February 27, 2015

Bette Davis, Now, Voyager


"Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars." so utters miss Bette Davis in that iconic final line of Now, Voyager. In a way the line brings meaning to my relationship with Davis thus far, this being her seventh performance I've written up in a little over a year. (Bette is leading the pack as the most covered actress on this blog, with good 'ole Kate Hepburn right behind her) It's been strange--I think I always come into a Bette Davis film expecting her to give me the moon, and am subsequently disappointed when she serves me with stars instead. As a result my patience with her has gradually worn thin as of late, and thus I came into Now, Voyager... expecting stars. And of course, Davis served me those stars, but what a great set of stars they were.

I found Davis to be so fascinating in this film, which is ironic because typically I'm at my most cynical and the first to roll my eyes and bitch when it comes to prosthetics and changing one's appearance in a film. But I think she's a sight to see as ugly spinster aunt Charlotte, she's interesting in her ugliness. Of course Davis would campaign as hard as she did to get the role--in spite of how I may actually feel about her acting and how similar it may read across the board, I do applaud her tenacity for picking different interesting parts. She's different from the very Bette Davis persona that she herself built--she's vulnerable and insecure here, and it bleeds through every one of her scenes, even when she's dressed to the nines and damn gorgeous. It's so interesting to see a powerful figure like Davis be so soft, gentle and self-conscious, be so handily pushed around by a wonderfully cutting Gladys Cooper...and what's more--she's convincing while doing so! Her transition to glamazon Charlotte isn't forced either--she gradually maneuvers herself into it, conveying a compelling uneasiness about her that I myself can totally relate with (as I'm sure we all can relate--do you ever feel as though you aren't comfortable in your own skin, even when you've made yourself to look the very best you can?). The very same goes with her battles against her mother--her newfound confidence, modestly applied but shaded with self-doubt. I just found it to be a wonderfully subdued performance (that is...subdued for Bette Davis), and I thought it to be so refreshing, not the same type of schtick (Greer Garson) or the same type of character (Teresa Wright) that we've seen again and again. And while it's not exactly a performance that absolutely wowed the hell out of me, it's definitely up at the top out of the 7 performances of hers that I've reviewed thus far. It's through this performance that I understand the meaning behind "having the stars", and in doing so I really, truly do appreciate it for what it is. And with that it gets a wholehearted


  1. Although it’s impossible now to imagine anyone other than Davis as Charlotte Vale, once upon a time even Now Voyager was just in the idea stage. Producer Hal Wallis initially considered the possibility of Irene Dunne or Norma Shearer.

    His thinking regarding Dunne, I couldn’t guess, but the possibility of Shearer does have logic. The repressed and mother-dominated Charlotte of the early scenes would certainly find knowing camaraderie with the father-tyrannized Elizabeth Barrett. Equally, the post-analysis, liberated Charlotte of the later movie was a sister under the skin to any number of Norma’s self-possessed and adventurous pre-Code heroines.

    We know now that when Davis got wind of Wallis considering borrowing an ‘outsider’ for Charlotte, she demanded the part as Warners’ foremost female profit maker. She got it, and of course she aced it.

    Davis is never better than with a female nemesis cast with an actress Davis actually respects. Gladys Cooper, as did Mary Astor, filled the bill. Like Davis, when a part called for it, Cooper was unafraid to dare an audience to hate her, and as she would a year later in Bernadette, Cooper delivers superbly here. The scenes between Mrs. Henry Wendell Vale and her daughter sizzle with ominous tension and long-held resentment.

    Even the delightful Bonita Granville, playing yet another obnoxious brat gets a break here, being notably redeemed near the end of the movie, and shown an ally to her now well-adjusted and very well-purposed aunt.

    It is little wonder that gay men took so personally to this film, both in its time and ever since. This is the story of a rule-breaking love that both principals willingly sacrifice (or at least, long-delay) for a recognized greater good.

    Well before it gets to that famous line about the moon and the stars, I’m an emotional mess. I can’t last beyond Charlotte’s twice achingly stated “please let me go,” when we know she wants nothing so much as to stay in Jerry’s arms. Not to mention the words that follow: “Jerry, Dr. Jacquith knows about us. He allowed this visit as a test. If I can’t stand such test, I’ll lose Tina, and we’ll lose each other. Jerry, please help me…”

    (Honorable Mention – Jerry’s goodbye at the train station after the concert: “I’ll look for you around every corner.” If circumstances ever forced you to give up a lover you haven’t stopped loving, there could be few parting expressions more capable of being cherished for a lifetime.)

    That such a very adult tale got itself made and released with the pestering and interfering eye of the Breen Office always upon it was only short of miraculous. One of the very best from Davis and Warner Brothers both.

  2. Replies
    1. I wouldn't say close to a 5, more like a really, really strong 4 of which I'm passionate about. A few of Bette's past 4s have been just barely I'd say.

  3. I'm honestly surprised! I thought you wouldn't like her this much (especially after your little foxes review) because I know she doesn't impress you as much as others.
    I liked her here, but I've always enjoyed her performances in general, even if this isn't my favourite (I still prefer Jezebel, The Little Foxes, All About Eve and Baby Jane). I find her such a fascinating personality and I've always admired her commitment to her roles and the energy she brings to the parts, even if you can argue that she was oscar baiting. I just think she's an extremely entertaining performer to watch, even if her performances aren't perfect.
    It's amazing how she made that last line work, cause I find it a bit corny to be honest.

    1. totally get what you mean by her being a fascinating personality and an entertaining presence to watch. I was surprised myself by how much I enjoyed this one. Many people love her in Dark Victory and Foxes and The Letter, but personally my two favorite of her 7 so far are this and Jezebel.

  4. I'm happy you liked it, I think I predicted it, right? It IS one of her more different performances from that era, and she pulls less of her usual tricks, if I remember it correctly.

  5. Davis is good here, but this is drippy soap opera stuff without much depth so it's a struggle to make much out of it. Sorry, but I think her first appearance as Charlotte is more like the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past - overdone as usual. Charlotte's rebirth, however, is also Davis' and she underplays Charlotte's transitions and growth with a warmth that's lovely. I much prefer the quieter Davis performances because she seems to click with her characters more intrinsically, as she does here. She elevates this material, which is actually a bit shlocky, and invests it with a soulfulness it needs. This is the Davis I wish I saw more of.