January 20, 2014

Bette Davis, Dangerous

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actress

After Bette Davis' controversial snub in 1934, after the Academy's conceding decision to allow write-in votes practically on her behalf, and after her subsequent loss to Claudette Colbert, it was only natural that Davis would land herself an Oscar when the next opportunity presented itself. Chances are that it didn't matter if she put out the best performance ever recorded on screen or if she put out a Coquette/Black Fury-caliber disaster; they had done her wrong and it was now time to make things right. Thus, with her victory, Davis became the very first example of an actor who was handed the prize to make up for a prior loss, and she was quite possibly the first actor to bear "overdue" voter mentality, that tiresome term that Oscar enthusiasts like you and myself are all too familiar with. And as we know, more often than not in these situations, make-up Oscars tend to be given to performances that leave a lot to be desired. This particular performance is just that.

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A sensational title like Dangerous naturally conjures up a certain level of expectation. I had it in my mind that Joyce Heath would be treacherous or unpredictable. I mean, it says in the trailer that "knowing her was like shaking hands with the devil!" for christ's sake! So imagine my surprise then when the film and the character of Joyce ended up being incredibly banal and uninspired. Much of what we know about Joyce is more heard and less seen--she is talked about by many men early on as being an amazing actress, but we don't ever get to see her act all that much. She is supposed to be a jinx who has caused several accidents in her productions but we're never witness to any of it. So right off the bat there was a general feeling that Joyce Heath is more of an outline than a character with depth and breadth. Had I not watched Dangerous after Of Human Bondage, I might have liked it more. It's painstakingly clear that Dangerous is a watered-down rip-off of Of Human Bondage. (Watch her pity monologue in this film and her wipe my mouth monologue in Of Human Bondage--almost an exact replication with the same inflections in the way Davis speaks, the the former monologue reads more as a low-grade replication.) Joyce Heath is a character that is basically a repackaged hybrid of Mildred Rogers and Eva Lovelace, a cheap copy if you will, made in the hopes of being Davis' key to gold, but I never felt much passion or drive coming from Davis as Joyce in the same way as I did Davis as Mildred or Hepburn as Eva.

 photo photo2.jpgIt turns out, Davis didn't want to make Dangerous initially, as she felt that there wasn't much to work with, but she was eventually convinced otherwise by her studio. She would later write, "I read the script carefully and sighed. It was maudlin and mawkish with a pretense at quality which in scripts as in home furnishings, is often worse than junk." The lack of enthusiasm shows; she is completely missing the fire (and that hunger to prove herself) that was so evident in Of Human Bondage, and which made her Mildred so electrifying to watch. I was bored by Bette here, which is something I can't say I've ever been made to feel by her before. She's just plain dull, which, when you're playing an actress who's supposed to be destructive to the lives of other men, should come with at least a little bit of magnetism--but I'm sorry to say I never saw any. It's a combination of a terribly written screenplay and an unenthused lead actress. For instance, whenever her character is summoned to act, Davis lazily reads some lines and the camera cuts to an awestruck Franchot Tone. But Katharine Hepburn's impassioned Shakespeare reenactment this was not. I was bored because Davis was bored. Another issue to be had was the fact that Davis hardly convinces as Joyce. She's not a very convincing drunk. She's a little too young and pretty and well-lit to be believable as a troubled, alcoholic, has-been actress. She doesn't visually look very troubled. She lacks any sort of edge or danger or recklessness on her face. Even her acting is at times very poor--the scene in which she feigns hysterical laughter in front of Franchot Tone before transitioning to sobs after he leaves the room was forced to hell and really quite showboaty and awful. Davis is said to have always thought of her first Oscar as a consolation prize--and truth is, this is ultimately just a standard and forgettable performance in a substandard picture, forever to be remembered as a win not given out of merit but out of sympathy.


  1. This one's off written off as a consolation prize with little actual discussion of the actual perf, so I'm glad to see some further thoughts on it. :)

    Bette always manage to bring at least something to the table, so I'm looking forward to watching this one

    1. Thank you Derek :)

      It's definitely got that Bette Davis spirit to it! I've just...seen better from her and expected more I suppose.

  2. Davis herself had little regard for the film, and claimed she "worked like 10 men" to try make something worthwhile out its substandard script. She was greatly frustrated about this period at Warners, reduced to paying dues again, when she and so many thought she'd thoroughly proved her ability with Bondage.

    She also hated Beyond The Forest, and called 1964's Where Love Has Gone "one of the stinking pieces of crap" she only did for the money. "Where Has Love Gone paid for my daughter's wedding."

  3. This performance is a bit more fun (in a campy sort of way) than I expected. Davis' youthful vigor still accounts for much of her effectiveness and in an exceedingly weak year I can see why the Academy went for her. Despite her lauding of Hepburn, Kate was still in that 'all-to-brittle' phase of her thesping to warrant recognition. Both actresses, however, were improving by this point in their careers.