienates her fiance Pres (the great Henry Fonda) by wearing a red dress to a ball and he soon enough marries another woman. Her attempts to play off one Southern gentleman against another result in a succession of tragedies.

Much ado is made, of course, about the charming Southern customs like duelling and I would agree with everything the movie said if it wasn't for smug self-superior tone. And the Julene-Pres combination is too Scarlett-Ashleyish for my liking what with her selfishness and his constant soul-searching and honor. But Fonda and Davis are too good as actors and director William Wyler never forces his hand. As much as I hate admitting it, the movie made me cry as it ended, with Julie, humbled and proud as ever, marching off towards redemption.

A different kind of Davis performance: loony, flamboyant, wild, and touching is on display in Whatever happened to Baby Jane?, a movie I'd describe as 75% black comedy, 15% melodrama and 10% thriller. Two old hags live in a claustrophobic mansion - with Baby Jane (Davis) tending to the crippled Blanche (Joan Crawford). Baby Jane has never gotten over the fact that her success as a child-star on the vaudeville stage has been eclipsed by her sister who became a big film-star. As the movie begins, Baby Jane sets unleashes a spectacular vendetta against her crippled sister.

The revelations at the end can be sensed a mile off but as the feverish camera roams around the house, the movie makes one restless. The violence is brutal and shocking; because its perpetrator is an old woman in her sixties who may or may not be mad. The movie allows Davis to hit notes like never before; dressed in what I can only call Miss Havisham gear, she pitches her act perfectly; over-the-top but with a pathos that literally hurts. Baby Jane's longing for her childhood is fierce and naked and pathetic; the movie is fascinating in a frighteningly dreadful way.

Between the callow Jezebel (1938) and the loony Baby Jane (1962) is a perfect Davis performance in All about Eve (1950). As Margo Channing, a great but aging theater actress, Davis seems to be channelling herself into the role. It seems like an effortless performance but it's on a scale that's hard to describe. The movie chronicles the rise of one Eve Harrington, a burningly ambitious upstart, who will one day supplant Margo Channing. Eve's rise is the archetypal tale of an actress: she charms her way into Margo's favors, becomes her understudy and finally uses Margo to fulfill her own dreams.

It's a brilliant film, with brilliant performances. But Eve's metamorphosis from an earnest too-good-to-be-true guardedly ambitious side-kick into an evil incarnate doesn't quite jell. It's strange though, but I liked Eve and I think the movie does too. Even as he becomes more and more ruthless, her desire to be an actress is treated with respect. It's hard to find a film that does that.

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