August 23, 2014

Bette Davis, Dark Victory

as JUDITH TRAHERNE
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Inside Oscar states that "when Dark Victory opened early in the year, most of Hollywood conceded that the Best Actress Oscar was now spoken for..." But Judith Traherne is a remarkably juicy role, the kind that could garner notices when played by much lesser actresses--the drama associated with finding out that you've got an incurable brain tumor pretty much ensures that. The New York Times in 1939 concurred, saying that "admittedly it is a great role--rangy, full-bodied, designed for a virtuosa, almost sure to invite the faint damning of "tour de force"..." before mentioning that "that must not detract from the eloquence, the tenderness, the heartbreaking sincerity with which [Bette Davis] has played it. We do not belittle an actress to remark upon her great opportunity; what matters is that she has made the utmost of it." I've read a lot of praise for Bette here, so much so that it made me feel very strange when I ended up not liking it as much as I felt I ought to have.

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This is by no means going to be a harsh critique of Davis' work. I quite liked her, but I'm just not sure I understand what all the fuss is about. Actors back then found a niche and stuck with it--Davis' niche was being the headstrong/plucky/formidable woman who held her own up against whatever drama that came her way. And for the most part Davis is just being another variation of Bette Davis here, if not a bit more gentler and vulnerable version of Bette Davis as compared to her turns in Of Human Bondage, Dangerous, and Jezebel. There's much of the film where she's not necessarily doing anything substantial in particular--that is to say she's merely strutting around, happily chatting up a storm with Geraldine Fitzgerald or Ronald Reagan or George Brent here, perhaps having a more stern conversation with Humphrey Bogart there--and it doesn't feel as though she's really doing anything that we haven't yet seen before. Because of that I wasn't very taken by her watching Dark Victory the first time through. A second go-around had me noticing the more delicate sides to Judith, and she does a very fine job of peeling layers off of the hardened heroine we're so used to seeing to reveal a genuinely frightened individual. The scenes when she is drunk and listening to "Oh Give Me Time for Tenderness", when she subtly mentions thoughts of suicide to Ann, or when she finally confesses to Dr. Steele that she is scared are sweetly done. Cap that off with her subtle display of emotion in her final scene (which admittedly has Davis doing a lot more POSING! to emphasize drama than I'd have liked to see) and what we've got is a nice showcase of a more tender side to Davis that I had yet to see thus far. But proving that one has the potential to be soft when one is typically a bad-ass doesn't necessarily translate to better marks for me. It's fine work but I don't feel that it's as full-bodied an overhaul as say, Davis' Julie Marsden, and the actual execution didn't seem as great to me as the way the role was designed to be. In fact, I might go as far as say that it's a bit overrated. I was close to knocking off a statue but Davis just holds on to a four mainly because I was more impressed after a second viewing and can't quite equate her work to other threes I've given.

Downgraded as of 2/27/15. I gradually came to be less and less impressed with this performance as time has gone by.

7 comments:

  1. She's good, but it is supposed to be a moving performance, and it failed with me... Probably because I hated the movie.

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    1. Yeah, the performance didn't really move me either. The film itself was a bit of a mess.

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  2. Not my fav of hers.
    I didn't like the film either.

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    1. I'm a little torn by her. She turns in consistent work but I tend to just see Bette Davis when I watch her. I might be more impressed with her if this were say, the very first Bette Davis performance I reviewed.

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  3. I agree with a lot of what you said in this review in regards to Bette Davis in general. I often find her performances to be a bit too homogeneous when compared to one another (always that Bette Davis type), sometimes with too little variation. Still, it's a very entertaining type so even if she's not breaking new ground she is almost always a delight to watch.

    Still, this is a performance and film I remember absolutely loving. I probably need a rewatch, but I still remember her as being a little more delicate and softer than usual. Perhaps since this was an earlier Bette perf for me, I remember it more fondly but it's now definitely high on my revisit list :)

    Still, I'm pleased with four stars, which is still pretty good :)

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  4. I was to glad to have seen this the first time when I was only 19, not jaded and suggestible still, and my appreciation for it locked in for keeps. Of course now I can understand how emotionally manipulative it is, and now my favorite of Bette's four successful 1939 pictures leans more to Elizabeth and Essex. Victory and Wuthering Heights opened exactly one day after the other, giving Geraldine Fitzgerald one of the best running starts an actress could ask.

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  5. Ho hum! ... the idea that Bette Davis should have won the Oscar over Vivien Leigh in GWTW (a comment which was also attributed to Davis later in her career) is absurd. The film is maudlin melodrama and she plays it with some of the caricatured mannerisms drag queen aficionados have come to love. 'The Letter', 'The Little Foxes', 'Now, Voyager', 'Baby Jane' ... even 'The Petrified Forest' have work vastly superior to her performance here. It was Hollywood trailing on the performances of previous winners, which continues to this day.

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