Saturday, April 5, 2008

Random Top 10: Bette Davis Performances

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Bette Davis' birthday, and since she's probably my favorite actress ever (sorry Greta, Judy, Kate and Meryl), I thought I would honor her memory. Throughout her long career, which lasted from the early 30's to the late 80's, Bette was an original, to say the very least. She always chose unconventional projects for actresses in her hey-day to do, whether she played to bitch without an ounce of humanity or she ugly-upped long before it was considered proper for actresses to do it. In an era where actors were basically treated like cattle and forced to do any project the studio bosses saw fit, Bette fought back against her studio and had the balls to go work in England and jump out on her contract. She didn't do any work in England and eventually lost the lawsuit against Warner Bros. (Olivia de Havilland, of all people, actually fought the studio and won a couple of years later), but Bette really won because she started getting all kinds of good roles. I hope you join me in celebrating this pioneer of the film industry and enjoy my listing of her Top 10 performances.

10. Joyce Arden in It's Love I'm After (1937)

Bette rarely had the opportunity to show her comedic side, but when she did, as in this little-seen 1937 screwball, she absolutely shined. Playing a Shakespearian actress (and long-suffering girlfriend) next to the hammiest actor in Hollywood (Leslie Howard) playing the hammiest actor on Broadway, Bette had some of the greatest bitchiest scenes in her career.
Classic Bette Moment: Any of the early bickering scenes with Leslie Howard

9. Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (1934)
The performance that made Bette a star. It may be a little stodgy next to later and greater Davis performances, but you can see why audiences in 1934, with her rough Cockney accent and no-holds barred vulgarness, fell under her spell.
Classic Bette Moment: "And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH!"

8. Fanny Trellis in Mr. Skeffington (1944)

Bette was one of the first actresses to regularly ugly-up for a role in an era when it was glamour before anything and this performance in Mr. Skeffington is one of the best of them. The first half is a typical bitchy Bette performance, but the second half, where Fanny descends quickly into old age, is positively heartbreaking.
Classic Bette Moment: When Fanny first sees her new face.

7. Joyce Heath in Dangerous (1935)

Bette won her first Oscar for Dangerous, a little seen, run-of-the-mill Warner's melodrama, and even at the time many saw it as a refund Oscar for their egregious snub of Of Human Bondage the year before. But seeing it 70+ years later, one can see that it stands above as some of her best work (and definitely better than her second Oscar win for Jezebel three years later). The story of an alcoholic actress is nothing special, but Bette gets to bitch up a storm and have a ton of fun.
Classic Bette Moment: Reciting a Shakespearian monologue while intoxicated

6. Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1941)

A lot of bitchy characters appear on Bette's resume, but her Regina Giddens is the ultimate in souless bitchiness. It's her most awful character and a performance only Bette could have made work on screen.
Classic Bette Moment: Sitting there, scheming, while her husband (Herbert Marshall) calls for help from the stairs.

5. Judith Traherne in Dark Victory (1939)

Death has never looked so dignified and classy than when Bette tackled it head-on in the classic "three-hankie" film Dark Victory. Suffering from a fatal brain tumor, Bette's Judith undergoes a transformation from no-care socialite to a woman determined to get the most out of life- including falling in love- before she dies. Plus, she gets bonus points for the last couple of scenes in the film- I can't imagine there was a dry eye in theaters showing this in 1939.
Classic Bette Moment: The sudden off-hand comment when Bette claims it's getting darker...but it's a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky.

4. Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (1942)

In the exact opposite of Mr. Skeffington, Bette goes from ugly duckling to classy bitch in Now, Voyager. It's really empowering to see Bette emerge from underneath her domineering mother and become the woman she was always meant to be. I never really understood that celebrated last line ("Don't let's ask for the moon"? Oy vey) but Bette sells it and you somehow understand the pain she is going through, losing the man she loves.
Classic Bette Moment: "Go on! Make fun of me! You think it's fun making fun of me!"- that line is so stylized I can only hear Bette saying it- and the rest of her breakdown scene.

3. "Baby" Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Bette started the third act of her career, which you could label the "witch stage", with this 1962 thriller. While the backstage drama with co-star Joan Crawford is the stuff legends are made of, there's more of a performance here than you would expect from this type of B-movie. From her sadistic laugh when Joan Crawford discovers the rat to her unsuccessful flirting with the pianist (Victor Buono) and her line reading of "But ya ARE Blanche, ya ARE in that chair, everything proved that Bette was still at the top of her game and shouldn't be counted out just because she's lost her youth.
Classic Bette Moment: Believing she's still the child star she once was, Bette's Baby Jane relives her past through a rendition of "I've Written a Letter to Daddy"...and then has a horrific realization when she realizes she's not young anymore. I still get chills thinking about that scene.

2. Leslie Crosbie in The Letter (1940)

If Bette had done nothing but the opening scene, in which she shoots the man who allegedly tries to rape her with that venomous look in her eyes, I still would have shouted "Give this woman the Oscar!" It turns out that the rest of the film ain't too shabby either, with Bette giving her most melodramatic (in a good way, it suits the film very well) performance ever, keeping one step ahead of every twist and turn.
Classic Bette Moment: Her revelation at the's a goodie!

1. Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950)
Not only Bette's greatest performance, but also one of the top 5 performances in the history of film...and it's scary to think that this almost went to Claudette Colbert of all people. Bette is the only actress I can think of who could handle the bitchy bon mots, the diva fits, the melodramatic tendencies of Margo and that especially insightful monologue in the car about motherhood and combine them all into one precise and definable character. Before this, people were ready to write off Bette, claiming her career was over, but she once again showed them that she still had tricks up her sleeve.
Classic Bette Moment: Anything at the party scene, but, of course, "Fasten your's going to be a bumpy night" is the line the scene hinges on (and boy does Bette deliver on that one).

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