Dec 13, 2013

Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage

as MILDRED ROGERS
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Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage is a performance that took the cinematic world by storm in 1934. This is a performance that the folks at Life Magazine cited as "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress." This is a performance that so impressed the people of Hollywood that when Davis was unexpectedly denied a Best Actress nomination, there was such a backlash that the Academy was forced to allow write-in votes just so she could be in contention. I wanted to give Davis the typical nominee treatment despite her work not being an official Oscar-nominated performance firstly because she ending up getting enough write-in votes that year to place third, bumping out actual nominee Grace Moore into fourth. But above all, I wanted to honor this performance in appreciation of the legendary Miss Davis--a lady who wanted nothing more at the time than to nab roles in which she could sink her teeth into, to showcase the range and talent she knew she had--the very range and talent that Warner Bros. was stifling. This was the performance that got Oscar to notice her, whether he wanted to or not, and she would continue to get him to notice her for upwards of the next quarter century.

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I may be stating the obvious when I say that there is something incredibly hypnotic about Bette Davis' God-given set of eyes (and I'm haunted by them every time I think about this film). I'm not the first to feel this way, and I won't be the last--so resonant were these eyes that they drove someone to write a song about them in the early eighties! Something tells me Davis would have been an excellent silent film star, as her eyes are tailor-made for silent films, almost exploding out of the frame in each of Davis' close-ups (to which she has many). In fact, there are times when I feel her performance would have been better had it been silent, because her cockney accent was not only distracting but rather annoying at times (though I admit I know nothing about cockney accents). Like, really annoying. Such an anomaly it was to witness such vivid emotion expressed through her face yet jarring cacophony coming out her mouth. But let's not focus on her horrid accent, let's talk more about those eyes! As Leslie Howard fawns over her at dinner, we see the camera close in on Bette as she sips her champagne and we're witness to the dark rings beneath her eyes and the arch of her brow--so penetrating and just a touch sinister. Bette's line reading of "he won't give me anything," in reference to the man who has impregnated and abandoned her, is complemented with an expression laced with so much shameful and bitter sorrow that makes you really feel for this monstrous woman.

 photo ScreenShot2013-11-27at33905AM.jpgMildred is at the core a manipulative and venomous individual. What I find really amazing about Bette's work is that she's able to offer little glimpses into other sides of Mildred despite the woman being unbearably cruel at times. We don't know everything that Mildred's seen or been through, but these glimpses turn what could have been a one-note villainess into a flawed and human individual. When she returns to Philip the second time and senses that he no longer loves her, you can see her manipulation at work as she shoots him the most angelic, loving, and slightly seductive gaze--she's a completely different person! Then, once Philip utters, "you disgust me," within a second these soft eyes flare up into a look of murderous rage. This is a delicious character to watch--so captivating in her wretchedness. Near the end of the film Mildred pops up yet again, looking deteriorated as hell, eyes heavy with hope and wounded regret--one of her last lines is "there's no one I can go to, you're the only one that ever treated me like I was human," which is a peculiar and reverberating statement all at once. What has this woman been through in her early life to have prompted her to push away so viciously the only person to have treated her kindly? Does she really mean it this time when she tells him not to leave her, or is this further manipulation? We will never know, but I couldn't help but think of that line in the last shot of Bette--that of her lying on the ground, without an ounce of spirit in her body, about to be carried away like an animal. I'm not sure that in 1934, Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage truly was the best performance by a U.S. actress...but it's surely one of the bravest I've seen in this era. This very bravery, as well as Davis' fire and tenacity in the film, marked her true arrival in Hollywood, and was just a teaser of what was to come.

6 comments:

  1. Great read! I must say I do not care very much for her in this one - she's just too much for me, she really grew as an actress a couple of years later when she learned to controll her tendency for overacting. But the performance is nonetheless a milestone.

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    1. She definitely a bit much at times, but nonetheless I couldn't keep my eyes off her. Such a screen presence!

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  2. Not my fav performance of hers, but it's a good one.
    Yet, I'm never sure how to look at the nomination, this whole official-nonofficial very confusing.

    I'd probably also discuss/rank it if I'd end up with 1934.

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    1. I think you should include her! They were all such messes back in the day. But she still got votes, and votes lead to victories...A Midsummer Night's Dream won Best Cinematography without having been officially a nominee. So what if Davis had won? I'm sure she placed just as high if not higher than some of her other eventual nominations. Anyway, that's just my opinion

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    2. My problem's just that the Academy doesn't officially embrace it. They're stubborn. They should just make it "official". :)

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  3. Unfortunately, I find this Davis performance all too typical of her acting or, I should say, ACTING. It may have gotten her notice but I don't think it stands up today. Strident and overbearing without enough gradations in pitch, she enters her scenes set in her approach without ever giving to/taking from her scene partners. It's as if she's acting in a void populated only by her (a problem which mars much of her work). I find Davis an acquired taste that I haven't much taste for acquiring. Still, I think she's terrific in 'Foxes' and 'Baby Jane' and just a tad less so in 'The Letter'. Here, she's just too much muchness for me to take.

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