A SPECIAL APPEARANCE

MOVIES ARE EVERYWHERE

ONE OF VIVIEN LEIGH’S MOST UNUSUAL APPEARANCES

Movies are everywhere, including good books.  In Graham Greene’s The Last Word, a collection of otherwise uncollected stories, he includes a piece called “Work Not in Progress.”  It purports to be a sketch for a never-completed, never-performed musical comedy called My Girl in Gaiters.  The story line concerns the kidnapping of a whole convocation of Anglican cardinals by a gang of London thugs.  The motive is theft.  The cardinals, in their underwear, are locked in a church building basement.  “The twelve thugs are led by a woman who is the brains of the gang (and the only woman in the cast).  When I have had an extra glass of champagne I dream that she is played by Vivien Leigh.”

The sketch even includes lyrics for some songs.

Graham Greene, The Last Word and other stories.  Reinhardt Books, 1990.

NEXT FRIDAY POST May 5

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

STARS GALORE IN THE WESTWOOD GALAXY

Rick’s Journal    —    MY FILM CAREER

CELEBRITIES I HAVE KNOWN

I’ve seen celebrities in the theater (as playgoers, not thespians).  I’ve seen them at the movies.  And I’ve seen them shopping.  (See Rick’s Flicks for 9/16/16.)  But it was in Westwood Village, hard by UCLA, that I saw them as man and woman on the street (Cornel Wilde in Beverly Hills, more on that later).

The Hollywood star I glimpsed most often was Jack Lemmon.  The first occasion came when my mother was out to California for a visit, and we passed him on the sidewalk.  She liked him especially, and at that time had seen every movie he had made.  Lemmon was the first celebrity she saw on that first visit to California, and she was, literally, thrilled.  “That’s Lemmon!”  He was the only celebrity she always called by only his surname  —  except Garbo.  (My mother was from Charleston; and on the rare occasions when she used the latter’s first name, she called her Greeta Gahbo.)

Together we saw Lemmon again at Disneyland.  He was with a small boy who, I supposed, was getting his first lesson in rights and race:  “He has just as much right to be there as you, son.”

I next saw Jack Lemmon at the Village Theatre.  From across the street I watched him on the sidewalk outside the theater being deferential to a producer-type.  The scene was a preview showing of Boys Night Out.

It was also in Westwood Village that I unobtrusively watched Peter Falk park his red car.  And I saw Rock Hudson standing at the open hatch of a large beige station wagon outside the sporting goods store.  That was one big man.

In that earlier post that I wrote about the happy sight of Esther Williams Christmas shopping in Westwood’s largest bookstore.  I once saw Katy Jurado shopping, too.  She was choosing Christmas tree ornaments in the closest thing to a dime store that existed there at the time.  There was a small all-eyes child at her side.  I cannot remember:  girl or boy?  I was absorbed in the lady’s own luminous and vulnerable eyes and those unique lips.

I was fortunate to run into stars in movie theaters, too.  I spotted lovely  —  as in lovely person  —  Betty Grable at the candy concession in the Bruin Theatre, buying candy for her two boys to take with them into Cowboy with Jack Lemmon (that name again) and Glenn Ford.  It would have been grand to tell her how much her musicals meant to me as a boy about the age of her youngest.  But I do not annoy celebrities.

I did see her once more, years later, as Dolly on the New York stage.  I had a ticket for the third row and was so enthusiastic in response and applause during the show that I detected  —  great professional though she was  —    that she noticed me, though that was never my intention.

I saw Dennis Hopper at the movies, too.   He and a date, with a double date, sat behind me at the Los Feliz Theatre for Pather Panchali.  The four of them were worriesomely convivial until Ray’s film began, then silent as cat feet in fog.

I glimpsed more stars in theaters in Los Angeles and Hollywood than I saw in theaters during all the years I lived in New York.  I can boast only two New York sightings.  At a first night I was surprised by the incomparable dental structure and ferocious smile of Gale Sondergaard.  Who knew that ol’ Gale would carry that smile down the years all the way to the face of Eagle Woman in The Return of a Man Called Horse?*  On another occasion I saw, at intermission, in deep theatrical evaluation with a companion, the Queen of First Nights, Anita Louise.

Staying with theater sightings  —  finding celebrities in the audience at stage plays  —  I recall a stunning Joan Fontaine in a red dress at a Theatre Group performance on the UCLA campus.  She was aware that I saw her.  How often must this happen to all of them?

And in downtown Los Angeles when I went to see Vivien Leigh on stage in Duel of Angels, I sat across the aisle from Lucille Ball and a a young escort.   She was chewing gum.  As I was leaving at the end, she and her companion were headed down the theater alley toward the stage door.  She was still chewing.

In Beverly Hills, in addition to my unforgettable vision of Rita Hayworth (Rick’s Flicks 3/11/16), I saw Cornel Wilde, a long ago favorite, coming out of the drugstore and lighting a cigarette from the pack he had just purchased.

*Gale Sondergaard delivered one of my all-time favorite lines.  It contributed to her winning the first supporting actress Academy Award (Anthony Adverse, 1936).  She and husband (Claude Raines) are in a snow-covered, icy mountain pass.  There is trouble with the coach.  They are sitting on a cold rock while the coachman does his best.  But coach and coachman end up sliding off the precipice.  Raines, almost in tears, says the man was the best servant he ever had.  Ol’ Gale:  “The coach was rather handy, too.”

NEXT FRIDAY POST November 11

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

SEEING STARS IN THE SUNLIGHT

CELEBRITIES I HAVE KNOWN

In Southern California I lived in Westwood by the UCLA campus for several years.  It was a hot spot for celebrity watching.  At the time when I was living there in a dark but large and quiet apartment, Westwood offered two bookstores.  I glimpsed Claire Bloom in one of them, the smaller one  with a good collection of film books  —  next to my dry cleaner.  In the other larger and brighter one , on a sunny and warm December afternoon, I spotted Esther Williams who, I felt sure, was Christmas shopping.  What do you do when you’re more interested in a celebrity’s co-stars than in the celebrity?  Miss Williams, what was it like working with Ricardo Montalban?  I am forever grateful now not to have asked Claire Bloom about Vivien Leigh.  In reality, that would have been too early.  It was two to three years before their play together.

And all this is fantasy.  I would never ask anyone anything.  I never approach celebrities.  I would never spoil the privacy of anyone I admire  —  or anyone I don’t for that matter..  On a Manhattan bus I once watched a couple, standing in a crowded aisle, address Margaret Hamilton, seated and captive.  She graciously received their complimentary remarks, but I was appalled.  How would you like to be asked by perfect strangers if you had your ruby slippers with you?

At a panel discussion I attended in Cleveland, during a question and answer session, I did ask Teresa Wright what it was like working with Richard Carlson in The Little Foxes.  I was intrigued that she did not answer my question.  She talked about what she considered Carlson’s unfortunate role in the film.  She described as silly their scene together in which Carlson ended up running down the street in his underwear.  She felt bad for him.

I may be taking my own question too seriously, but I feel that she deliberately did not answer it.  She replied in a way that could not offend the Carlson fan I had described myself as being, in my question.  There is also the factor  —  possible factor  —  that Richard Carlson once had, perhaps unjustified, a reputation as womanizer.  Was there something about him Miss Wright preferred not to discuss?  —  something about him, that is, not about herself.

More on Westwood and West Los Angeles in blogs to come.

NEXT FRIDAY POST OCTOBER 14

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

BACK ON THE TRAIL

Rick’s Journal     –  MY FILM CAREER

BACK ON THE TRAIL IN THE ROXY AT THE END OF THE STREET

(This is a revision and expansion of a blog I posted 9/26/14.)

The town where I grew up boasted a Roxy.

AT THE ROXY

AT THE ROXY

In my movie childhood  —  which chimes with all my childhood because my life has been lived at the movies  —  one of our downtown theaters, the Roxy, often showed on Saturdays what their ads called reissues.  Was the rest of the world calling them re-releases?  Or was everyone saying reissues then?

There were eight movie theaters downtown within a five-block area, seven of them on the same street, three of them in a row on the same block, right next to each other.  All of them, on their signs and their marquees and in their ads, used the British spelling theatre.  The later and  eighth house, on a side street, was called the Temple, and it would eventually become my temple because it showed older movies almost exclusively.

Occasionally the management interspersed an Adults Only documentary shot on location featuring barely clad tribes for the titillation (pun intended) of my budding adolescent urges and surges.  But the standard fare was thirties/forties Hollywood.  And I ate it up.

I saw It Happened One Night there.  And Mr. Smith and Mr. DeedsScarfaceThe Public Enemy and Little Caesar (a double bill!).  Jezebel.  And I recall a lone British film, called in America The Invaders (English title The 49th Parallel).  I was trying to see  —  and it wasn’t easy then or there  —  as many Leslie Howard films as I could.  He was special to me because he had been Vivien Leigh’s Ashley.  (The Invaders featured Laurence Olivier and Anton Walbrook, too.)

The Florida Theatre was downtown’s showplace.  Three stories.  Three balconies.  Three lobbies.  Even a Colored Entrance sign over a door on the side street.  The Florida was the site of my first movie.  According to my mother, the witch in Snow White so frightened me that I claimed to be sick and had to be taken to the rest room.  And that reminds me that at the Florida there were also three men’s rooms and in one of them I learned about what the Boy Scout manual used to call self-pollution, learned about it through an incredible exhibitionist demonstration about which one of my tender years in that era neither complained nor sued.

The Florida would later be where I first saw The Yearling and where my teen loins first lusted after Jennifer Jones as Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun.

In the next block from the Florida were those three-in-a-row theaters; a regal block:  the Palace, the Empress and the Imperial.    The Palace was a first-run house, usually for programmers and sometimes for double features.  All these theaters had but a single screen, of course, showing just one film or, at most, two.  The Palace was where I would see and fall for the Andrews Sisters (cf. Rick’s Flicks 3/24/12 and 2/1/13).  And it was where my brother would take me for my first view of The Wizard of Oz.  In those days a theater ran a film continuously  —  no breaks, no bringing up of the lights.  And like most people  —  except for my father who always found out when a movie started and and would never see one except from its beginning  —  we just walked into a movie at any convenient time.  And my brother and I entered the land of Oz as Judy Garland, scouting apples, found the Tinman’s rusted foot.  She was, from my first moment, never only Dorothy.  She was JudyGarlandasDorothy.  Older brother Joe and I were seldom friends.  There would come a time when we were  near sworn enemies.  But he gave me The Wizard of Oz, and I must be ever grateful to him for that.

I have just remembered that the Palace also offered vaudeville  —  vaudeville in its last days and on its last legs.  A double feature AND a stage show.  Magicians.  My first singing Alaskan princess (probably from the Bronx, had I known).   My first strippers.  Stand-up comics with raunchy jokes.  I started out at the Palace in my grade school years, but you can be sure I understood the jokes.  I still remember one of them.

VivienLeigh1948And while the Palace was a first-run house, it showed Gone with the Wind after its initial release at the Florida a block away.  So, it was at the Palace that I first saw a preview of the Wind and felt crushed that the trailer was all drawings and paintings.  No advanced live footage of the Wind in those days.  I had about a year to go before I would fall in love, once and forever, with Vivien Leigh.

The Empress and the Imperial featured second runs, the Empress often opening with what had closed at the Florida the previous day.  It was at the Empress that I first saw Gone with the Wind two days in succession.  I had already seen it in two neighborhood theaters, as they were then called.  Then I saw it on a Saturday and a Sunday at the Empress.  My mother was going to go with me on Sunday, but when my Dad drove us past the theater, we saw a two-block line.  My mother changed her mind; but they dropped me off, and I waited in that line to see my Vivien Leigh.  In those days our city, with its navy base, and our theaters were filled with sailors.  I remember a gob in the men’s room at the end of the movie that Sunday saying to everyone there, “If that movie had lasted five more minutes, I’d have pissed all over myself and all over the theater.”

One of the most exciting aspects of Gone with the Wind was its length  —  unusual then.  (At the time I did not know about Italy’s Cabiria or France’s La Roue or any other Gance or the trials  and tribulations of Greed.)  I was captured by the very idea of the length of Gone with the Wind.  I remember being angry when I had first learned about the length of the 1959 Ben-Hur.  William Wyler or not, who did Ben-Hur think it was?  Soon there would be a slew of lengthy blockbusters as studios  —  they were still trying to exist, then, in the old way  —  sought to make films, often of inflated length, that would consume all of an evening.  When you got home from your movie it was too late , in those days, to settle into television.

The last of the theaters to be built downtown, the St. Johns, was a studio theater.  It was Warner owned and showed Warner films only and was open, of course, seven days a week all day.  That’s how many films a studio turned out in those immediate postwar days.  I remember a flitty friend from school days describing the theater as “too severe,”  something he must have heard his mother say.  But the St. Johns  was unusual, to be sure.  Tomato red walls in the lobby.  No decorations on those walls.  I visited this severe place less often than I visited the other theaters I’ve fondly named and remembered.  Was I already reacting unconsciously to what would become a definite adult perception?  —  that Warner Brothers movies were filled with unlikable characters who talked too fast.

Once more unto the Roxy and its reissues.  I can still see a poster outside the Roxy Theatre, Ann Sheridan sprawled across a tabletop in Navy Blues.  I never did get to see the movie.  It became one of those movies that you somehow always miss.  It would have already shown at the other downtown theaters, and the Roxy was its last stop on the way out of downtown.  The Roxy was the place to see things before they got away.  But my mother wouldn’t let me go see Navy Blues that Saturday.  I called home to ask.  It would have been my fourth movie that day.  A single feature at the Florida, followed by a double bill at the Imperial, with Krystal hamburgers in between.  She drew the line at a fourth movie because, without older brother Joe, I would be getting home alone after dark.

I was sometimes, though, allowed two double features, in fact often.  And I  saw everything I wanted to.  I can’t remember ever being advised, as a child, against a movie  —  except that she spoke against Duel in the Sun which I was seeing weekly, following it from theater to theater.  I was in high school then, hormones a-rage.  My father exhibited no interest in what I saw.  When I was smaller my parents  —  I realize, now, always happy to have me out of the house  —  would drop me off at a theater and come back for me afterwards.  Sometimes I would be left at one theater in the afternoon and picked up at another one in the evening.

Before the Temple had reopened and been sanctified, my Roxy periodically had films from the past.  How did a grade school kid get hung up on older films?  I lived for the “Current Week,” a feature of the Saturday evening paper.  All theaters listed their programs for the coming seven days.  My brother never dived for his sports pages with more thrill than I lunged for the “Current Week.”  It contained the programs not just for those eight theaters concentrated in the holy five-block downtown area but for all the neighborhood second-, third- and fourth-run houses as well.

In my earliest discovery of the “Current Week,” I had no idea of the meaning of the word current.  I don’t know how I even knew its pronunciation.  In my life at the time it meant my movie week.  A poet’s heart leaps.  My stomach did when I would reach the Roxy  towards the end of the alphabetical list of theaters in the “Current Week” and find, in parenthesis after the title of next Saturday’s movie, the word reissue.   The Roxy changed its program four times each week.  They offered one movie on Sunday and Monday, a different one on Tuesday and Wednesday, yet another on Thursday and Friday and, finally, one which ran for one day on Saturday.  I deliberately read through the theaters in order, saving the Roxy till last where it naturally stood until the St. Johns was added.  The Roxy’s add for Saturday would read TODAY ONLY.  Saturday was reissue day  in a week when they were showing a reissue.  Oh, and the ad in the paper on Saturday would contain, under the title, in parenthesis, the word reissue.

I am still unable to answer my own rhetorical question.  I don’t know why I was so attracted to what was not new and preferred the Roxy’s Saturday programs and those reissues at the Temple.  Some of it may have been my mother’s telling me about her own moviegoing days as a youngster.  I knew about Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow and Mary Miles Minter and Ramon Novarro and Doug and Charlie and the man who would become my beloved Buster  —  I knew about them long before I had the opportunity to see them.  But until that chance came, I had my Roxy and my Saturdays there.

I remember Too Hot to Handle.  I went to the movie already liking Clark Gable and Myrna Loy because my parents enjoyed them so much.  And Red Dust.  My parents loved Jean Harlow, too, though I confess that at the time she never looked real to me.  I also saw Algiers at the Roxy.  Mom and Dad had Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow, but I discovered Hedy Hedy OneLamarr myself.  There was Tugboat Annie, though as a grade school-er I was incapable of realizing the wonder of Marie Dressler.

AT THE ROXY

AT THE ROXY

But the brightest of those early memories of the Roxy is still The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.  Bright indeed.  The first Hollywood film shot outdoors in color.  The color is rich but never garish; the photography is careful and quietly artful.  In the overall running time, there may be two mattes.  Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda and especially Sylvia Sidney compel us to believe this unbelievable tale of sentimentalized mountain folk from the popular novel by John Fox, Jr. which also became popular as a play.  (See Pine note below.*)

There is just enough of a hard edge to the characters  —  and the playing  —  of MacMurray and Fonda to assist their credibility.  There is a surprising and even harder edge to June, the Sylvia Sidney character, a facet the actress grasps and delivers.  She is a mountain girl who for years has had an understanding, as it used to be called, with Dave, a cousin (Fonda), an understanding that she has never fully accepted and from which she periodically frets and revolts.  To their mountain area comes the railroad, hungry for their land.  June finds herself attracted to the railroad’s business representative Jack Hale (MacMurray) who is attracted to her as well but proves a man of mature responsibility, refusing to take offered advantage.  When June is given a chance to go to the city, she is fierce in her determination to take it, a chance finally “to have my fancies.”  As a small child I somehow knew what she meant.  She wanted pretty clothes and pretty things, which were her dreams.  The background of the story is a Hatfield/McCoy-like feud.  Here they’re the Tollivers and the Falins.

Fuzzy Knight has two memorable songs in the movie, and they actually belong in the story.  And while later, seeing this film as an adult, I had to suffer a supposedly cute Hollywood kid, at least Spanky McFarland as Buddy is not a smart aleck and does not even feel superior to all the adults around him.  I always enjoy glimpsing Clara Blandick before she became Auntie Em, and she has a small role as a landlady.

Sylvia Sidney gave many outstanding performances during a long career.  Well worth watching:  Sabotage (Hitchcock); Fury (Fritz Lang) (both from the same year as The Trail of the Lonesome Pine); Dead End (William Wyler); The Searching Wind (from the play by Lillian Hellman);  Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (Academy Award nomination).  She also had stage successes, one of which was the role of the governess in The Innocents, a dramatization of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

+Pine note:  The novel  was filmed in 1914; in 1916 (directed by Cecil B. DeMille); and in 1923 starring Mary Miles Minter, Antonio Moreno and Ernest Torrence.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine     Henry Hathaway     1936

NEXT FRIDAY POST June 3

Until then,
Let’s go the movies.
See you there,
Rick

 

IS FANNY SKEFFINGTON BETTE DAVIS’ GREATEST PERFORMANCE?

BD1Mr. 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

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

 

 

AWARD BIZARROS

The National Board of Review has announced its award winners for 2015.  The best written, best directed film with the best performance by an actor is The Martian, and the best film is Mad Max.  Interesting.  But then, the National Board of Review is always interesting.  Actually, they are.  And one must admire their going always their own way as the Golden Globes used to do before succumbing  —  to what?  I still admire the National Board for presenting its best actor award to William Hurt AND Raul Julia for Kiss of the Spider Woman.  We need more getting away from the idea of a single award for a single performance among all the year’s great work.  The Golden Globes make an effort but only by pretending that certain films are comedies.

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The awards madness has begun, and award givers continue to let journalists and talking heads influence their decisions, which decisions the journalists and talking heads will then decry.  While it is hard to take seriously a journalist whom the once-staid New York Times allows to use most to mean almost, the article in the 12/15/15 paper at least is not by the cynical Michael Cieply and did teach me that the typical budget for a best picture campaign  —  yes, you read that correctly, campaign  —  is one million dollars.  (“The Oscar Race Begins…” by Cara Buckley, 12/3/15.)

It does become increasingly difficult to take the Academy Awards seriously.  I have to keep reminding myself that the award did honor Vivien Leigh twice, even being ahead of its time in recognizing AT THE TIME what would prove to be the timelessness of the Streetcar performance.  (There seems some present confusion about their decision, however,  since clips from the film on the Oscar show never show HER but only feature non-winner Marlon Brando.)  In the past the Academy twice honored Olivia de Havilland as well for two remarkable performances  —  and Luise Rainer whose talents and two Oscars it is fashionable to denigrate today.  Some Academy voters had the guts to vote for Hamlet as the best picture of 1948.  They also recognized Maggie Smith in her Prime and the sets in Hugo and the editing of Body and Soul.  I wander.  There HAVE been good decisions.  I can’t dismiss the award though I reserve the right to despise the annual show.

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DOCUMENTARY SHORT LIST

The Academy has released a short list of 15 films being considered for the feature documentary award.  The list includes The Hunting Ground, Going Clear, and Where to Invade Next.  The final five will be announced January 14.  (My information from the New York Times 12/3/15.)

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MATT DAMON?  REALLY?

Matt Damon, among the best and brightest of current stars, has joined the ranks of those saying dumb things about Academy Awards.  Speaking at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Damon apparently described himself as “shocked” to discover that Ridley Scott had never won an Oscar as best director.  How could he need to discover that?  I’ve always known it.  Perhaps it only means that the Oscars are not that important to him.  I can respect and admire that while being shocked myself that Damon has not been nominated for such outstanding portrayals as those in The Rainmaker, Mr. Ripley, Bagger Vance, Contagion, The Informant and Pretty Horses.  No one admires Matt Damon more than this critic, but his comments disturb me since they suggest that artists should receive the annual Oscar for overall career work.  Isn’t That what the honorary ones are for?  (See Rick’s Flicks, 4/1/12, “The Myth of Cary Grant’s Oscar.”)

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SOMETHING BESIDES AWARDS

If you are in Astoria, New York or can get there, you will not want to miss the Museum of the Moving Image, especially its exhibit “Walkers:  Hollywood Afterlives in Art and Artifact,” (through April 10).  You will also find it time well spent to run down Kristin M. Jones’ beautifully written article about the exhibit’s juxtaposition of posters, stills and clips from Hollywood’s past with works of art influenced by filmmakers and their films, especially, apparently, Hitchcock and Ford.  (Wall Street Journal, 11/18/15.)

NEXT Friday POST JANUARY 15

Until then,
See you AT the movies,
Rick

BIRTHDAYS

ANNIVERSARY

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Vivien Leigh, one of the cinema’s brightest stars  —  nay!  supernova  —  and one of its outstanding actresses.  Two of her remarkable performances have literally been proven timeless.  From her first screen line, her only line, in Things Are Looking Up to her maturity and elegant beauty in The Roman Spring and Ship of Fools, she was the consummate professional and a gift to motion pictures.  At her death when 53, she was still at work; and she was still the most beautiful woman in the world.

Happy birthday, Vivien Leigh.

ANOTHER BIRTHDAY

Today is also the birthday of Roy Rogers.  Look for a future blog, coming to the screen nearest you, “Roy Rogers, Actor,” an analysis of the lifework of THE KING of the Cowboys.

Happy birthday, King.

NEXT POST FRIDAY November 13

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick