My current Top 5

My current Top 5

10/28/2009

Best Actress 1939: Bette Davis in "Dark Victory"

When you have an actress of such talent and such a long list of great performances as Bette Davis, it is hard to point out the one crowning achievement. A lot of her performances are among the all-time greats, all wonderful in their own way, but one or two of them are “more equal” than the others. They are simply superior and represent the highpoints in the career of this great actress.

Dark Victory is one of those highpoints.

As Judith Traherne, a young heiress dying of a brain tumor, Bette gives one of the most moving performances ever put on the screen.

Dark Victory is technically a typical Hollywood weepie but in the hands of Bette Davis, it becomes a deeply moving and memorable experience. Her performance is ‘essential Bette Davis’: intense, strong, dominant, a force of nature. And it works wonders for this character.

Judith is a care-free young girl, partying ‘til dawn and sleeping ‘til the afternoon. But something is beginning to worry her: bad headaches come and go and suddenly, while riding her horse, her vision becomes unclear and she falls. She tries to treat it as nothing serious, but you can see that this is only a masque for hiding her fear. Judith, that care-free young girl, is getting scared of what’s happening to her.

Finally, she agrees to see a doctor. Again, she pretends to be bored and keeps treating everything as a joke, but again, Bette is wonderful in showing that Judith is simply afraid to face reality and the possibility of a serious illness. During that visit at the doctor, her problems become more obvious: she has trouble remembering things, she can’t stand bright light, she has trouble lightning a cigarette, her right hand is not able to feel anymore. Again, Judith tries to fight against everything, saying “I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me.“

I love the scene when she is visited by three doctors in her house and is having a party at the same moment. She keeps pretending to herself until the truth is revealed: an operation on her head is necessary. Judith’s reaction? “Suppose we just don’t talk about it anymore?“

But she finally agrees to that operation, but we learn, that is was no use…the diagnosis is negative. Judith has only a few more months left, then she will suddenly go blind and die some time later.

After Judith learns the truth, she goes through the various expected emotions: anger, fear, denial until she finally accepts her fate and decides to die with dignity.

It’s obvious that this is a role any actress would kill for. And Bette gets everything out of it. She carries this story wonderfully. While this could easily have turned into sentimental banality, Bette avoids this by making the story incredibly real. We feel for Judith and care about her. We know that her fate is coming but somehow we can’t believe it.

When Bette marries Dr. Steele and moves into the country, we see her happy – really happy. It is not the same superficial happiness she used to show when she was having parties. Now, it’s real joy. She knows that she will die soon, but she has accepted it and life with her husband is everything she could ever wish for. She is now happier than she ever was.

Up to that point, Bette Davis has already delivered a real tour-de-force. She has shown a young woman confronted with the worst possible situation, she has shown her suffering, she has shown her scared. But ultimately, Judith has grown a lot in just a few months, becoming almost a new person.

But it's the final minutes of Dark Victory that really leave an unforgettable impression. First, Judith’s realization that there are no clouds in front of the sun – it’s her eyes that loose their sight. What's so great bout Bette here is that she doesn't overdo it - she doesn't try to milk the scene for dramatic effect with big emotions, instead she shows Judith's strenght with quiet gestures. And then her final moving moments with her best friend and her husband until she walks up the stairs for the last time, prepared to die.

It’s a brilliant performance by Bette Davis. She goes through every possible emotion in this movie but always stays true to the character. All of Bette’s talents are used to maximum and so she gets

3 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

This is a good performance. Obviously you're a Bette fan. What do you think of Now, Voyager. For some reason I've always been fond of that film and performance.

Fritz said...

It's been a while since I've seen Now, Voyager. I remember that I liked it...when I do 1942, I can tell you more :-)

The funny thing is that I wouldn't call myself a Bette Davis fan. I respect her very much and I try to be very objective about my reviews and my rankings. But Bette is not an actress that interests me as others do. But I won't deny her talent!

daniel john said...

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