My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1940: Bette Davis in "The Letter"

By 1939, Bette Davis had already won two Oscars for her work in Dangerous and Jezebel, but her most memorable and celebrated screen performances were yet to come. In 1940, the perennial nominee received her fourth nominations for her work as Leslie Crosbie in William Wyler’s The Letter.

Leslie Crosbie – a strong, manipulating, passionate woman – is a perfect part for Bette Davis and her strong screen presence, her no-nonsense approach to the role and her talent as an actress of unusual determination work perfectly together.

In this part, she also has one of the greatest opening scenes ever – Leslie walks out of her house and shots a man, one time, two times, three times and more. Bette’s face in this scene is wonderful – apparently rid of any emotion and at the same time full of them. It’s impossible to say what Leslie is feeling at the moment when she shoots and a few seconds later, when she looks at the dead body. Right from the start, Bette Davis’s interpretation of Leslie gives an endless array of questions and she refuses to open her up until the right moment.

The Letter is a classic, very well-made melodrama from the 40s and Bette Davis, as usually with these types of roles, sinks her teeth into the material and gives a typical strong and dominant performance with her effective eyes and her characteristic voice. When she is telling about what happened before she shot the man, her whole monologue is a clear combination of learned lines and instinctive expressions – again it’s impossible to tell if Leslie is telling the truth or hiding a dark secret.

The Letter is set in the hot, sultry atmosphere of Malaya – an atmosphere that also influences the acting characters. Bette Davis mixes the apparently cold and efficient woman she is playing with a certain sexuality and sensuality that is never obvious but always hidden. She also effectively shows the constant tension in Leslie’s character – her way of walking up and down, her never-ending needle work, her way of talking (carefully planned words that seems spontaneous, always on the alert about the reactions of her opposite), it all displays a woman who is knowing more than she admits and does her best to keep it that way.

Bette Davis’s performance seems a bit too artificial in the first parts of the movie but this serves the character of Leslie well who is mostly pretending in these scenes. But the more the script tells the audience about the true events in that tragic night, the more Bette Davis opens Leslie and changes her characterization – her acting becomes more honest and real and at the same time, she begins to show that Leslie’s strong and apparently easygoing character is only a façade to hide her hurt feelings and her fear of being exposed.

Even though Bette’s performance sometimes still seems a little too forced, too strong for its own good and too melodramatic (it’s hard to tell how many times she sits in a chair and then suddenly begins to shake and then dramatically turns around to hide her face between her arm and the back of the chair), it serves the script well and adds to the overall quality of the movie even though she sometimes is overshadowed by her supporting cast. Especially in the scenes opposite of Gale Sondergaard, who is hilariously miscast and incredibly perfect at the same time, Bette Davis wisely holds her own acting back and lets Gale dominate the scene. It’s especially in these moments that Bette also shows a surprisingly soft side in Leslie – her pleading and begging look at Gale, her fear of that little piece of writing that could expose the truth, never seems fake or calculated, instead, Leslie’s instincts to survive are at full display.

Also the later moments in her performance show this soft, fearful side. The most unforgettable moment comes when Leslie leaves the court room, smiling with relief until she suddenly sees her nemesis and her face becomes frozen with fear. Bette Davis constantly keeps the suspension of the movie going and is able to create a central character who can carry the movie and bring the audience on her side despite her doings and flaws.

Only her final moments are again too over-dramatic and Bette Davis relies too much on her talent to make over-the-top moments entertaining instead of trying to maintain the subtlety of the character that she had displayed so effectively before.

Still, it’s a wonderful performance from one of the great actresses that gets

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