Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Bette Beyond

Subsequent observers have characterized the 1950 actress race as a battle between Davis and Swanson, the comeback queens. It’s actually a bit of a stretch to label Davis’ role in “All About Eve” as a comeback. Only two years earlier, she’d ranked as America’s highest paid woman. True, “A Stolen Life”(’46) had been her last smash. But “June Bride”(’48) and “Beyond the Forest”(’49) both made money. “Bride” even attracted nice reviews. “Forest” definitely didn’t. A shame, in retrospect, because Bette serves up a blast furnace of a performance. She’s Rosa Moline, blowzy small-town malcontent, past her sell-by date but still sexually hopped up. Hubby – doting and respectable – isn’t doing it for her. But she’s ready to raise Cain with any man who can supply a little big city excitement. Forties audiences were slightly uncomfortable. The performance gives off a definite whiff of alley cat in heat. It’s not the classy Bette fans were used to. The polite press clucked disapprovingly – prim old maids encountering a crepitation contest at a garden party. The negative reviews – plus the fact that the film marked the acrimonious end of Bette’s long tenure as Queen Bee at Warners – probably contributed to Davis’ own downbeat assessment of the picture. She went on record as saying Virginia Mayo should’ve played it. And she could’ve. But Mayo would’ve provided a far more conventional image – trampy, yes, but young, supple and stacked. Hard-faced but still a knockout. How much more intriguing it was to watch Bette’s long-in-the-tooth Rosa – bad wig, bad attitude, bad news all around – but a Rosa who thinks, who really thinks, she IS Virginia Mayo.

Bette packs the role with every bit of negative energy she can muster. A crackling fluorescent lightning rod for anyone who ever felt utterly constricted by their surroundings. The sawmill smokestack belches out flames night and day. And so does Bette. Soot and smoke suffocate the town – but Rosa’s the only one that seems to notice. The sawmill blast literally propels her across town every day to fix those Bette Davis eyes on the train that could be whisking her off to to her El Dorado (Chicago). Meanwhile, the whole town gawks. Whether it’s ambiguous wolf whistles or icy glares, Rosa gets reactions. And no wonder – this is practically Bette Davis in 3D. Certainly Rosa’s frustration jumps out of the screen. Her every attempt to wring some glamour - or even satisfaction - out of her life comes back to bite her. Case in point: she acquires a maid - and wouldn’t you know, it’s Dona Drake – priceless – spectacularly insolent, goading her, aping her, defying her – till Bette’s ready to go right through the roof. Well-groomed out of towner Ruth Roman pops up as a potential rival but ends up pretty much a red herring. Her main contribution: supplying the fur coat that just about blows the top off Rosa’s envy meter. Bette plays a mesmerizing scene with that coat. Forget Fred Astaire’s dance with a hatrack. Bette works that pelt. Eyeballing it, caressing it, trying it on as if she’s slowly dousing herself with hot fudge sauce. Davis rocks the room with so much full-tilt actress energy she practically animates the coat into a performance of its own. And it's a good one! Anyone who ever really lusted after luxury – and couldn’t quite put the feeling into words – can just point to this bit of film and say “Yeah, that’s how I felt.”

Climax of the story (though, let's face it Bette’s performance is all about climaxes) has her finally hitting Chicago. Not too surprisingly, Chicago hits back. Overdressed, over made-up, over pushy and over hopeful, Rosa crashes head-on into a series of snubs and humiliations, ultimately getting the heave-ho from smoothie David Brian. Bette bolts from his car and lurches around a night-time Chicago street in the pouring rain. She ducks into a bar for a moment’s relief – only to get turfed out (Escorted ladies only!). Then winds up careening through a seductivey photographed noirscape, more and more like a half-drowned Jeanne Moreau every second. Finally, when an old drunk launches into a crazy cackling jag, she whirls around, startled, looking for all the world as if Moreau had actually entered her body and taken over. And believe me, to see the accumulated mojo of Moreau and Davis fused into one spectacular persona – displayed against a succulently rainsoaked noir canvas – is to die and go to Heaven. Chicago doesn’t kill her – but it lands one hell of a suckerpunch, sending Rosa back to Snoozeville, U.S.A., bedraggled and drained.

Bette and “Beyond the Forest” have a few more surprises to spring – all of them entertaining as hell. And finally there’s Bette’s Last Mile. Fever-drenched and half-crazy, she heads to the train station for one final shot at a breakout. There’s never been anything quite like Bette here – a sweat-soaked malarial Madonna staggering and falling, clothes a mess, makeup memorably misapplied – making her last gasp attempt to catch that freedom train. The locomotive itself is magnificent. Huge, ponderous, moving at slow-mo acid-trip speed, spewing out exquisite plumes of smoke. Rosa’s escape from the sawmill furnace inevitably leads to another belching smokestack – this one the very last stop.

Arbiters of taste pooh-pooh the whole thing as over the top. But that’s not always a bad thing. It’s genuinely something to see the power and passion of a Magnani reconfigured by the stunning cut-glass precision of a supreme Hollywood craftsman like Davis. This story calls for a no-holds-barred approach. Demands it. And Bette delivers big-time.