½*/**** Image B Sound B Extras B
starring Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Walter Abel, Richard Waring
screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein
directed by Vincent Sherman
*/**** Image B Sound B Extras D
starring Bette Davis, Sterling Hayden, Natalie Wood, Warner Anderson
screenplay by Katherine Albert and Dale Eunson
directed by Stuart Heisler
by Walter Chaw Biographers and geeks would be right to point out that Bette Davis spent her late career--on screen and, abortively, on stage--getting in her own way, while cynics and realists would be right to point out that the one most probably led to the other, if we're to take "the other" as autobiographical. Even people resistant to the auteur theory tend to recognize that matinee idols shoulder at least a fair share of the blame for picking vanity pieces and assorted flaming trainwrecks from the piles of projects offered them. If there's a fair modern, distaff analogue to Bette Davis's embarrassing epilogue in self-abnegating camp artifacts, it's Burt Reynolds's own squandering of his status as the biggest thing on planet Hollywood for a series of vainglorious redneck "gorsh!" spectacles that tied him eternally with Dom DeLuise and, oh my, Hal Needham. Consider that both have earned a small, rabid band of indefatigable defenders of their late, self-inflicted careers (gay men for Bette, assholes for Burt) for nothing more than confirming their respective lifestyles of bitchy flamboyance on the one side and dimwitted macho rebellion on the other. They're cults of personality by the very definition of "cultism," founded on the shale of limited appeal and the arrested desire to emulate someone you admire. (See also: the army of SAHMs shuffling after Oprah.) I guess you could say that although I get it, I'm not down with the cult of Bette.
Start with Vincent Sherman's Mr. Skeffington. Shot at the height of Davis's popularity and power in 1944, it's a sprawling epic spanning a few decades in the titular tycoon's (Claude Rains) loveless marriage to flighty Fanny (Davis). It's not much more than a bloated, hollow excuse for Davis to play at topicality while flashing her eyeballs and mugging in a voice pitched into the upper stratosphere of intolerable. She sounds throughout like she's carrying a pony across her shoulders and pretending to not be winded--a disastrous decision to transform herself from a cast-iron ballbreaker of the first order into a blousy dingleberry. (Point to feminist heroes in classic Hollywood and I don't think of Bette, I think of people like Ida Lupino.) Exacerbating her patronizing turn as a ditz is the film's message that all a woman has once her looks are gone is the protection of some poor bastard who happens to love the stupid little bitch unconditionally. This is the stuff of great epics: dissected in Maugham; allegorized in James; deified in Austen; eulogized in Bronte... Yet there's nothing much going on here besides the uncomfortable realization that Davis, already drunk on her power and betrayed by her fear of success, is stilting around while a real actor like Rains suffers on like a sainted effigy martyred by her diva rampage.
Davis's best film/performance came four years previous in William Wyler's little-seen tropical 1940 noir The Letter (based, as it happens, on a Maugham play), followed by noble turns in Little Foxes with Wyler again (though that one belongs to Theresa Wright, I think) and opposite Rains once more in 1942's Now, Voyager. For everything she did to hide in roles beneath her, it's good to remember that they were, indeed, beneath her. It didn't take long, however, for Davis's insecurities to swallow her whole, impelling her to turn away from challenging roles in favour of ridiculous gags (like playing opposite herself (A Stolen Life)) or gimmick-laden melodramas (like Another Man's Poison and King Vidor's vein-throbbing Beyond the Forest, the latter famous for being referenced in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that banked on her name without pushing her to transcend it. Compare Davis to someone like Nicole Kidman for insight into how someone can make godawful choices in mainstream entertainments cashing in on her persona while still contorting herself into naked, uncomfortable positions in projects (Dogville, Birth) worth a shit. A film most definitely not worth a shit, Mr. Skeffington introduces Fanny descending that period-romance staircase into the warm admiration of a passel of hapless suitors who don't know that their inamorata's heart already belongs, incestually, to her shiftless brother Trippy (Richard Waring). Seems Trippy's gotten himself into a pickle, secreting himself away to the Lafayette Escadrille, leaving Fanny, in a desperate attempt to salvage the family name, to wed for business convenience the humourless Skeffington.
A force of decency, even when the role demands that he play an invisible psychopath, a Nazi, or, horrors, a sap in love with someone who looks like Bette Davis and talks like the air wheezing out the back of a bagpipe, Rains would perfect this role of the long-suffering, unrequited lover a couple of years later in Hitchcock's Notorious. But the script, which reunites Rains with screenwriting brothers Julius and Philip Epstein (Casablanca), proves inconquerable, thick with bad jokes like black flies on a mule corpse and embarrassing attempts to conflate the American entry into WWI with the contemporary involvement in WWII. A scene in a screening room with the hoi polloi hissing at the Kaiser as Fanny, to the ambiguous disapproval of her indentured husband, weeps for the enemy dead, is particularly self-important liberal treacle of an undying flyblown vintage. This persistent image of Hollywood as a hotbed of liberal sentiment(ality) gets its start in bellum, Big Business Tinsel Town, preying on patriotism like wolves in progressive, compassionate, inclusive clothing. Mr. Skeffington isn't the headwaters of anything, but rather a stagnant tributary somewhere along the way: largely forgotten and for good reason, interesting now as a mile-marker on Davis's lonesome road to irrelevance.
Further along that road is The Star (1952), a film that plays for all intents and purposes as nearly washed-up Davis essaying completely washed-up Davis (the intensely stupid A Stolen Life from six years prior was the last Davis vehicle for Warner to turn a profit) despite that she conceived it as another jab at bête noire Joan Crawford. Open with Davis's fallen idol alter ego Margaret spying on a creditor's auction of her things; the shipwreck proceeds with a drunken ride alongside one of Margaret/Bette's Oscars: bottle in one hand, cigarette in the other. "Come on Oscar, let's you and me go get drunk!" Beset by angry landlords, greedy relatives, and the murderous crows of "didn't you used to be"s, Margaret is bent over the stern knee of robot Barry (Sterling Hayden), another Skeffington in love with a useless character played by Davis who gets his nominal prize after suffering for an eternity in the wings. The Star comes to the same conclusion as Mr. Skeffington: that a woman's only chance at happiness is prostrate when her charms have faded before the patient ministrations of a powerful man. Ugly, pandering, reductive--you could argue that Margaret's saccharine relationship with her insipid daughter (Natalie Wood) is the balm to salve all wounds, but you know that's bullshit. The Star doesn't hate its star as much as The Nanny, Hush... Hush Sweet Charlotte, or The Nanny do/will, although it hates her pretty good. No, The Star hates all women. It's interesting to trace how the misogyny of wartime Mr. Skeffington evolves into the post-war misogyny of The Star--but sadly, that's about it for interesting.
Mr. Skeffington and The Star dock on DVD courtesy Warner accompanied, in the case of Mr. Skeffington, by a yakker from the recently-deceased Sherman, who doesn't offer much in the way of revelatory material beyond the mildly amusing anecdote that he came to accept Davis's decision to talk like the hole in a tea kettle. It's not hard to gather that between his own affair with the star and the star's notorious intractability, "coming to acceptance" had a lot more to do with getting emotionally and psychologically pummelled until anything resembling good sense was ground into a fine powder. Auteur theory: again, not just for directors. I was impressed with Sherman's candour more than once, how he sold his body and soul to the devil and her details; the yakker's the best part of the package. A short featurette, "Mr. Skeffington: A Picture of Strength" (9 mins.), is the typical talking-head appreciation headlined by NEWSDAY's John Anderson and Sherman again, here regurgitating plot in his gravid way before the piece makes a quick digression into how Mr. Skeffington doesn't really say anything meaningful before returning to an appreciation of the fright (read: old-age) makeup that closes out the picture. A trailer for the film caps a presentation marked by a nicely-contrasted fullscreen transfer of Mr. Skeffington proper that captures the stark chiaroscuro of the cinematography well. Nothing of note to distract from technical enjoyment of the film, with the monaural audio (in Dolby 1.0) avoiding the tinniness epidemic in mixes from this era.
The Star lacks director's commentary (Stuart Heisler having died in the late '70s) but does sport a short featurette that asks the question "How Real is The Star?" (8 mins.) and answers it with an emphatic, if unconvincing, "not very." Queer Hollywood expert Boze Hadleigh reveals that Davis and her collaborators set out to skewer Crawford. To my mind, though, perception is reality, and the sad truth of her later career choices--of her fanning the flames of camp adulation and personal deformation (shades of Orson Welles, too, I guess)--has made these stories of the intention of The Star ironic. A theatrical trailer punctuates another fine A/V presentation from Warner. Minimal grain, sharp contrast--the only time the literal picture fails is in opening shots that demonstrate more wear and tear than the rest. Both films are packaged in keepcases and available individually or as part of the 5-disc Bette Davis Collection. Originally published: July 26, 2007.