Mr. Skeffington, 1944, directed by Vincent Sherman, may offer Bette Davis’ greatest performance. My choice heretofore has always been Jezebel which for years has held its place among the first five of my list of greatest screen performances by actresses. But having recently re-screened Mr. Skeffington, I have concluded that at least the first half or perhaps the first two thirds of the film may be her finest work.
Following is my list of the BD’s ten greatest performances (performances, mind you, NOT greatest films: more on that eventually). The list is in chronological order:
Marked Woman Lloyd Bacon 1937
Jezebel William Wyler 1938
Dark Victory Edmund Goulding 1939
The Old Maid Edmund Goulding 1939
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex Michael Curtiz 1939
The Letter William Wyler 1940
The Little Foxes William Wyler 1941
Now Voyager Irving Rapper 1942
Old Acquaintance Vincent Sherman 1943
Mr. Skeffington Vincent Sherman 1944
AND AN ADDITIONAL THREE, IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER
Watch on the Rhine Herman Shumlin 1943
Winter Meeting Bretaigne Windust 1948
Payment on Demand Curtis Bernhardt 1951
I wish I could know how many of my readers’ first reaction to this list is the absence of All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950). Bette Davis gives an excellent performance in All About Eve; and I said to myself when composing the list that if I found myself with only nine performances eligible as “greatest,” I would add her Margo Channing in All About Eve. But I found thirteen without Eve (more on Eve anon).
The script of any film and the overall film — the content — must always be distinguished from performance. It is quite possible for a skillful actor to give an outstanding portrayal from a mediocre script in a film of banal content. It has often happened. It still does. Many viewers AND reviewers And Academy voters are unable to make this distinction. These are the people who cannot see the excellence of Elizabeth Taylor’s performance in Butterfield 8 because they find the movie so uninteresting.
This is to ignore the stark fact that all those memorable performances from Greta Garbo, with two exceptions, were in mediocre vehicles. She regularly elevated the material in which she appeared. Bette Davis is the other actress who comes to mind who did this consistently and persistently, though performers as different as Joanne Woodward, James Cagney and Judy Garland were always turning dross into gold. One of Davis’ very best performances is in a run-of-the-mill melodrama called Payment on Demand. She creates a complete character from meager materials. From a script with simple-minded psychology like The Great Lie she creates something believable.
Simple-minded psychology: Dangerous becomes completely unbelievable, despite her strong performance, when the script has someone as far gone in alcoholism as her character able to cold turkey it at will. I am very put off by the writing in Dangerous and uncomfortably discover myself — having decried the viewer who cannot separate script from performance — now failing to do the same.
And that brings me to Eve which I feel is one of the most over-estimated of all American films. (Coming soon on Rick’s Flicks: The 10 Most Over-rated Hollywood Films.) The performers are good in All About Eve. They can really talk the talk, and the talk is witty and delicious. This is theater and not film. And how much substance is there to all the flashy talk? Do you hear a single original idea about theater in All About Eve? Can you think of a single moment, other than the freeze-frame at the opening banquet, when the camera plays any part in the narrative or in character development? (I much prefer Mankiewicz’s film of the previous year A Letter to Three Wives.)
The picture does enshrine three noteworthy performances. Bette Davis’ Margo is electric. Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington bests her and is the film’s stellar achievement. Eve is quiet, subtle — and pervasive. Baxter catches it all with eyes, facial expressions, gestures (or lack of the latter two) and body language (or, again, lack). George Sanders, as almost always, plays himself. But as with Jack Favell in Rebecca he here has a script that allows him to manipulate his familiar persona to unusual advantage; and he makes Addison DeWitt a vicious delight. (JOURNAL note: I have lost a good friend and movie buddy who ranked All About Eve as one of his two favorite films. [The other was The Red Shoes. The two — perhaps not incidentally as far as Richard goes — were made two years apart.] If Richard were still around I could not have written what I have written here about his second favorite.)
The flamboyant Margo Channing is not all that distant from Fanny Skeffington who is flamboyant in her own and unique way. The high-pitched voice, which comes as a surprise, makes an immeasurable contribution to Davis’ portrait. The greatest injustice done the BD over many years, even by admirers — abetted by affectionate impersonators — is the repeated accusation that her performances were made up of a catalog of gestures, mannerisms and movements that were always the same.
This is categorically untrue. She did not always smoke in the same way. Neither did she always walk in the same way. Bette Davis worked hard. She built a character to which she could then bring her instinctive talent, flair, taste — and discipline. In assembling aspects of her characterization, she worked closely with hairdressers, make-up artists and costume designers — not always to the thrill and delight of studio executives.
Make-up plays a significant role in creation of the woman who is Fanny Skeffington. Her mouth a small bow, her eyes small but coruscating, her hair styles altering the shape of her face. A sweeping walk of Fanny’s own, fit for a queen. The gowns a stylized version of what the era wore and right for this Fanny and right for her carriage.
In the second half of the film the high pitch of the voice becomes somewhat tiring, if appropriate; and the performance lacks variety because of the writing. Bette Davis does not fail us. The writing fails her. Worst of all is the scene between Fanny and the psychiatrist, implausibly written and implausibly played by George Coulouris. He three times orders Fanny to sit down and — in a betrayal of Fanny Skefiington’s character — three times she does so. On a less important writing note: The script mentions the 1929 economic crash and brings some newspaper headlines before the camera, but I remain puzzled as to why the stock market failure never impacts the Skeffingtons.
Bette Davis was not only a great star. She was a superb actress. I remember leaving a showing of The Letter — SPOILER ALERT — and saying to my collaborator that I thought that at the time of the making of the film, Bette Davis was the only actress in Hollywood capable of the last scene, her silent walk through the dark garden to her death. Who else could have given what was required there? given William Wyler what he wanted there? Norma Shearer perhaps. But her career was ending. Luise Rainer, but her career was almost over — her Hollywood career, at least — and she would not have been allowed so good a role anyway. Vivien Leigh’s depths were only beginning to be plumbed. Bette Davis has never done anything better than that final scene.
She gave all these fine performances I admire from 1935 to 1952, less than fifteen years — incredibly rich and productive years. Then the fabulous career was essentially past. The last stable, effective performances were in The Star (1952), Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), and The Virgin Queen (1955). There are interesting moments from 1956 in Storm Center and The Catered Affair, for example, her combing her hair in this last (apparently influencing years later a Michael Landon-directed episode of Bonanza).
But there is something wrong about her presence in almost all subsequent films. In some of these she is in supporting roles. It is as if she is trying to make the role more than it is, as if each picture is to be a comeback to put her where she once was. The comeback supporting role for the actress she plays in The Star and what the actress tries to do with the role seem prophetic, not in the sexiness of that specific situation but in trying to make the movie all about her.
What happened to the acting? What happened to Bette Davis?
What happened to the career?
According to Richard Schickel in his beautiful book The Stars, James Agee was publicly asking himself these questions as early as 1945 when the BD appeared in The Corn is Green. Schickel notes the oft-made claim that Davis was choosing lesser lights as directors and leading men because she could push them around, then quotes Agee. Agee suggested that “she is quite limited…and that she is limiting herself…by becoming more and more set, official and first- ladyish in manner and spirit…” Brilliant critic Schickel accepts this, but I am not even sure just what Agee means. Does he believe that she was always limited? Or does his next statement mean that the limitations are new? Ingrid Bergman was decidedly limited but shrewd in her choices and always excellent. Does what Agee writes fit with my earlier comment about her post-1952 work in which it invariably seems to me that she was not content to play the part as given? Have you seen Jude Law in any of his smaller roles? He never tries to make the role more than it is because of who he is. (Budapest Hotel and Anna Karenina are good examples.)
I can think of one television presentation from the novel Burnt Offerings in which Bette Davis simply played the part, and she was affecting. And in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte directed by Robert Aldrich, she created, for the first time in a long while, a touching human portrait.
Fifteen years of outstanding achievement. Six truly great performances within four years. There’s nothing wrong with that record. How many can best it?
The photograph at the beginning of the blog is a public domain image of Bette Davis as Fanny Skeffington.
NEXT FRIDAY POST February 12
See you at the movies,