December 8, 2014

Bette Davis, The Little Foxes

as REGINA GIDDENS
 photo ScreenShot2014-12-08at50854PM.jpg

By now, after having seen her do cantankerous in Of Human Bondage, reckless in Dangerous, manipulative in Jezebel, and murderous in The Letter, watching Bette Davis play "bad" doesn't really phase me anymore. But here we are: another year, another Oscar nomination, and another fierce heroine who can work men with aplomb. I came into The Little Foxes rather fatigued by Davis, though knowing very well that her performance is highly regarded by the internet as well as other Oscar bloggers. So I watched the film, carefully absorbing what I was seeing, and then I had to watch it again, to make proper sense of how I felt about what I was seeing.

 photo ScreenShot2014-12-06at13337AM1.jpg photo ScreenShot2014-12-06at122651AM.jpgDavis has proven herself to be an expert at taking on characters that very much align to her strengths, but what I admire is how she always manages to find room to give these fairly similar characters a little bit of variation amongst each other. Her Regina stands out from all her other vixens mostly because of Davis' ice cold approach to the character. Opting against giving Regina any faint hints of humanity à la Tallulah Bankhead's approach to the character on stage, what results is a biting, intelligently evil creation who is as cold as she is gripping. Decked in makeup that makes her look part Queen Elizabeth I and part Kabuki theatre performer, some of Davis' closeups in this film make her look aged, otherworldly, and menacing. What I found so interesting are the moments in which Regina is being held back from what she wants by men; you see her collecting her thoughts and strategizing her next move behind that scathing mug, and she's so good at internalizing this woman's lifetime of bitterness within a man's world. The way she asks Horace, "...is this to my benefit?" is so incredibly cold and perfectly sums up her raging avarice. The way she delivers many of her lines, from her famous "I hope you die. I hope you die soon" to her "I couldn't bare to have you touch me...that was when I began to despise you" is tinged with exquisite evil. But for some reason, I was just not knocked out by this performance. It's most certainly irresistible and delicious in its bitchiness, but a part of me wishes Davis did shade Regina with a little bit of vulnerability, to make the character something more than just cold and heartless. But as fascinating as it is watching cold and heartless Davis on display, I suppose my lack of 100% enchantment by this performance is due to the fact that I get the feeling she's not really being challenged by what she's doing, that she could do this type of performance in her sleep. I guess I just wanted more from her, much more, something completely different from anything I've already seen from her. Not enough juice for a five, but regardless, a strong



11 comments:

  1. It seems you're a bit tired of Bette Davis bitchness, so probably you'll love Now, Voyager!.

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    1. I would much prefer Bette Davis acting like a bitch than more of Greer Garson playing with children, but my exhaustion is a mix between the Academy's stupid habit of nominating the same people over and over again during this era for playing the same exact types of roles, PLUS my trying to find the motivation to write up blog posts on the same performances over and over again.

      I'm also starting to think that Bette Davis just isn't my kind of actress, seeing as I've been mostly appreciative but have not yet been wowed by her.

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  2. Director William Wyler was the love of Davis's life. This was the third of three films she made with him, and the one that ended the affair. Theresa Wright has confirmed that the on-set battles were so frequent and bellicose, that whenever the swords crossed between Bette and Willie, everyone else backed as far away from the fire as possible.

    Davis won the makeup battle. She insisted that as the mother of a near-adult daughter, she had to look well beyond the mere 33 she was at the time of filming. She lost the mansion battle; she thought the Giddens home should look much more run down, thus adding an element of panic to further explain the blanket greed.

    In the original play, the character of David Hewitt did not exist and on request, playwright Lillian Hellman herself created him for the screenplay. Many critics, and Davis herself, did not like this, but those in charge thought the movie needed the leavening of a muscular voice of hope for the South, one not hampered by naiveté (Xan), alcoholism (Birdie), illness (Horace) or racial strictures (Addie). In the hands of Richard Carlson, David was no one's fool, and his eyes were open.

    The staircase of the house should almost have had billing, it becomes integral to so many great moments: "It's a great day when you and Ben cross swords, I've been waiting for it for years. So they've found they don't need you, so you'll not have your millions after all..." "Why Mama, are you afraid...?" ""Did he die? My Ben, you're always remembering about people dying. It's so bad for your health..." ...not to mention Regina staying motionless while Horace tries to climb that same staircase.

    As you can surmise, I treasure this fine movie, and four out of five for Davis is quite agreeable with me. :)

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    1. I think just about everyone loves Davis here except me! Definitely makes me feel like an outsider, but what can you do. I even watched it a second time to make sure I wasn't crazy for not being crazy about the performance! But glad you're happy with the rating!

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  3. Clearly, I think there's enough juice for a 5, and that she does show vulnerability in more than 1 scene (with eyes, not words, indeed). I think there's great depth to this character and some of Bette's most mature acting (and I don't mean the age).

    Compared to the mess of Dark Victory where it's all big eyes and overacting, here she is subtle and puts those typical Bette mannerisms aside. I love it.

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  4. And what did you think of the film? I mean, I know it's better than How Green :D, but overall?

    I also love Teresa Wright in this, it's an excellent performance for that type of character imo. Better than in Mrs. Miniver, for sure.

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    1. I definitely contemplated for a hot second about giving Bette a 5, but then I realized I'd be completely lying to myself if I did so, because it's really truly a big, fat, firm 4 for me (I've given just about all of Bette's perfs 4's, but this one is a deep 4 alongside Jezebel, whereas The Letter/Dark Victory is more of a borderline 4, where I liked it enough where it felt wrong to give a 3). I think if there were more of Bette to watch here, I might have swung towards a 5.

      As for the film...MUCH more agreeable than How Green was My Valley :) I think I might have actually enjoyed Jezebel and The Letter more as films though. Foxes often times feels too stagey (not that that is a bad thing per se, but when evaluating films I tend to like the ones that are more cinematic)

      I thought Teresa Wright was great as well, but I LOVED Patricia Collinge! She was absolutely heartbreaking ;(

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    2. I too favoured Patricia when I first saw it years ago, but seeing it again for the blog I noticed how good Teresa was, she's the heart of the film and the co-lead and has great chemistry with Bette.

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  5. Although i agree with your review it is a role we have seen her doing before, and i also think that it was not MINDBLOWING, at all and is even not really convincing at times(it is a thing since we are talking about Bette Davis, right?). But on the other hand there are lot of really great surprising moments she brought to the role, and i must say that the scene where she sits and watches her husband while he is dying is not only one of finest moments of her career but one of the most chilling and unforgettable acting moments on film. If only the rest of the performance had a bit more moments like that, this could have been an outstanding work. Still very good performance 4.5/5

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  6. This is actually my personal favorite Davis performance. I don't think of her as just playing another bitch here. That misinterprets the character and Davis' work. Her Regina is ruthless, determined, callous and cruel while at the same time being her own worst enemy. She's also smart, perceptive and knows how to get what she thinks she wants. Davis actually underplays many of Regina's reactions and there is none of the strident shouting typical of so many of her performances. It's a smart interpretation that simultaneously shows Regina's strengths and her obliviousness to her obvious shortcomings. Davis handles Hellman's speeches exceptionally well and has great chemistry with Collinge and Wright (their last stand-off is magnificently done).

    For me, I'd like to see more of this Davis. The mannerisms drag queens have sported for decades are nowhere to be seen here; just Davis the consummate actress at the top of her game. This is the pure, quintessential character work Davis was capable of, subsuming her persona to the role and succeeding wonderfully in etching a memorable performance. A '5' for me.

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    1. As you've no doubt already read, click5, I fully agree with you. Davis wouldn't hesitate to credit her work here - that we both love so well - to Wyler. He was one of very directors who could convince her at the right moments that less was more, and to pull in her horns. As satisfying as she found her Oscar for Julie Marsden, she was equally disappointed Wyler didn't win as well.

      Despite their personal relationship reaching the boiling point on the set of Foxes, Bette never withheld her professional regard for Wyler. Later in life, and on more than one occasion, Davis would affirm that if Willie Wyler told her to jump into the Hudson River, she'd do it.

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