Shortly after I came out of the closet, but before I became a film buff, friends insisted I rent certain films that I had then not seen including All About Eve, Auntie Mame, The Women and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Within a short space of time, I did just that, enjoying all those films, save the last one.
While I appreciated Bette Davis in All About Eve, in Baby Jane, I found her performance over-the-top and irritating. It seemed a far cry from one of my first experiences of her work, the under-appreciated, well-acted 1987 film, The Whales of August.
In Baby Jane, it seems Director Robert Aldrich so delighted in Davis’ bitchy performances from previous films that he wanted to make that quality define his lead. Other directors followed suit, with Roy Ward Baker‘s 1968 film The Anniversary portraying Davis as a dominating mother, manipulating her grown sons. How far she had come from one of her best performances as Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager who learned to break free from a mother who manipulated her!
Why is it that so many gay men prefer Bette Davis in her more bitchy roles to her more nuanced performances like that in Now, Voyager? The “Eighteen Films Every Gay Men Should See” in The Unofficial Gay Manual include Baby Jane and All About Eve, ignoring such films where directors show her only briefly (if at all) as rude or intemperate.
To be sure, Davis demonstrates considerable range in Eve, yet when my peers talk about that latter flick, they focus on her most cutting lines and bitchiest scenes. As I mentioned in a prior post, we seem to “discount (or downright ignore) the vulnerability she so masterfully portrays, a vulnerability that often puts that bitchiness into a psychological context.”
All too many of us prefer Bette Davis when she becomes a caricature, expressing the worst stereotypes of feminine behavior in exaggerated forms. As I work my way through a collection of her early films, I rediscover an actress who practically portrays the full gamut of feminine emotion.
Why is it that so many of us seem to prefer the dark side of femininity which our peers so often caricature in their drag performances?
Yet, throughout her career, Bette Davis portrayed far more than that dark side. A quick review of her best performances shows a far broader range of femininity than that we see in drag shows. Take a gander at some of these flicks and you’ll see what a gifted actress Bette Davis was: Dark Victory, The Petrified Forest, Now, Voyager, All About Eve, The Virgin Queen, Jezebel, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Corn is Green.
(Bear in mind that while the performances may often be iconic, the films aren’t always as good as their lead.)