March 31, 2008

Bette Davis @ 100.

Bette Davis Collection, Volume 3 It's early yet, but there's so much already going on, we'd better get started...

"Bette Davis would have turned 100 on April 5, and her career seems more than ever an unrepeatable anomaly," writes Dennis Lim. "With her outsize performances and distinctive features (those bulging eyes, that clipped voice), she is surely one of the most iconic Hollywood stars of all time. But she was also one of the most iconoclastic. Often more alarming than charming, she was an unconventional beauty who met few of the obvious requirements for stardom (save for drive and ego)." For the Los Angeles Times, he reviews Warners' six-film Bette Davis Collection, Volume 3 and Fox's five-film Bette Davis Centenary Celebration Collection.

Updated through 4/6.

More on the Warners collection from Jeffrey Kauffman at DVD Talk - and from Dan Callahan in Slant: "Davis is the auteur of all her movies, and during this star period her scripts were mostly high-flown, novelette-ish trash that she transfigured with the power of her epic-sized technique. No one before or since has had her level of intensity on the screen, and it's up to the individual viewer whether her more manic exertions represent a unique, old-fashioned style of overacting or the larger-than-life flourishes of a great artist. I've always see-sawed back and forth between those two judgments, but watching the first film in this set, The Old Maid, it seems clear that she was definitely a great artist whenever she bothered to rein herself in."

The Boston Globe's Ty Burr picks out another title to focus on: "It's a relentless melodrama - an emotional gangster movie, really - called In This Our Life, and even Davis didn't think much of it at the time. Made in 1942, between The Man Who Came to Dinner and Now, Voyager (the latter possibly her single best movie), Life casts the star as Stanley Timberlake, the sweet-voiced, black-hearted sister of Roy Timberlake (Olivia de Havilland). (What's with the men's names? If anyone knew, they've long since forgotten.)... Stanley is b-a-a-d, and no one could have played her better than the ruthless Ruth Elizabeth Davis, late of 22 Lewis Street in Newton, Massachusetts. In This Our Life was the second film directed by a young John Huston, and he later wrote, 'There is something elemental about Bette - a demon within her which threatens to break out and eat everybody, beginning with their ears. The studio was afraid of her - afraid of her demon. They confused it with overacting. Over their objections, I let the demon go.'"

Bette Davis "Moviegoers familiar with her only from late horror films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)... may think of her as a campy grotesque, a cartoon diva," writes Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times. "That's perhaps partly her own fault, for attacking those ludicrous roles with such unseemly comic gusto.... But on the occasion of her centennial, it's worth remembering Davis as she was in her prime, in the 1930s and 40s, when she commanded the screen with something subtler and more mysterious than the fierce, simple will that carried her through the mostly grim jobs of work that followed.... In her heyday, as the reigning female star at Warner Brothers, she was as electrifying as Marlon Brando in the 50s: volatile, sexy, challenging, fearlessly inventive. She looked moviegoers straight in the eye and dared them to look away."

"For all the early attempts to pass her off as a bottle-blonde flapper, Davis was built for a complicated destiny," writes Sheila Johnston in the Telegraph. "Back in 1935, one perceptive critic of Dangerous - for which she won her first Academy Award, as a destructive, alcoholic actress - thought the actress would 'probably have been burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet.'"

"With nothing but raw talent and raw determination, she became the most famous woman in the world, taking on the Hollywood studio system, the FBI and the Catholic Church," writes Johann Hari. "She had a voice like sour cream, and eyes like a raven. Humphrey Bogart said about her, 'Unless you're very big she can knock you down.' And she was one of the great events of her time.... But something odd has happened since the reign of Queen Bette: women in cinema have become weaker. If the symbol of 1930s Hollywood was Bette Davis in Jezebel, defiantly wearing red to her virgin-white ball, today it is Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary, rubbing semen into her hair because she is too dumb to realize it's not hair gel."

"She was a screen bitch before it was fashionable to be one," writes Joan Collins, who, for the London Times, recounts a few tales - "I was privileged to work with Davis on my first Hollywood movie, The Virgin Queen (1955), in which she played the shaven-headed monarch Elizabeth I" - and admits to borrowing a trick or two in her own later work.

All About Eve More from Paul Burston: "All About Eve isn't simply a film for camp aficionados.... 57 years after it was first released, it remains the quintessential depiction of ruthless ambition in the entertainment industry, head and shoulders above more contemporary satires such as The Player or Swimming With Sharks. It's also an extremely modern film in the way it pathologises the relationship between celebrity and fan-dom."

And Christopher Hart reviews Ed Sikov's Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

Events and such: The Globe's Leslie Brokaw reports on Lowell's tribute to its native gal.

Bette Davis on Tour, in theaters across the UK - and on TCM.

And of course, on TCM's stateside mothership as well.

The Stanford Theatre's series of "Complete early films: 1931 - 1938" begins this weekend and runs at a rate of four films a week through June 6. Wow.

Updates, 4/3: All About Bette Davis: A Centennial Tribute opens tonight and runs through Sunday at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles.

"The Bette Davis Collection, Vol 3 concentrates on the war years at WB, where it seemed that the town's top acting diva came up with one winner after another," writes Glenn Erickson. "By 1940 Davis really was a genre unto herself, starring in quality vehicles that repeatedly showed her a master of the dramatic arts. When the material was good she made it better and when it wasn't she made up the difference in personal commitment."

Updates, 4/5: "When I listen to people talk with reverential awe about Robert De Niro gaining weight to play Jake LaMotta or Charlize Theron uglying herself up to play Aileen Wuornos I think (with all due respect to De Niro and Theron), 'Davis did that every other movie,'" writes Jonathan Lapper, who points to video of Davis's appearance at the Oscars in 1987.

"She appeared in melodramas, horror pictures, gangster movies, women's weepies, Disney flicks, the occasional comedy, and my favorite movie of all time," writes Odienator in the first part of a tribute at Edward Copeland on Film. "She was the first female president of AMPAS. Bette Midler is named after her, and among those who count her as an inspiration are numerous drag queens, more than one wannabe diva, and Jackie DeShannon, the latter of whom wrote the worst song of the 1980s about Miss Davis's most famous feature."

"In many films, the plot turns on Davis's desirability - which means her plausibility," writes Kate Webb in the Guardian. "It's a problem all actresses face: some escape by playing celestial or androgynous figures; others collude and play the coquette. But Davis was alone in letting you know she knew she was being judged, and was indignant about it, showing us what it is to have one's existential credibility constantly called into question."

Peter Nellhaus on Now, Voyager: "The retelling of the ugly duckling who becomes Bette Davis could never be made today. The film is two hours of platonic love, obvious rear screen projections, and lots of cigarette smoking. The film is also a love letter to Miss Davis, with two shots of the camera tilting up from her heels to her head."

Online listening tip. Bob Mondello on NPR.

In the German-language papers: Michael Althen (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), Gerhard Midding (Frankfurter Rundschau), Ruth Schneeberger (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Christina Tilmann (Tagesspiegel) and Jürg Zbinden (Neue Zürcher Zeitung).

Update, 4/6: "All About Eve supersedes all, incorporates all; it is art, ambition, vanity, intrigue, philosophy, journalism, sexual politics, and celebrity packed neatly into one overnight kit, the outside world barely noticeable in this brightly lit, drably furnished hermitage known as the Broadway theater," writes James Wolcott.

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Posted by dwhudson at March 31, 2008 12:24 PM


Dave: Your Bay Area readers may wish to know about the wolloping Davis retrospective at The Stanford Theatre.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at March 31, 2008 3:29 PM

Good heavens, that's just amazing. Many thanks, Michael!

Posted by: David Hudson at March 31, 2008 3:34 PM