Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bette Davis in The Letter

Motion Picture legend Bette Davis received her fifth/fourth (her first nomination was a write-in one) Best Actress nomination for playing Leslie Corbie, woman killing her lover in the William Wyler melodrama, The Letter. My first clue of this year (Who's the First Lady of movies?) referred to the constant argument if Bette is the one or Katharine Hepburn. I don't have to (or want to) decide the question here, however if we held a debate on who's the biggest drama queen, it would last for about 2 seconds as it's obviously Bette Davis. She starred as strong and yet vulnerable women in countless movies always giving performances that still amaze a lot of people (including myself).

The Letter is a very typical 1940s melodrama, which can be either a treat or a torture. This movie is a treat in the beginning, a torture in the middle and a semi-treat towards the end. William Wyler's directing style seems very dated today, even though he also made many classics (Mrs Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives). The acting in this movie is the typical early overacting by the most of the cast and they add no real depth to the real character. James Stephenson got a Best Supporting Actor nom which might have been worthy, even though he's not THAT great in this movie.

All the actors got standard melodrama roles, including the great Bette. Unfortunately she does not get to be quite different from what she usually is. Her character lacks every originality, it seems as if the writers wanted to make it sure that the movie should be a success and that's why they gave something to Bette which she'd already done and was sure to be loved by the audience and the Academy. It just simply doesn't use the versatility of Bette Davis properly.

The performances of Bette Davis never disappointed me until now. Although I have to admit that she's far from being mediocore or bad in this movie, she simply did not give anything to me to rave about. This performance of hers has a massive fanbase, but I don't get it. Bette had many way better and more memorable performances than this one, say All about Eve, Jezebel or Now, Voyager. But it might be just me naturally.

Her first scene is the mostly praised above all, but the strength of that sequence is mostly due to the directing and the music, Bette actually doesn't do anything special, other than opening her eyes widely and being terrified. I mean, she shows all the emotions well, but in my humble opinion it was no big feat for Bette Davis. Also, there's also a constant weirdness about this character: she's so moody, gets teary so quickly, that it's so unreal and far from reality. I guess this is also due to the genre of the movie, however a bit of subtlety would not have hurt.

The short scenes at the prison are nothing special, she's just there and that's it. It's so unusual to see Bette not be as strong as she's in general. The big scene where the letter is shown to her was however solved by her very well. There I felt that it was Bette Davis and in fact showed how great she can be.

And yet her performance is not totally damaged by the weak material. Towards the ending, she becomes close to great and those are probably the strongest scenes of her whole achievement in this movie. I especially admired her in the scene where she (in fact) bends down in front of her lover's wife to get the letter. The fear and nervousness she shows, is simply amazing and probably saved her performance and the movie itself. All the emotions were displayed very well in those scenes and I was surely impressed.

I must also mention the very last scenes where she's confronted by her husband. She was also very strong and impressive there, if not brilliant. I think those scenes had the potential of being great, yet it did not live with all the opportunities, except for Davis who is very close to being amazing, you just simply cannot take your eyes off her. This is great to experience, but it also indicates how uneven her performance really is. It's never weak, I would not say that, but she was not constantly strong enough to grab my attention unfortunately.

I have to write down the same thing about Bette that I did with Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer. Overall it's not bad, however it's very inconsistent and uneven in its strenght. Here however, Davis also had to work with a mediocore material (which was not true in Taylor's case). Too bad as this is probably the only performance of Bette I was disappointed by. The funny thing is though that right now I don't feel very disappointed, only neutral. She just (to quote the snobbish guy from the queue at the movie theatre in Annie Hall) did not hit me on a gut level, though Bette's craziest fans might want to hit me on a gut level right now.

To see The Letter click here.

So comments anyone? :)


joe burns said...

I haven't seen her yet, but I'm surprised you didn't like her that much. I think she'll come in fourth or fifth, it depends on your thoughts on Rogers and Scott.

Fritz said...

Oh, and my predictions are ruined! :-)
I just took a shot with Bette at number 1 because most people are crazy about her.

Okay, new try:

1. Katharine Hepburn
2. Joan Fontaine
3. Ginger Rogers
4. Bette Davsi
5. Martha Scott

Louis Morgan said...

I agree, she had some good moments but overall she did nothing great, and the movie was pretty poor.

dinasztie said...

Well Fritz, your instincts did not work this time. :) But that prediction might be right. You all think Scott will be last. Is she that bad? I was thinking about reviewing her next.

Fritz said...

She's not bad but apart from her final monologue, I didn't see anything special in her.