Bette Davis. One of the most recognizable faces and beloved talents of Classic Hollywood. Her reputation was as long as her talent, and just as...colorful. It makes sense that she has won two Lead Actress Oscars. In fact, many would probably assume that she has more than two (she, sadly, doesn't). This week on Twice a Best Actress, our panel is discussing the two films that she did win for.
It is weeks like this that make me absolutely ecstatic that I decided to make this a group thing and not just do these on my own. The differences in opinion on these roles/performances is what makes this so much more fun. This panel is incredible, hard working and so opinionated I absolutely LOVE IT!
Speaking of their awesomeness, here they are:
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films
Fritz from Fritz and the Oscars
Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle
Kevin from Speaks in Movie Lines
Sati from Cinematic Corner
While people have been complaining for years now about the Academy's tendency to award a "make-up" Oscar (giving the win to an actor whose previous work should've already netted them the award), the phenomenon has been occurring almost as long as the award itself. And perhaps the first victim, or at least the most widely known, occurred during only the 8th year of the ceremony. In 1934, Bette Davis, after a couple of lackluster years at the start of her career in film, finally became a breakout star with her performance in Of Human Bondage. But she somehow lost out on a nomination. The outcry was so great that the Academy decided for the first time to have a write-in vote, but Davis still lost out to Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Trying to make amends for the previous year's misfortune, Davis won Best Actress the following year in 1935's Dangerous as a consolation prize. But even Davis herself said she didn't deserve to win and that the award should've gone to Katharine Hepburn that year for Alice Adams. I'm gonna have to tend to agree with Davis on this. In Dangerous, Davis plays a once great actress named Joyce Heath that has hits the skids (and the bottle). An architect (and former fan) takes her in and tries to sober her up so she can remount her career, despite her reputation as a cursed woman. After a promising entrance in which her moth-eaten clothes can't hide the movie star fire in her famous eyes, the film continually lets Davis down as it allows her to indulge in her worst theatrical instincts. Davis, who started her career on stage, seems to be still acting as if she's performing in a theater, trying to make sure the last row in the balcony can read her emotions. And Davis projects every feeling there is (sometimes within the same scene) as she shouts, throws herself upon furniture, even employing a hysterical laughing fit that turns into a crying jag (which is now only used comedically). It doesn't help that we keep hearing about what a great actress Joyce is but the few times we actually see her perform (like her Juliet soliloquy in a bar - Bette Davis is many things, but innocent, young lover Juliet she is not) there's something stilted about it, as if Davis has not yet found a way to harness her talent. Worse still is the forced and implausible reformation of this dangerous woman at the film's conclusion. (Are we really to believe a woman that once smashed a liquor cabinet for its contents would just happily go off to a dull life with a man she doesn't love?) But Davis' star quality is apparent, somehow keeping you engaged and hinting at the greatness she would go on to achieve. But this win was underserved. And just imagine how Oscar history would've changed had Hepburn become the first two-time winner...
My Grade: C-
Poor Bette Davis. She delivers a performance that she stands by 100%, doesn’t get an official Academy Award nomination for it, receives a write-in nomination (because the Academy allowed those back in those days), is told by everyone she’ll win…to the point where the other ‘official’ nominees don’t even show up to the ceremony…and then she loses. The following year, she delivers a performance that she doesn’t stand by 100%, she winds up an official nominee, she doesn’t want to win and then she does. As much as winning an Oscar is always a wonderful thing, when you win for something you don’t really believe in, it can be a weighty treasure to bear.
I think Davis was too hard on herself.
It had been years since I’d seen Dangerous. It was strange because I remembered being impressed with Davis and yet in the back of my mind I was telling myself…maybe I’m remembering wrong. This is considered such a low point for Davis, and I did see the film towards the beginning of my Bette obsessions, so now that I’ve seen so much more from her, maybe my opinion of one of her ‘lesser’ performances will have changed.
I really hasn’t.
This isn’t a perfect performances, and the cracks can be seen, but the whole of it is rather exciting, fresh and compelling. Davis has theatricality here, but that was a true sign of the times and it is an aspect of her acting that she would carry with her throughout her career. It was a trademark for her. Sure, there were times when it did, sadly, overpower her performances, but I don’t think that was the case here. In fact, I felt and still feel that Davis embodied Joyce Heath with a vulnerability that makes her real and endearing despite her apparent flaws. I loathe the film’s ending, because it reads so false, and yet I forgive it for the way in which Davis manages to sell it to me. I believe her, even though it isn’t believable.
I agree with Davis, that Katharine Hepburn was the better choice for her performance in Alice Adams this particular year, but I am saddened that Davis considered this such an unworthy win, because it wasn’t; at least not entirely.
My Grade: B
It seems inevitably to constantly compare the two great American movie actresses of the golden age: Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. Who was greater is a question that will obviously never have a final answer but I think it’s interesting that both of them faced similar problems at the beginning of their careers and in their first Oscar-winning work: Katharine Hepburn was this new and exciting actress who possessed a strong arrogance and dominance on the screen – it was self-assurance that would become her trademark but Katharine Hepburn needed some time to direct this confidence in the right direction. She was charming and pleasing later in movies like The Philadelphia Story or Woman of the Year but hopelessly appalling and off-putting in Morning Glory. And Bette Davis? She was this one-of-a-kind actress who was not afraid to make herself look unattractive and play unlikable characters without a shred of sympathy. Her energy and loud behavior on the screen certainly caught many by surprise and seemed like a revelation at its time (after all, critics called her work in Of Human Bondage the best screen performance by an American actress ever) – but like Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis was actually still on her way to become that force on the screen. Her work in Of Human Bondage is rather shrill and over-the-top and what seemed exciting and new in 1934 only leaves a bad taste in my mouth today. After failing to win an Oscar nomination for this performance, Bette Davis was back the next year with Dangerous and again she held nothing back, screaming, laughing, getting drunk, provoking a car crash and so on. Again, her acting style surely was unseen in 1935 but little did viewers know that Bette Davis would soon find out that her force and dominance on the screen would be much more powerful when presented in a subtle and dignified way. Dangerous lacks all of this and basically gives us Bette Davis spitting out insults for 90 minutes while trying to fit in some love story that fails because neither Bette Davis nor her co-star seem to have any interest for one another. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch Bette chew the scenery even if she sometimes finds some quiet moments that let the viewer breath a little. Still, the Academy surely should have waited a couple of years…
My Grade: D
Davis won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing Joyce Heath, an actress who drinks too much and seems to be a jinx for the productions in which she appears. This character is a tragic figure, and it's ripe for a fierce performance. Davis does her best to play her scenes accordingly. However, she falls into the trap, which she often does, of being too theatrical. Davis frequently overplays high drama, and that works for some of her performances, like in films such as Of Human Bondage and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Here it feels too out of place. While Davis tries to portray Joyce as a sad, tempestuous woman, her performance reaches too high, and it comes across as a confused, floundering interpretation. The film isn't particularly good either, so Davis isn't entirely at fault. Still, it feels like something was missing in Davis' performance.
Did Davis deserve to win?
Nope. Katharine Hepburn's wonderful performance in Alice Adams should've been rewarded instead.
My Grade: C+
As Joyce Heath in Alfred E. Green's "Dangerous" (1935), Bette Davis is good. That's about the most hyperbolic I can go. The movie doesn't help her out much. I didn't like it at all. When we meet Joyce Heath early in the film, she is pounding gin like my grandfather. This is one of only two scenes I thought might be Oscar-worthy.
I mean, Bette Davis' eyes are a thing, right? I found it great that my introduction to her as a younger actor found the light in those eyes out. I was impressed. Then, this thinly developed movie just gets everything wrong. Davis overdoes it, and the thin plot doesn't help her out any. Joyce Heath is hard on her luck, cynical, disheveled, manic, drunk at first (with very little explanation). Davis gets all of this right early. But the alcoholism storyline is weak. And it's played way too melodramatically for my taste. When Bellows (Franchot Tone) takes her in, she snaps out of her slump way too quickly to be believed, and they have very little chemistry.
I do like the range of emotion Davis brings to the table. As the movie played on, I enjoyed the performance here and there, but, in the end, there just wasn't enough for her to do. There is some decent writing here and there as well but so sporadic that any enjoyment just petered out for me.
I read that Davis herself felt like this was an undeserved Oscar win. I agree. Having not seen any of the other performances, I can't judge. But this is not an Oscar caliber performance, and I feel like any actress of the time could've played this part just the same.
The Scene That Won It: The breakfast scene the morning after the kiss. Love her fake sinister laugh into overly dramatic tears. So bad it's good.
My Grade: C-
Bette Davis is probably my favorite actress from classic movies era. I have not seen her Academy Award winning performances until yesterday and I'm unfortunately a bit disappointed - as good as she was, this just wasn't on the level of mad-eyed Bette roles I've seen before.
I liked that movie better than Jezebel, but it was really not at all special. The two lead performances were very good and Davis was lovely here as tragic, alcoholic Joyce, an actress who fell into abyss. The problem I had with her role and the movie is that I found her drunk haze from the beginning of the film far more memorable than everything else she was given to do in that film.
The film begins teasing some sort of great mystery behind Joyce's fall from grace but it doesn't really give us any compelling answers or intriguing solutions, Davis is even deprived of showing the heartbreak that led to her drinking, it's only touched upon but never explored. All around it's a fairly standard tale and while Davis' role is the best thing about it, I'm not sure it was worthy of a win.
My Grade: B+
Popular legend states that Warner Bros gave Bette Davis her own Southern Belle drama to compensate for losing the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind thus allowing her to win her second Best Actress Oscar a year before Vivien Leigh's turn. It's a nice story, but unfortunately not true. Although she topped a poll as the public's number one choice, the truth is David O. Selznick never seriously considered Davis for Scarlett and, more importantly, Davis' Southern-set film Jezebel had already been purchased as a vehicle for her long before casting began for Selznick's epic. And although Julie Marsden may share some similarities with Margaret Mitchell's heroine, Davis' Julie is a different creature entirely and happens to be Davis' first truly great performance. Upon my first viewing of the film years ago, I was immediately impressed by how modern Davis is in it, using subtlety and stillness while other stars of the day used grand theatricality (imagine my further disappoint with Dangerous having seen this first). Many credit director William Wyler for reigning Davis in and having her trust in a less-is-more mentality, utilizing her power to its fullest potential on screen and creating the icon that she would become. Her work in Jezebel, while still an exemplary star-turn, never rests on personality alone. She is an artist at work, infusing scenes with nuance and unexpected choices. Take the infamous Olympus Ball scene in which Julie brazenly shows up in a strapless red dress despite the custom for unmarried women to wear white. Julie's confidence slowly begins to dissipate, and Davis never overplays the humiliation Julie feels having realized that she has gone too far, losing the love and respect of her fiancé Preston (Henry Fonda). With just a look in her eye, she is able to convey her disgrace much more effectively than if she had made a big scene, fleeing from the room or bursting into tears. There's also the complexity and mix of emotions she displays upon learning of Pres' new wife later in the film. Even when the headstrong and independent Julie suddenly becomes a martyr at the end of the film, it never feels like a betrayal of the character. It's just another reckless decision that Julie has made, she hasn't throughly thought of the consequences and her decision seems as misguided as her choice in ballgown. But it's Davis that steers whatever Julie does in the right direction, making you fully understand her despite her impulsive indulgences. She might not have played Scarlett, but Bette Davis' portrayal of this woman in red is more than a worthy winner.
My Grade: B+
I’ve always compared Jezebel to Gone with the Wind thanks to the rumor that Andrew just debunked above me. Still, I’m choosing to compare them for this only because it’s all I know.
I prefer Jezebel, and I even prefer Davis’s performance. Yup, I said it. Gone with the Wind (which we’ll get to talk about later on in this series) and Vivian Leigh (who we’ll talk about even more) are beloved and to a degree I understand the status, but I was never completely won over by either (although recent viewings have warmed me towards Leigh’s performance). For me, there is a focus here that isn’t there, and Davis hones her performance in a way that feels tighter and far more grounded in nature. She delivers a complete knockout of a performance, capturing her characters innocent selfishness, her desire to be the center of attention and command her man’s love and admiration even if means bucking his authority. This is a role that was made for her, and she is a complete force; a dynamic star burning bright on each and every frame.
While Jezebel and Davis herself may not carry the same expansive scope that Gone with the Wind and Leigh carried, this film and it’s star manages to ground their scope in something that feels richer and fuller, making it feel bigger than it is but maintain an intimacy that pulls us in from start to finish.
My Grade: A
Bette Davis was an actress who could easily go overboard. She knew that she was different in her willingness to attack all her parts with uncompromising honesty and dedication – and she was very eager to make sure that everybody else knew so, too. That’s why very often her performances tend to go over-the-top because Bette Davis may have known what she could do but she did not really know how to use her gifts – she did not seem to have the instincts that told her when to hold back or when to decide that ‘less is more’. Instead, she always wanted to display that her characters are larger than life and that she had no problems to show her characters as unpleasant, appalling or plain shocking. This talent and this willingness of Bette Davis was both her greatest advantage and her greatest flaw – because in the hands of a director who was not able to handle Bette Davis and guide her in a way in which she used her instincts and talents without exaggerating them, her performances could easily enter the dangerous territory of incredibility, fulsomeness and overall rather resemble an out-of-control wild animal than a talented actress. Because of this, it was certainly a wonderful coincidence that Jezebel marked the beginning of Bette Davis’s collaboration with director William Wyler. Like few others, William Wyler knew how to handle Bette Davis and how to use all her talents and gifts for the advantage of the movie and the character she was playing. So many scenes in Jezebel are displayed with an intriguing subtlety by Bette Davis that works much better than any grand emotions would ever have – her reaction to Pres’s introduction of his wife which she only registers with a slightly surprised ‘Your wife?’ while everything is happening behind her eyes or her way of manipulating Pres to take her to the ball in her red dress by questioning his ability to defend her honor are moments that turn Julie into a very engaging character who is able to fascinate the audience despite her questionable actions. Bette Davis succeeds in showing Julie’s inner depth and how she is unable to stop herself, overestimating her own power and influence and that way keeps the character’s dignity and fascination alive. Of course, the ‘Southern Belle’ is a great character for every actress as it allows her to be lovely and dangerous, honest and pretending, charming and repellent, fascinating and disappointing. And to make all this work, the actress needs to display a huge amount of personal strength and personality because she needs to make it understandable why this woman always gets away with her doings, why she always becomes the center of attention and why she can basically manipulate everyone the way she wants without hardly any consequences. Bette Davis certainly had this overpowering screen presence and she used it very wisely for the part of Julie – but sometimes she did not fully grasp the complexities and demands of the role. This means that she knew how to project the both manipulating and lovely woman and the structure of Jezebel turns Julie into an ‘outsider’ rather often as most people mostly see through her intentions but Bette Davis sometimes did not fully give reason to the still very important popularity of Julie Marsden. Even in her most relaxed and charming moments, Bette Davis’s Julie appears to be mostly acting, even looking down on those around her – while this is certainly true to her character, a bit more convincing joviality at this moment would have been needed.
My Grade: B-
Davis won her second Best Actress Oscar for playing Julie, a jilted Southern Belle who tries to get her fiance back. This is one of Davis' most iconic roles, and she's fascinating at times in this performance. As the strong-willed Julie, Davis gives a charming, elegant, moving, and simmering performance, straying from most of the theatrics of her other Oscar-winning work. When Davis is more grounded that demonstrative, she really excels, and she does so quite effectively here. This is more in line with her superb performances in Now, Voyager and All About Eve. In this film, Davis is not ACTING with the volume cranked to 11 most of the time. Her work is more natural and reactive, which makes it a great performance from the classic leading lady. It's no wonder Oscar came calling again.
Did Davis deserve to win?
She deserved it, but where was Katharine Hepburn's nomination for her hilarious turn in Bringing Up Baby?
My Grade: A
Now, this is Bette Davis. I get it now. As the quintessential Southern belle, Julie, in William Wyler's beautifully-made "Jezebel" (1938), Davis is perfect. She embodies every bit of this character. The time-period Southern accent is spot-on, and she is just so beautiful and charming and, dare I say, even spunky, especially early. Julie is a character willing to step outside societies norms even to the point of ruining her life. She is a woman ahead of her time and tragically over-confident in herself, especially in the way she tramples on Henry Fonda's Pres Dillard and manipulates the strapping dueler Buck Cantrell (George Brent) with her coy smile and those eyes. You just can't help but be drawn to her face.
There are so many great acting moments here. The break-up with Pres complete with slap in the face and stare down. The getting ready for Pres' return as she speedily orders the house slaves around. Her first scene with Fonda as Pres at Halcyon begging for forgiveness in her elegant "white dress." The following scene with Aunt Belle. Man, the writing is good in that scene. Actresses win Oscars when they get to say things like, "I need to think, to plan, to fight." And "Married? To that washed-out little Yankee? He's mine, he's always been mine!" Man, her delivery is good!
"Jezebel" is just a well-written and acted movie all around. It's powerful too. How do the smallest decisions alter our lives? Even in the 1850s among a Yellow Fever epidemic in Louisana, it's the small stuff that matters most. Bette Davis' runs the gamut here as far as emotion goes. Her face is alive and intense, happy then sad then bewildered. And that final scene when she begs to sacrifice herself for all of her Jezebel-ness. Well, there you have it.
The Scene That Won It: The entire arrival at Halcyon Plantation sequence. Great writing perfectly executed by a fine actress.
My Grade: A
Davis plays Julie - manipulative, arrogant and reckless girl who wants to win back her old fiance, Preston who left her and got married to another girl. Davis' performance is easily the best thing about this somewhat dull movie. She is so energetic and great to watch - her every move is calculated to be perfectly aligned with her motivations. Her work here is very good - she has the right kind of charisma to play this girl who liked to shock and be admired.
The red dress scene - in which Julie defies everyone and wears a provocative dress instead of white one an unmarried girl is supposed to have on - is the clear standout for me. Davis goes from loving the attention to being all embarrassed and eager to leave. It's such a smooth and believable transition. I never considered Davis to be exceptionally beautiful but she has something so much more interesting and eye catching - that boldness, charisma and wit. While watching the film, it's easy to understand why men would love to be around her.
I haven't seen other nominees but I don't think that's the role worthy of an Oscar, especially from someone who gave us such outstanding work like her performance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and All About Eve.
My Grade: C-
There is a number assigned to each letter grade that helps us give a score to each performance. The highest number (and A+) would be 20 points. An F would warrant 0 points (a D gives you 5). So these are the scores for each performance as well as a collective score (which will be used at the end to rank each individual actress).
Bette Davis received a total of 55 points for her performance in Dangerous.
Bette Davis received a total of 86 points for her performance in Jezebel.
This is a collective total of 141 points.
As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.
This puts Davis in second to last place right now, but only Hepburn below her. This is kind of funny when you think about it. Two of the most beloved actresses of all time ranking at the very bottom of a list of most deserved Two Time Lead Actress Oscar winners...
So this closes our discussion of Bette Davis. Next Friday we're going to be discussing another one of the most beloved actresses of all time, Elizabeth Taylor! I love this woman...but I haven't seen BUtterfield 8 yet...and I'm scared.
Again, a big round of applause for the awesome bloggers sharing this series with me! You guys did some awesome work, as to be expected.