Lioness in Winter

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I initially felt a twinge of dismay watching Bette Davis in 1948’s Winter Meeting. Oh lord, I thought, this isn’t one of her diction roles, is it? ‘Diction role’ is my own coinage. I think of it in relation to her performances in such 1940s films as The Great Lie or Old Acquaintance, in which Davis is all precise enunciation and clipped speech, every vowel and consonant cut and stamped as if from a die press. It’s so high-falutin’ I get a sense of a Great Lady of the Screen pose here; as if Davis were setting herself up as the Warner Bros.’s equivalent of Greer Garson or Norma Shearer, MGM’s reigning exemplars of that studio’s diva-of-nobility sensibility.

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Davis wasn’t always quite like that. Beginning in the 1930s, the actress shifted, stalled, and seethed onscreen, an artist in search of an outlet. From the mousey ingenues she played in early films like Waterloo Bridge (1931) and Three On A Match, she erupted into the twitchy sexy mamas of Ex-Lady, Cabin in the Cotton, and Parachute Jumper, tossing her blondined hair and throwing out elbows and hips like a tomboy not used to dresses and high heels, but liking the attention she gets. But with her breakout role as the nasty tart in Of Human Bondage, Davis by sheer fanatical will dug down and showed us what she was made of—something deep and fierce, and a bit wild. She hit her stride in the mid- to late-30s, as the drunken actress in Dangerous, the defiant hooker in Marked Woman, and the spoiled rebel in Jezebel, spreading across the screen like lava: arms akimbo and eyes blazing, she was a fire-and-ice goddess, burning away the celluloid as we watched. She really was dangerous.

But by the early 1940s, after two Oscars, Davis was a major star, and her roles reflected that status. She became proper and genteel, as in Now, Voyager or The Man Who Came to Dinner, yearning for life behind a scrim of good manners; and with gentility came, like the Freudian latency period, repression. Now elbows were pulled in, eyelids lowered, the mouth either tightened or assuming a smile of saintly fortitude. Given the chance, Davis could use this clamped-down decorum to tear a hole in the screen: in her great performance in The Letter, she sculpts a persona of icy control on the brink, banking the fires while staring warily at the world behind hot, moist eyes. You could still get the wild and twitchy Davis, such as her oversexed car- and home-wreckers of In This Our Life and Beyond the Forest, but her performances here brush on self-parody. This is the Davis of the impersonators, so many arms, hips, and cigarettes being flaunted you feel you have to duck.

Aside from her ‘40s Wyler films and those above-mentioned campfests, I find something a little bloodless about Davis in the 1940s (Hollywood’s heavily Freudian decade). In movies like All This, and Heaven Too, Deception, Watch on the Rhine, and A Stolen Life, Davis gives conscientious performances; they’re well thought out and well executed, but they don’t live in the moment. They’re played from the head up; speech patterns predominate, syllables snapped off with a crack like fresh celery, so that the sound imprints on our eardrums. To use a phrase from Winter Meeting, they’re neat and clean—hair tucked behind the ears and the clothes quiet and dull, though of good quality nonetheless.

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But I grew to like what Davis does in Winter Meeting. She’s repressed and diction-conscious, yes, but she uses the whole of her formidable acting intelligence to create a full-bodied woman. Davis plays the symbolically named Susan Grieve, who herself is neat and clean, demurely but expensively dressed. Susan describes herself as a “well-to-do Yankee spinster” and Bette inscribes well-to-do Yankee spinsterhood in her appearance, which eschews the furs, falls, and wide-padded shoulders of 1940s fashion. Instead, she’s in high-necked dresses topped by pearl chokers; and her hair is clipped into short, sensible bangs, with straight barrettes pulling it back into a low, twisted bun that settles on her neck like a softly clenched fist.

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I recognize those barrettes. They’re holdovers from adolescence, when long hair is not yet being styled in salons but its unruliness still has to be held in check; and Susan positions them right where they’ll do the most harm—behind the ears, where the slight, constant pressure will result in slight, long-term headaches. It’s the hairstyle of a woman who refuses to look sexy, exerting her denial through a subtle self-punishment. Susan is a poet—or “poetess,” in the quaint word used by her friend Stacy, played beautifully by one of my favorite character actors, John Hoyt, with a veneer of acid hiding even more mordant depths—who writes about nature and social causes in her verse. “Sometimes I think she loves them the way a dentist loves a bad tooth,” Stacy says of her poetical subjects. “You probably prefer the Byron school,” Susan retorts, snapping shut a newspaper with her snapped speech, “all fire and brimstone.” No Byronic fire and brimstone for Susan. She’s calm, detached, dedicated to things intellectual and spiritual; standing athwart the gush of passion and politely asking that it be redirected to other channels.

Davis doesn’t create Susan just through clothes and consonants. As an actress she was conscious of her body, of how gesture speaks character as much as speech (Davis had once studied dance with Martha Graham, the High Priestess of Psychological Gesture). When Davis stands, head held back as if restrained by those barrettes, one hand crossed across her chest, the other posed with a cigarette, you sense Susan’s deliberate suppression of ease, the secretly frightened woman who can’t give way; her self-possession is a thing too easily lost. When she dances with a young man, she has to force herself to lean against him, as if pulling against a rubber band. Davis even uses her cigarette smoking to express Susan’s psychology: she smokes a lot of cigarettes in this film, but she does it in character. Susan takes a drag and then jerks her head sideways, as if on a hinge, to expel smoke, ejecting a hard rage through that soft puff. When the young man, her dancing partner, abruptly kisses Susan, she just as abruptly takes a tiny puff, without inhaling, then spits out the smoke like mouthwash.

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Winter Meeting was promoted front and center as a Bette Davis vehicle (the advertising declaring that the star is “wonderful” in her role), but the film was not a hit, and I can see why. It’s slow and gassy, many scenes expatiating on philosophical issues that the screenplay leaves murky and undeveloped. I don’t know the original novel, but Davis expressed herself dissatisfied with the adaptation, and critics complained the film was too talky. But talk doesn’t kill films (one of Davis’s greatest successes was in the talky All About Eve). The director, Bretaigne Windust (a name that sounds like an environmentally friendly perfume), came from the theater and does well with the scenes between Davis and Hoyt, which are fun to watch. The two get a bitchy rhythm going that pulls us into their snooty little world of good taste and well-bred wisecracks. It’s the kind of barbed exclusivity that Clifton Webb specialized in (Hoyt plays a variant of that character, the Code-skirting closeted gay friend, whose sophisticated sneers are meant to fly over the hoi polloi’s heads); but Davis lets you see Susan’s loneliness within this exquisitely confining bubble. She’s so swathed in refinement she can barely breathe.

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The film stalls when Susan finally does give way and falls in love, with a blunt young WW2 naval hero named ‘Slick’ Novak, who, to his disgust, is being celebrated for what he feels were actions any soldier in war would do. The actor cast, James Davis (no relation to his leading lady), has what’s really the film’s most complex role: a disillusioned man seeking honesty and forcing it from those, like Susan, with whom he deals most intimately, yet harboring his own hypocritical secret. Davis (James) is big and shaggy and speaks with a slow, pleasant drawl, like molasses made audible. I’m not surprised he spent most of his career in Westerns, he’s got that ambling rhythm meant for long horseback rides herding cattle. Novak’s supposed to be a thoughtful fish out of his Midwestern waters, stuck in New York’s soulless asphalt, but Davis seems lost on the cement prairie. He’s adequate but he can’t seem to grasp his character’s core or to convey it: he’ll express disenchantment by slumping in a chair and staring morosely like a sulking child.

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Bette blamed Windust’s overanalysis of scenes for crimping her leading man’s performance; but the script doesn’t help him either. Two-thirds of the way through comes a plot twist that rounds on us like a car suddenly veering onto a sidewalk: Novak’s secret is that he once studied for the Catholic priesthood and gave it up, and now his life lacks purpose. Nothing scripted in Novak’s character, or in the actor’s performance, suggests such spiritual torment. Davis does his best, squaring his shoulders and delivering his lines like the sheriff announcing we gotta head ‘em off at the pass, but he looks as if he’d rather be back in Abilene. I’m not sure what actor at that time could have played the part, as written. (Per Charles Higham, Richard Widmark had tested well for the role, but execs were leery of his Kiss of Death success. That mad giggle, no doubt.) It calls for someone skilled at playing the subtext, the very quality that Bette excelled in and that she does so beautifully here. The upshot is that Winter Meeting plays as a chamber piece for solo performer; as the title connotes, it’s examining a quiet life, quietly lived. Susan may have banked fires, but you know this big Novakian force stirring them up won’t last. Change happens to her in slow shifts, the way a spring thaw gradually reveals a landscape.

And Davis understands Susan’s shifting moments. Her performance is not made of the grand, roaring gestures we love about and associate with her. Yes, there’s the Bette of Of Human Bondage, cackling with rage as she wipes a sleeve across her mouth (“Wipe! My! Mouth!!!”), but there’s also the Bette of Dark Victory, bestowing a final caress on her dogs as she gropes her way upstairs (a moment I can never watch without tears). Davis knew how to balance the big moments with the tiny, telling ones. And she does it even with that exacting diction of hers in Winter Meeting, using the sounds of words, as a poet does, to create emotional effects. When Susan speaks of soldiers “learning to kill and be killed,” Davis hits those hard k’s and stretches out the i-vowels, the very harshness registering the horror of violent death (we understand much about Susan by how Bette speaks). That’s canny technical acting. But it’s much more. Davis was never interested in merely flaunting her technical skill. Her art went for the essence; she aimed to give us nothing more or less than a human being’s body and soul.

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BONUS CLIP: John Hoyt is an exquisite fish out of water in the NYC subway (the unpleasant habitat of moles and angleworms); and only Bette Davis, of course, can rescue him:

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