Jun 24, 2014

Bette Davis, Jezebel

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It seems unfortunately inopportune that Bette Davis won her second and final Oscar for a 1938 film. Because if Of Human Bondage indicated the arrival of a star and Dangerous existed to represent the official crowning of a star, then Jezebel is really just Davis warming up for the superstar phase of her career. There were so many iconic roles and films awaiting Davis in the decades ahead and yet she would never win another statue again. On top of that, any significance made by Jezebel and Julie Marsden would forever be trumped by Gone with the Wind and Scarlett O'Hara the following year.

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That's not to say that I didn't enjoy Jezebel or its star. With Julie Marsden, this is most definitely a new and improved Davis, especially when you compare it to the excitingly garish but somewhat ridiculous Mildred or the somewhat ridiculous and somewhat dull Joyce Heath. One can certainly sense that Davis was happy to sink her teeth into the role of Julie, and I could feel a reinvigorating freshness in Davis here as she internally navigates the character throughout the film. For once Davis isn't applying all of her feelings externally through screams and cries and the breaking of objects; instead she bottles up all of Julie's hurt and pain and wounded pride and bitchiness, giving her a soft speaking voice that administers potently and brings to mind Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly (the quieter ones are the most dangerous ones after all). She's larger than life yet confidently contained--the way she says "Bradford...Amy Bradford...from New York" or "Have the little Yankee join in...we have such charming customs down here" cut with precision, her eyes louder and all the more formidable because of her subtler acting. Even her more emotional moments--the scene when she is freshly dumped by Pres, the subsequent scene of her dealing with life after Pres, and the "Jezebel" scene--are acted with greatly controlled emotion. Whereas Mildred and Joyce often commanded attention because of their explosive emoting, I found myself drawn to Julie more so because she's such an interesting character--a wolf in sheep's clothing if you will--ugly in her cunning and pigheadedness yet masked under a pretty and genteel veil of irresistibly girlish Southern Antebellum charm. It's all executed wonderfully by Davis, a solid performance if ever there was one, but as much as I enjoyed her I can't say that I felt I was watching something extraordinarily magnificent. The film is perfectly watchable and so is she, but the performance as a whole is sort of like...foreplay, for lack of a better word. You get the feeling that this newfound understatedness is the mark of a new direction and a new capacity for greater things, but for the most part Davis is bubbling right under phenomenal the whole time, though not quite there yet to warrant the superlative. She's pretty good, certainly not a terrible victory in the most technical sense because at the end of the day, "pretty good" is typical of a lot of Oscar wins (and sometimes "pretty good" is much better than a lot of Oscar wins), and had a different actress played Julie it may have been a more satisfying victory. But this is Davis we're talking about, and when we're discussing legendary actresses of her caliber, "pretty good" is still a tiny bit underwhelming. Still, Julie Marsden is a fascinating creation and nothing short of compelling, even if Davis' win here seems like premature ejaculate on AMPAS' part.


  1. JEZEBEL!!!!!!

    I'm shouting it for no particular reason. :)
    Funny story: I actually saw this on TV for the first time, when I was 10 yo or so (!!!) and it was coloured. :)) Bette had a bright red-orange hair. It made an impact. I thought it was the greatest film ever. That's when I fell in love with Bette. Margo Channing arrived a bit later.

    Got to see it in B&W at one point (more than 10 years ago I think), but it's been a while, so I don't remember a lot. But you are right: she's good, but not excellent. Could it be because the role is somewhat too much in her alley? [one must appreciate something like Now Voyager for the stretch].

    Not sure you'll find her performance in Dark Victory much better. But get ready for Letter & Little Foxes! And Now, Voyager, to a certain extent.

    1. lol, I think Bette in Jezebel for you is like Renee in Chicago for me. Saw that one at such a young, impressionable age, back when I didn't understand my fascination with actresses and actressing, and it made an impact on me in the sense that I look back at the performance with nothing but fondness.

      By too much in her alley do you mean that it's doesn't provide much of a challenge? I can't quite put in words why I only found her to be good but not excellent--there's usually an extra OOMPH that is the decider between a 4 or a 5 for me, and this one lacked that.

      And I saw Dark Victory back when I was in high school. It was on TCM and I was watching on-and-off, walking in and out of the room going about other tasks--but I remember really liking what I saw! But I'm definitely excited for Bette's next four noms!

    2. I meant up her alley... Bette playing a more intelligent than expected, witty woman, who dominates (or tries to be in control). Sure, sometimes that it taken to a brilliant level as in Little Foxes, and sometimes she goes outside her comfort zone (Now, Voyager), but I don't remember this as being brilliant, just solid good.

  2. This is one of those ones I saw VERY early in my Oscar watching career and thought was good but hasn't really stuck in my mind. I remember thinking Bette was solid but not great. Everything you wrote here sounds about right. It's certainly not a "big" performance by any means.

    Thoughts on Fay Bainter? I literally don't remember a thing about her.

    1. ...I'm wondering how much of my judgment on Bette's work here is influenced by my thoughts on Vivien Leigh's seminal southern belle. Bette's just sort of big but...not really.

      And on the first watch I didn't care for Bainter at all. I thought it was just a thankless part and the standard moral voice you see in so many of these films. On the second watch though my appreciation for her really grew. Her warmth and southern sophistication is a breath of fresh air, and she does do a great job of supporting. Sort of like Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech--not exactly challenging or amazing, but the heart and tenderness is there and it's purely supporting work. But what constitutes "supporting" and my criteria for judging supporting performances can get so convoluted sometimes, it messes with my head. That's why I keep away from critiquing those :D

  3. More than one book author calls William Wyler the "male Bette Davis," and agree that in him, she had met her match.

    Davis liked to test directors early on to see if they would cave to her bullying, and if they did, she lost respect for them, and as often as not it showed through in less than stellar performances from her. But Wyler could always give as good as he got, and all three times he worked with Davis, Oscar took notice. The most passionate love affair of Davis's life was Wyler. She once said, "If Willie told me to jump into the Hudson, I'd do it."

    She was greatly disappointed he was not recognized for "Jezebel," and entirely credited her own win to him.

  4. This is a wrong-headed performance in so many ways. She's too strident by half in the initial segments and doesn't suggest period at all. She also clips and snaps her lines in that mannered Davis staccato that was to become all too familiar. Worst of all, her 'Julie' interpretation is such a 'Borderline Personality' case from start to finish that her capitulation in the finale is utterly suspect: is she sacrificing her life for Pres or once more trying to own him for eternity? The writing is sub-par but the actress could have contributed so much more and didn't. That she won over Norma Shearer's multi-leveled 'Marie Antoinette' is the ultimate surprise: time has been much kinder to Shearer's heartfelt 'Marie' than to Davis' strident 'Julie'.