My current Top 5

My current Top 5

10/24/2011

Best Actress 1944: Bette Davis in "Mr. Skeffington"

In 1943, Bette Davis’s husband collapsed while he walked down a street and died a few days later. It was revealed that his death was caused by a skull fracture and Hollywood’s biggest star had to testify before an inquest about her knowledge of an incident that might have caused his injury. Various sources report that Bette Davis did not know of any incident while others mention that she stated that her husband fell down a stair some time ago. A definite answer was never found and an incidental death was declared. Bette Davis apparently wanted some time off after this personal tragedy but was convinced by Jack Warner to start on her next film, Mr. Skeffington. Filming was unsurprisingly not easy for her – or for anyone else. The famous temperament of Bette Davis was apparently on full mood during this production and her outbursts, demands and complaints caused a lot of tension on the set. Such emotional tension might often lead to the creation of a brilliant performance but critics were not fully convinced this time – the Academy might have given her another nod for her work but Mr. Skeffington marked the end of her era as Hollywood’s most celebrated and powerful actress. She did not receive another nomination during this decade and slowly lost more and more of her fame and appeal until All about Eve brought her back into the spotlight.

All about Eve is actually a good place to start this review. You might wonder why since this movie was shot 6 years after Mr. Skeffington. But All about Eve is such a legendary and well-known movie which almost everybody has seen in their lifetime while Mr. Skeffington is a rather forgotten piece of work. And so, for all those who have not seen Mr. Skeffington and want to know more about Bette Davis’s performance in it, let me paint you a picture with the help of Margo Channing. There is a very famous scene in All about Eve in which Margo Channing finds out that Eve Harrington had been made her understudy without her knowledge. Margo storms into the theatre – but pretends not to know anything about Eve nor about the fact that she arrived much too late. But Margo Channing, even though a great actress, cannot fool anyone – her chirpy voice, her exaggerated smile, her big eyes all make clear that this woman is only pretending at this moment when she says things like ‘What’s all over?’ or ‘Eve? My understudy? I had no idea.’ Well, imagine Bette Davis using this acting style for 145 minutes – and you have her performance in Mr. Skeffington.

Pauline Kael famously wrote about Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man that he was ‘humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes.’ This review also perfectly sums up Bette Davis’s performance in Mr. Skeffington – with one big difference. In her case, she is humping the same wrong note on the piano. In my review of Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie I wrote that, in order to create a very eccentric, unusual and unconventional character an actress constantly has to walk a thin line between authentic and implausible, between larger-than-life and exaggerated, between domineering and oppressive. And while Maggie Smith did all this wonderfully right, Bette Davis did all this shockingly wrong. It’s easy to see what she was trying to archive – her Fanny is an empty-headed socialite, a woman who has no thought in her head apart from worrying about her looks and her beauty but Bette Davis so completely overdid her interpretation that she is not even able to see the line separating character and caricature anymore. Of course, an ignorant and gold-digging socialite could certainly be played in many different ways but Bette Davis for some reason decided to show Fanny as a collection of wide eyes and a high-pitched voice that delivers every line with an exaggerated naivety and that way made herself completely unable to create this character as the woman that is described, presented and supposed to carry this story. ‘She always look so…extreme’ – words from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but also very fitting for Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington. But in the case of Maggie Smith they were used to describe a woman who does not fit into her conservative environment and were spoken by another movie character. In the case of Bette Davis they are spoken by me and they are not used to describe a character not fitting in but an actress not fitting in. I know that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder but it’s simply shocking how Bette Davis could look so appalling only two years after she had done Now, Voyager and showed the world for always what a unique beauty she truly was. In Mr. Skeffington, her whole look is so unexplainably off-putting, a combination of Bette Davis’s own way of presenting her character and a make-up team that must have either been blind or on a personal vendetta against Bette Davis. In Now, Voyager, I could have accepted other characters calling her the prettiest girl in town, in Mr. Skeffington these words are only the top of a mountain full of problems. Considering that Bette Davis looks like Baby Jane in some early parts of the movie it simply cannot be taken seriously when other women want to look like her and wonder how she keeps so beautiful. As I said, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and I don’t blame Bette Davis for her looks in this movie since she looked so incredibly beautiful two years earlier but I blame her for exaggerating her acting so much that even her looks suffered from it since her facial work in Mr. Skeffington is very often almost grotesque – again, it’s commendable that she did not present Fanny as the typical Southern-belle-character and was not afraid to show her emptiness and shallowness without even trying to make her appealing in any way but by showing the true nature of Fanny to the audience she forgot to show a more pleasing, charming and winning side in the context of Mr. Skeffington. A high-pitched voice and big eyes may project all the internal flaws of Fanny but they don’t help to turn her into the most sought-after girl in town.

Bette Davis obviously wanted to show the superficiality of Fanny and to her defense, the character as written does exist of nothing else than superficiality. When her brother tells her that he is going to Europe, her answer is only a wondering ‘But isn’t there a war going on there?’. It is an incredibly challenging task for an actress to play such an empty-minded character in a way that is captivating the audience and it becomes even more challenging when the character is such a collection of fussy mannerisms and theatrical eccentricities – Bette Davis clearly saw the tasks she was given with this role but her way of bringing this character to live is often a failure and sometimes even unbearable. I always come back to Maggie Smith’s Jean Brodie because she’s such a perfect example of how to do right what Bette Davis did wrong – Maggie Smith knew where to stop, she know how to project that exaggerated acting style for an entire movie without ever losing the reality of her character. Bette Davis on the other hand lost the battle almost right from the start – her way of flirting with all the men at a party or later acting all coquettish with Mr. Skeffington to save the honor of her brother rather resembles a 40-year old Julie Marsden acting like a 12-year old on drugs. In her attempt to turn Fanny into a charming and lovely socialite while also showing her many flaws Bette Davis crafted a most unfortunate creation, one rid of any appeal or logic and that way unable to carry such a long and character-driven story. The movie makes you wonder if Bette Davis had become a parody of herself by 1944 – the big eyes, the eccentric behavior or her high-pitched voice all seem to indicate that she is running on auto-pilot, trusting on the effect of her performance and keeping the same tone in her voice, the same look in her eyes and the same delivery of her lines for the entire movie without any shades or nuances.

Bette Davis’s flat interpretation of this woman almost always comes at the expense of any true drama or character development. This superficial performance may seem very appropriate for such a superficial character – but Bette Davis’s unappealing performance does not consist of any noteworthy emotional honesty or depth which, even a character like this, needs to project in order to become believable. Bette Davis’s performance remains artificial even when it is supposed to be real. The biggest compliment she can receive is that she is at least consistent in her work because this makes it clear that Bette Davis certainly had a very clear idea of who Fanny was and how she wanted to present her – but as mentioned in the beginning, the challenge of the part lies in the ability to make Fanny both real and artificial and Bette Davis did not find this balance in her performance. She can be applauded for her decision to not go the easy route with Fanny but she cannot be applauded for the way she tried to realize this difficult route.

The part of Fanny is certainly an interesting one and offers an actress a lot of challenges – she goes from a beautiful socialite to an ugly, disease-ridden lonely woman who recognizes the truly important things in life while going along. And a role like this usually fits Bette Davis like a glove and there are some instances when she actually does find a human being underneath her own performance – but all these moments happen so rarely and are simply overshadowed by the dominant grotesque nature of her work which makes Geraldine Page appear tic-less. The frustrating truth of Bette Davis’s performance is the fact that her instincts are so often right – she shows the ugly sides of a supposedly beautiful woman until she shows the beautiful sides of a supposedly ugly woman. Her performance also becomes much more mannered as the movie goes along and again it makes sense that Fanny tries to maintain her youth with a coquettish behavior but all of Bette Davis’s instincts are never turned into a performance that bring them to life. It can be said that everything Bette Davis did was part of her character but, as mentioned before, she crossed the thin line between ‘success’ and ‘failure’ far too often.

I thought for a long time about the possible rating for this performance. Performances that receive a three are called ‘unsatisfying’ while performances with a 2,5 are called ‘disappointing’. And while I admire Bette Davis for doing something different with this role, all the aspects mentioned in this review are certainly a reason to call this performance a big disappointment. So, the grade for Bette Davis’s work is

6 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

Great! I like to prefer to this as the moment where her impersonators where given the most material.

Fritz said...

Your're completely right!

I thought for a while about putting in a sentence that says that if a drag queen had played the role you wouldn't have noticed the difference...

dinasztie said...

I liked her though she'a certainly the weakest link.

Francesco said...

In fact I remember very well my grand-mother act exactly as Bette Davis's Fanny, with the same ridiculous voice and manierism. It's absolutely ennoying and it's very difficult to understandn how this women could please ... but I'm absolutely sure Davis was NOT a caricature. I think she has a model in her mind and she play the role in this way. Today it's seem incredible, but I'm quite sure about the credibility of this for the Academy in the 40's.

Anonymous said...

What? Wow, I can't believe you disliked her this much, I think this is one of her best performances and I also love the film very much!

Martin Gray said...

Great piece, love your comparisons to Maggie Smirh particularly. I could not take Bette seriously in this one, it's the worst I've seen her since that 'Cockerney' turn in Of Human Bondage.