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Beauty of Bette

Bette Davis’ career was recently celebrated in a festival of the actress’s films at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, where once again she played to packed houses. Those famous eyes and the intensity of her performances were the common denominator in a mixed programme, featuring films which spanned the entire duration of her 60-year career.
There is a curious trend towards watching old movies in theatre retrospectives that, should you happen across them on Sunday afternoon TV, you might flick right by in favour of a reality show or soap omnibus. Part of the charm of the retrospective is that it gives you the chance not only to see the classics on a big screen, but also to experience them as part of an audience. Those gathered to watch Davis at the IFI screenings were a mixture of young and not-so-young that you don’t come across in cinemas very often. They were ready to give her their full attention and , as if at a live show, they laughed on cue at jokes, flinched at insults they knew were coming and at some screenings, they even clapped at the end.
In many of her films, Davis plays characters notoriously similar to herself – bitchy, demanding, single-minded, self-confident and smart. These traits and her strong will led to many confrontations with co-stars, directors and studio bosses and in 1937 she took a groundbreaking case to break her contract with Warner Brothers Studios. From Davis’ perspective, the studio system of the day was akin to servitude – she could be suspended without pay for refusing a part, she could be called upon to play any role within her abilities regardless of her personal beliefs, and she could even be required to support a political party against her beliefs. Davis lost the case but went on to the most successful period of her career. In 1941 she became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and is one of only four actors to have received ten academy award nominations for acting.
Two of Bette Davis’ most famous films, All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane were included on the IFI programme. Very different films in style, both deal with similar themes – celebrity, jealousy and conflicts between women. Davis relishes playing her typical strong female character in both, though her Baby Jane veers decidedly towards the psychotic end of the ‘strong female’ range.
All About Eve, which has been described as a perfect screenplay, offers a look at the Broadway Theatre scene of the 1950s. Davis’ character is an ageing stage star living it up in New York surrounded by directors, actors, playwrights, agents and critics. The script features witty, clever and insightful dialogue, which, though carefully constructed is not over written. The ‘camp’ label is often applied to Davis’ performance as Margot Channing but, perhaps in the light of that label, it actually comes across as surprisingly measured and subtle. The plot is one many will know; theatre star Margot Channing’s life is infiltrated by a contender to her throne who insinuates her way into her idol’s life and society in order to try to steal her status, friends and lover. There is not much to that, but it is Davis’ performance and the evocation of the theatre scene of the day that make the film what it is.
Classic films rarely fail to surprise and All About Eve is no different. The sophistication of the language is impressive and the wit and observations are relevant even today. We can sometimes imagine that sex in film did not exist until the 1970s but earlier films can be racier than we might expect. All About Eve features a scene where the playwright and his wife are awoken by a telephone call in the middle of the night, the light comes on to reveal they are sleeping in separate beds. This produced a ripple of laughter from the audience gathered in the IFI but was a standard representation of married couples at the time. Within this restraint however, sex is a prominent and overt theme in the film, particularly Margot Channing’s relationship with a younger man to whom she is not married. The age difference between Margot and her lover and between Margot and Eve, her potential usurper, are also central to the plot. Davis was not shy of dealing with the topic of ageing; she was a realist in both her outlook and in her work. She was never afraid of appearing at less than her best on screen – either in cold cream and with her hair scraped back in All About Eve or as, frankly, a right old mess in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
Wild eyed, wild haired, and plump; Baby Jane Hudson’s appearance is made worse only by the character’s attempts to disguise it with too much make up. Though the themes of ageing and rivalry are here again, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is an altogether different kind of film to All About Eve. It is a suspense horror complete with the high pitched music and the stylised direction of Hitchcock’s Psycho, released two years earlier. The film focuses on two sisters, a former child star and failed actress, Jane and a former successful actress, Blanche who is now confined to a wheelchair apparently as a result of an accident caused by her sister. Jane torments her sister and grows increasingly more deranged as the film progresses, leading to various moments of suspense and fear. It is a curious mix of horror and comedy that today’s critics might call ‘unsure of itself’, particularly regarding the subplot involving Jane plan to revive her childhood career and her romantic pursuit of a young pianist. The mash up of comedy and horror is quite odd and the whole requires a large measure of suspended belief. But this is often the case with old films where our interpretations and today’s genres may no longer apply. With belief suspended, however, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane has no shortage of shocks and eye covering moments.

Various Bette Davis DVD box sets are available, try www.amazon.com for the best prices. Some of Davis’ early films are also available on 23rd Century DVD release. Search your local poundshop for classic DVDs from €2.

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