Sunday, July 25, 2010

WAS BETTE DAVIS CRAZY?

The way I heard it, John Huston was so taken with Bette's over the top rage in "Of Human Bondage," that he was hot to do a film with her which would be one long mad scene.  With "In This Our Life" (1942) (above) he finally got his chance.


















The expressions Betty makes in this film are not to be believed.  She must have spent a lot of time in front of mirrors at home, figuring it all out. 



You have to admire her for putting so much into a role that made her look evil and crazy.



















Bette was a live action cartoon character. I can't believe that no modern animation studio except Spumco ever attempted to use poses like this.






















Animation fans talk about Disney's Cruella de Vil as if she were the ultimate example of villainous cartoon acting. She's okay, but she can't hold a candle to Bette (above).  Disney should have pushed Cruella farther.


















Here (above) Bette begs a dying old man to help her get out of a crime she committed.  He's only moments away from meeting his maker and can't force himself to pay attention to her.


















She's outraged at his self-absorption (above) and gives him a piece of her mind. The last thing he sees on Earth is Bette screaming at him. What a scene!




















Oooch! Big mistake (above)! Never slap a crazy person, not unless you want to find arsenic in your morning tea.
Look at the way Bette reacts to the slap.




















Bette plays crazy so well, that it's hard to resist wondering if she was crazy in real life. I wish I knew. She certainly had a reputation for being hard to get along with.  Her daughter wrote a vitriolic "Mommy Dearest"-type biography, called "My Mother's Keeper" which I'm reading right now, but there's no way of telling if the book is reliable. 





















That's Olivia de Havilland above. I digress to include her here just to call attention to the number of good manhandling scenes there are in the Huston film. We could do this easily in 2D animation, but you're not likely to see it in computer films. In 3D the polygons would interfere with each other and produce a hideous monster. 


Back to Bette acting crazy: Vincent Sherman, the director of my favorite Bette film, "Old Acquaintance," had an interesting story to tell about it.  He said Bette gave him a lot of trouble at the outset of the film but eventually became friendly. Even so he got the feeling that he was walking on eggs, and had to be very careful. 

One day, near the end of the project, Bette confided to him that she loved him, and he didn't know how to respond. Soon after her husband (or boyfriend...I can't remember) came to visit Sherman and advised him, for his own good, to be careful, that having an affair with Bette would be like taking a bull by the horns. The implication was that Bette was crazy. The affair never occurred, and Bette and Sherman parted amicably. 



























Sherman looked forward to working with his old friend on their next film together, "Mr. Skeffington," and was shocked when, with no warning, Bette showed up on the set ready for war, and loudly refused to co-operate with Sherman on absolutely anything.  The entire shooting became a famous disaster.


So was Bette crazy? I don't know, but does it matter? If she was crazy we can be grateful that she channeled that craziness into her art, and by doing so redefined film acting. 













17 comments:

RooniMan said...

Well, that explains alot.

Roberto Severino said...

I love it when the characters in live-action movies act just like cartoons themselves, topped with some great expressions and poses too. It can either ensue in hilarity or a scary, caricatured form of drama. I haven't seen "In This Our Lives" nor "Old Acquaintance," but thanks to you, I'm gonna keep an eye out for those titles. I still have "All This and Heaven Too" recorded on my DVR that I still haven't watched yet!

Wow! Bette Davis crazy?! I have never heard that about her before nor did I ever hear about what her own daughter wrote about her. I thought it was just Joan Crawford who was getting all that vitriol from her daughter with that Mommie Dearest book. Interesting. Thrilling post, Eddie.

Speaking of cartoony live-action movies, have you ever seen Frank Capra's "Arsenic and Old Lace?" Wow! He literally turned Cary Grant into a nutty cartoon character, with his own family being even crazier than him, resulting in some fantastic results. In fact, almost everyone, including Peter Lorre, is turned in a cartoon if you look at it in that sense.

Anonymous said...

Vincent Sherman was underrated as a film director. Maybe he was surrounded by too many legendary directors in his prime. As an old man, when most of the greats were dead or no longer active, Sherman directed one episode of the series "Medical Center" that was the best ever put on film.

Paul Penna said...

I hadn't heard that about the "Mr. Skeffington" shooting being a disaster before. I only got around to the film a couple years back, and I thought then it was one of her best and most convincing portrayals. For one thing, the artificiality of her acting style (and I mean that in a good way, mostly) fits the character perfectly; she acts - and looks - every bit the classic "Gibson Girl" of the pre-WWI 20th Century. Check out the work of some of the era's great illustrators - Charles Dana Gibson for example - and you'll see the designers and costumers of the film really did their homework. Of course, in 1944 that period was within the personal experience of those folks, but still, more often than not period films tended to reflect current styles rather than being as authentic as in Skeffington.

Anonymous said...

Was Bette crazy? I'd say no. YouTube interviews she gave in the 60s-80s. She comes across as down-to-earth, witty, and very sensible and serious in an old Yankee common sense kind of way. Unlike what one may expect, she does not seem at all neurotic.

She always said the character most like her was not the tempermental Margo Channing or the histrionic Baby Janes, but practical, strong, uncomplicated Kit Marlowe(Old Acquaintance). Viewing the movie and her off screen interviews, this seems accurate.

She could play crazy better than anybody, though, that's for sure. She thought all actors were moody, herself included. And she did admit she could be difficult and demanding, but that's because she was a workaholic and expected competence from her co-workers. But otherwise she seemed like a really solid human being. Great movie actress, probably the best ever.

Jenny Lerew said...

Oh, Vincent Sherman...he sure loved to dish about bedding all his actresses. He was a big boy and knew how to 'respond' for heaven's sake.

Bette wasn't crazy but she certainly enjoyed playing flamboyant roles when the assignment came up. She was a well educated, totally committed and professional actress with zero physical vanity in service of the part (unlike your other idol Crawford who was obsessed with looking good no matter what she was playing). For what it's worth she always disparaged "In This Our Life" as a ridiculous film, along with "Beyond the Forest"; both ARE way way OTT Davis vehicles but they sure are great fun to watch.
By the way, isn't Charles Coburn the greatest? There's a genius, imho.

Roberto Severino said...

Off-topic: It's my sixteenth birthday today, amazingly. For weeks, I had been terrified of this day because I was very uncertain about growing up, and now suddenly, I'm passing this off as no big deal at all. Do you have any theories on what to expect as I grow older from this point? Will there be days where I suddenly start hating cartoons? You've been through it all, so that's why I'm asking you.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Roberto: Fascinating question! What's ahead? Well, college for one thing. Good colleges are a lot more fun and interesting than high school, and the teachers actually treat you like a human being. It's great!

If you're going to art college beware because half of all art colleges are scams. Lots of previously reliable art schools have reconstituted themselves as colleges and universities so they can qualify for the gigantic loans that students take out. The large amount of money students bring gives these fake universities an incentive to dumb down the courses and pass you no matter what. The liberal arts courses they offer are a joke: courses in things like human sexuality and white witchcraft. You won't get an education there, just a degree.

The problem is that so many people have worthless degrees now that through sheer force of numbers they can force you to get a worthless degree too. If you don't, they won't allow you to work in a lot of places.

What you should do depends on your interests and the money you can afford to spend. For someone with my cartoony interests I'd want to spend two years in a liberal arts college studying literature, history, economics, etc., and two years in an art school. That may or may not add up to a degree.

If you're passionately interested in cartooning and animation, move mountains to work with John K.
Superglue yourself to his leg, and do everything he tells you.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jenny: Interesting comments, and thanks for the Bette recommendation. If Beyond the Forest is way over the top, then I can't wait to see it.

Jennifer said...

Vincent Sherman was definitely a pistol. He always claimed that he bedded many of the actresses that he directed, and his wife didn't care.

I agree with Jenny and Anonymous - Bette Davis wasn't crazy. She considered herself an actress who took her parts and profession very seriously. Like Jenny said, her issue with Joan Crawford and many of her other contemporaries is they wanted to still look beautiful, act elegant and talk posh regardless of the character.

La Bette talked about Mr. Skeffington in detail. She admitted to being a world-class b1tch on the set because she was going through some major personal problems during that time (her husband died around the time of filming). She talked about how she always felt badly about how she was on the set of Skeffington because she really adored Claude Rains, and she treated him so poorly.

Jack G. said...

My Mother's Keeper is a very suspect book.

Dark Victory is a more objective read of Bette Davis, I believe.

The main problem with Davis is when she wasn't working she drank too much and became very volatile.

Her approach to working was very combative (she belived in fighting for what she thought was right). She also was a very nervous type and that often shows onscreen; she can't stay still.

Still, I love watching her.

JohnK said...

I think all super creative people are crazy but that's of small importance compared to their work.

Bette is really fun to watch. She puts so much thought and energy into her performances. She's one of those performers who believes in giving the audience what they pay for - and more!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Sandra M. Lopes says:Thank you for elevating smoking to an art :) As a mere amateur myself, I enjoy learning the possibilities opened up by pro smokers — as much as I enjoy smoking itself. These examples you present, beside the pure delightful poetry of your imaging, also give a lot of encouragement for us amateurs!

And tackling such a politically incorrect theme is actually quite daring. Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

Here Eddie is a chance to see Bette as herself on "Person to Person" interviewed by Murrow remotely from her Maine home in 1956: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipLtuWfMlnk&feature=related

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jennifer, Jack: I really don't know if she was crazy, but i wouldn't rule it out, as you do. It's possible to do good work, even great work, and still have loose screws. You could argue that being off center allows you to bring obsessive energy and focus to a problem. Of course you pay the price in other ways.

I'm getting Dark Victory (the book) soon.

Anon: Haw! Many thanks for that link!

Anonymous said...

Why is it important to you to really consider her as possibly "crazy"? Do you really think that there's any ghost of a chance that is so? You seem to as you suggest that one can do good work and have "loose screws" while I'd argue that's not the case at all.
But then again I guess it depends on how you define "crazy". I'd say that to be high strung or intense simply doesn't qualify.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Blaze said (referring to a post on the Tango that I put up last year): The first picture cracked me up! It looks like she hit him on the nose bridge! I'm a dancer myself and I have to admit that a lot of men seem wary about ballroom dancing. If you look at the history of Argentine Tango a lot of people would be surprised that it started out as a way for lonely 19th Century male immigrants to find a sweetheart!