After Dangerous won her an Oscar she mostly considered a ‘consolation price’ for not having been nominated for her star-marking performance in Of Human Bondage the year before, Bette Davis suffered the same fate Luise Rainer would suffer two years later – finding that an Oscar win was considered a good way by producers to take an acclaimed actress and give her weak material in the hope that critics would not notice the weakness because of the involvement of an Oscar-winning actress. Luise Rainer surrendered to this treatment and left Hollywood for good only a short time after she had become the first two-time winning actress in Oscar history (of course, her personal problems and dislike for the Hollywood way of life did not exactly encourage her to stay either…). Bette Davis also left Hollywood – but only to fight against the studio system that was forcing her to play parts she did not want and were not worth her talents as an actress. Even though she did not win the legal battle that followed her departure to Great Britain, she received better material nonetheless and would start a basically unparalleled streak of financial and critical successes which brought her a record five consecutive Best Actress nominations. At the beginning of this stood Jezebel, the movie that would win Bette Davis her second and final Oscar (it certainly must be wonderful to win two Oscars so early in your career but it can’t be much fun to receive unsuccessful nomination after unsuccessful nomination after that) for her portrayal of the head-strong, popular but also manipulative Southern Belle Julie Marsden.
Jezebel seems to be a movie that is always standing in the shadow of a much bigger, more spectacular and more famous saga of the old South that amazed the world one year later – Gone with the Wind. And yes, the comparisons are easy to make – a headstrong Southern belle who ruins the lives of many because of her selfish character, the love of her life who is married to another woman and the whole structure of the movie which puts the actions and doings of this woman into its center. Even David O. Selznick wrote to Jack Warner how unpleased he was about Jezebel since he saw it as a movie that featured a lot of scenes and characters similar to his upcoming Gone with the Wind. Well, he surely didn’t need to worry – until this day, Gone with the Wind is the classic of classics, a timeless masterpiece and while Jezebel surely has its fans and admirers, it doesn’t even come close to its ‘bigger brother’. And Vivien Leigh has also basically defined the character of the Southern Belle so strongly that hardly any other approach at this character has a chance to shine simply because the comparisons will always be made. But Bette Davis did, after all, attack this kind of role one year before Vivien Leigh did and even though Julie Marsden is no Scarlett O’Hara, Bette Davis was given very strong material and brought the character of Julie to life with a very impressive combination of fierce strength and tender loveliness. So maybe a comparison with Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara would not do Bette Davis’s performance any favors – but performances should only be judged on their own merit and considering that Bette Davis was entering the most celebrated period of her work, it’s no surprise that her performance is strong, memorable and captivating.
Bette Davis was an actress who could easily go overboard. She knew that she was different in her willingness to attack all her parts with uncompromising honesty and dedication – and she was very eager to make sure that everybody else knew so, too. That’s why very often her performances tend to go over-the-top because Bette Davis may have known what she could do but she did not really know how to use her gifts – she did not seem to have the instincts that told her when to hold back or when to decide that ‘less is more’. Instead, she always wanted to display that her characters are larger than life and that she had no problems to show her characters as unpleasant, appalling or plain shocking. This talent and this willingness of Bette Davis was both her greatest advantage and her greatest flaw – because in the hands of a director who was not able to handle Bette Davis and guide her in a way in which she used her instincts and talents without exaggerating them, her performances could easily enter the dangerous territory of incredibility, fulsomeness and overall rather resemble an out-of-control wild animal than a talented actress. Because of this, it was certainly a wonderful coincidence that Jezebel marked the beginning of Bette Davis’s collaboration with director William Wyler. Like few others, William Wyler knew how to handle Bette Davis and how to use all her talents and gifts for the advantage of the movie and the character she was playing. It might have often taken up to 50 take to get a scene right but Bette Davis apparently did not mind because she knew that he was guiding her the right way and therefore also respected his decisions. A less skilled director might easily have let Bette Davis ‘do her thing’ and considering the emotional structure of Julie Marsden, this might have led to an over-the-top and uncomfortable portrayal but the combination of Wyler and Davis turned out to be a wonderful success that they would repeat later with The Letter and The Little Foxes.
Jezebel is certainly a star-vehicle – Fay Bainter won a well-deserved Oscar for her supporting role as Julie’s worrying aunt but the whole movie is completely focused on its leading lady, highlighting her performance and her eyes at every possible moment and using the supporting cast as one huge vessel that only exists to feed her lines and let her character go through various different scenes of emotional intensity. But Bette Davis was indeed an actress who could carry such tasks – because in 1938 she already completed trusted her own talents and the strength of her own work. She knew what she could do and William Wyler helped her to do what would work. So many scenes are displayed with an intriguing subtlety by Bette Davis that works much better than any grand emotions would ever have – her reaction to Pres’s introduction of his wife which she only registers with a slightly surprised ‘Your wife?’ while everything is happening behind her eyes or her way of manipulating Pres to take her to the ball in her red dress by questioning his ability to defend her honor are moments that turn Julie into a very engaging character who is able to fascinate the audience despite her questionable actions. Bette Davis constructs Julie as a woman who is too confident of herself and constantly likes to tease those around her, especially Pres. She uses every chance to question his love or find new ways to test his devotion as if she is trying to make sure that she is always ahead of him, unwilling to become a ‘little wife’. Julie is a woman who is unable to control herself – she often reacts out of spite, out of anger or out of frustration. In this way, Jezebel often treats the central character in a rather disappointing way – everything about Jezebel seems to indicate that Julie is to blame for all that is happening and that she deserves every bit of misery in her life. But Bette Davis succeeds in showing Julie’s inner depth and how she is unable to stop herself, overestimating her own power and influence and that way keeps the character’s dignity and fascination alive. Bette Davis clearly has her fun with this role – maybe because Julie, too, likes to do what she feels is right and likes to test the limits of her own abilities. When she arrives late for her own party and then enters the room in her riding dress, it's a perfect symbiosis of character and actress loving what they do at this moment.
Bette Davis knows how to guide Julie through her many personal ups and downs. The look on her face when she enters the ball room and slowly changes from spiteful pride to real fear is done beautifully and her close-ups also turn this whole sequence into the movie’s most memorable moment. Her dance with Pres is basically the end of her life as it used to be – she gambled and she lost. She lost the respect of the town, her own power, her self-confidence and the love of her fiancée. The movie again may take too much pleasure in humiliating Julie at this moment but Bette Davis knows how to play the scene without letting Julie become a defeated victim of her own doings. And in the following scene she shows how Julie is again unwilling to bend her own character to prevent the inevitable break-up with Pres. Bette Davis especially knows how to combine the fake pride of Julie with her hurt feelings and desperation and that way makes the later scenes when she kneels in front of Pres and asks him to forgive her in an attempt to win him back both chilling and believable – Bette Davis has so far shown a lot of strength in Julie but also weakness and the recognition of her own flaws. But the vulnerability of Julie is never visible for a long time as the arrival of Pres with his new wife again turn her into the old, manipulating and short-tempered woman that has already ruined her own life once before. Bette Davis biggest accomplishment in the second half of Jezebel is that she never makes it unbelievable that Julie does indeed love Pres – the scene in the garden could easy have seemed like an attempt by a spoiled child to get a precious toy only because another child is playing with it. But Bette Davis always shows that, behind her strong pride and anger, Julie does act out of love and the hopelessness of her own situation. Moments like her singing with the slaves or her attempt to prevent a duel between two men only emphasize the impression that Julie is constantly acting both out of honesty and resentfulness.
The ‘Southern Belle’ is certainly a great character for every actress. It allows her to be lovely and dangerous, honest and pretending, charming and repellent, fascinating and disappointing. And to make all this work, the actress needs to display a huge amount of personal strength and personality because she needs to make it understandable why this woman always gets away with her doings, why she always becomes the center of attention and why she can basically manipulate everyone the way she wants without hardly any consequences. Bette Davis certainly had this overpowering screen presence and she used it very wisely for the part of Julie – but sometimes she did not fully grasp the complexities and demands of the role. This means that she knew how to project the both manipulating and lovely woman and the structure of Jezebel turns Julie into an ‘outsider’ rather often as most people mostly see through her intentions but Bette Davis sometimes did not fully give reason to the still very important popularity of Julie Marsden. Even in her most relaxed and charming moments, Bette Davis’s Julie appears to be mostly acting, even looking down on those around her – while this is certainly true to her character, a bit more convincing joviality at this moment would have been needed. It seems that another comparison with Vivien Leigh is necessary – she perfectly understood how to create Scarlett O’Hara as a woman who is clearly playing with everyone around her but possessed all the necessary character traits to get away with it. Bette Davis’s own powerful screen presence sometimes seemed to get in the way of the delicacy of Julie Marsden.
But in the case of Bette Davis in Jezebel, these are complaints on a high level. Her overall take on this character is spellbinding, entertaining and unforgettable. Bette Davis’s mysterious screen personality may have prevented her from creating a complete Southern Belle but it turned other moments, even simple ones like walking into a bank, into movie magic. And because of her ability to show various different aspects in Julie’s character while also displaying an honest core, she was also able to make the final moments of Jezebel believable without turning them into hollow pathos. Her overall performance does not quite make the cut to a 4,5 but she gets as close to it as possible. So, her beautiful and enchanting performance receives a very strong