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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13 Comments

  1. This is a very nice discussion of a somewhat overlooked movie. It’s a peripheral point, but as far as “diction,” there was an interesting discussion of Bette and her R’s on one of my favorite linguistic blogs recently: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=19486

    Reply
  2. Love (and heartily agree with) your comments about Bette Davis in Great Lady mode. When watching old films, I can easily allow myself to relax into the stylized acting quirks of yesteryear, but Bette Davis in her over-enunciation period was always a bitter pill for me.
    As I’ve held this impression for quite some time, your exacting description of her style was a pure joy to read.
    You have such a way with words!

    Listening to her studied manner of speech always takes my mind to this exchange from Auntie Mame:
    “She’s not English darling. She’s from Pittsburgh..”
    “She sounded English.”
    “Well, when you’re from Pittsburgh you have to do something!”

    As for the film itself, were not for the amusing clip you provided, I’d have considered it an easy one to pass up, But as I’ve always liked John Hoyt and you say Davis smokes a lot in this (love the way she smokes in movies) I’ll definitely give “Winter Meeting” a tumble should it crop up on cable sometime.
    Thanks for bringing an unknown film to my attention, and for such an entertaining and marvelously well-written essay.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, as always, for your lovely comment, Ken. I agree, I find Bette’s “over-enunciation period,” as you wittily put it, annoying (I’ve never been a fan of her “restrained” performances in films like Now, Voyager or The Great Lie – I prefer the bitchy, twitchy Bette). I’ve noticed other actresses, like Joan Crawford and even Marilyn Monroe, have gone through such “diction” stages, in which they seem to be giving a speech before the school assembly and are conscious that every syllable must be heard. (Reminds me of that scene from Singin’ in the Rain, of the acting teacher emphasizing “round tones!”). I have a feeling it was an American sense of inferiority in comparison to British stage-trained actors; nowadays, though, British actors will tell you how much they admire the naturalism of Marlon Brando.

      I really think Auntie Mame should be shown and taught in schools today. Everything you need to know about life is in that film!

      Reply
      • I love that scene in “Singin’ in the Rain”!
        Yes, for a time it appeared as if every studio had their contract players going to the same diction classes. I even remember Monroe poking fun of her own over-studied diction in “There’s No Business Like Show business” (although, thinking back on it, that may have been unintentional).
        I always thought that that vague kind of mid-Atlantic movie accent was what Raquel Welch was going for in her weird diction in “Myra Breckinridge” (a woman overly-influenced by old movies) but I think Welch’s artlessness made it only come across as still and affected.

        Still, the Brando/ Actor’s Studio era of naturalism must have felt like a revolution. Fiinally, people in movies sounding like people in real life!

  3. Studio-era Hollywood seemed to have an unofficial enforcement of a ‘standard’ or mid-Atlantic American accent. Susan Hayward is one example; she worked VERY hard to get rid of her Brooklyn accent, and the result is a strange kind of nowheresville sound in her speech (if you listen closely, you can still hear traces of it).

    I do think this notion of Marlon Brando as a “mumbler” was exaggerated. I think Brando was reflecting the roles he was playing, if they were working-class, inarticulate characters. But in movies like Julius Caesar or The Ugly American (playing a diplomat), his diction is perfectly articulate and precise; he could adapt himself to the character. I think that was one of the revolutionary aspects of his acting.

    Reply
  4. What an excellent post. I enjoyed this movie too.

    I would also like to invite you to participate in my upcoming blogathon in August. The link is below with more details

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/in-the-good-old-days-of-classic-hollywood-presents-the-barrymore-trilogy-blogathon/

    Reply
  5. I’m not in total agreement with you about Bette’s diction and delivery, but I really liked this article and found it very interesting. The movie is not one of my favorites, but it is part of a great actress’s body of work, so it merits some attention. I always love to read good articles about Bette!

    Reply
  6. Your review and the great clip you have chosen of John Hoyt on the subway make me want to see this as soon as possible. I was fascinated by your description of the way Davis smokes her cigarettes in this – of course they are her trademark, but I hadn’t really thought about how she expresses different characters through the way she smokes. Something to look out for on future watchings of her films. I also love your description of James Davis’ voice being like “molasses made audible”.

    I love Davis’ restrained roles as well as her no-holds-barred ones – and her diction never worries me, but then again I’m British. But anyway, thanks for a great article and I will now be looking out for this film.

    Reply
    • The film is on a Warner Bros Archive DVD, so I don’t know if it’s available in Britain; it doesn’t seem to be shown often on TCM. I do think it’s worth catching for Bette Davis, who works many details onto a small palette of expression. Another thing I liked in the film was the appearance of the character actress Florence Bates, who’s unrecognizable. She so often played gossipy upper-class matrons (as in the film Rebecca); here she plays a working-class New England housekeeper, complete with a Yankee accent, and, though only in a few scenes, she’s indelible. I’m always pleasantly surprised when familiar character actors reveal unfamiliar ranges of talent. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      Reply
    • It’s only available here on import, either on Warner Archive or on a region 2 Spanish DVD – I sometimes tend to buy region 2 imports rather than WA, to get a pressed disc, as the prices are similar. I don’t know if it can be streamed anywhere here, but will investigate. When I do get to see it, I will watch out for Florence Bates – I agree with you that it’s a pleasure to see actors in unexpected roles and showing different aspects of their talents. Thanks, G.O.M.!

      Reply

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