When She’s Bad, She’s Great

Here comes Rosa Moline.  In her swing-necked blouse, her hip-swinging skirt, her stockingless legs and fuck-me shoes.  Hot to trot and rarin’ to go.  Who flaunts it all for love or money.  Especially the latter.  And who won’t take no for an answer.  That’s Rosa Moline.

Ah, poor Rosa.  Born into and stuck in a hick Wisconsin burg, she dreams of Chicago—she’s gonna Make It Big by getting to the Big City.  And she tries so hard.  Reading fashion magazines for inspiration, trusting their surface gloss, copying their ad-page elegance.  Which she takes for a look of Big-City-Here-I-Belong.  But once in the Big City, in her dumpy suit, her floppy hat, her thick-soled ankle-strapped sandals, Rosa screams small-town at every pore.  She’s a junior-miss Ma Kettle; she’s raw.  Given the chance, maybe she’d have eventually caught on.  But Rosa Molines don’t get those chances.  They’re too gauche, too heedless, too naïve.  They can’t, or won’t, figure it out.  And they stay small-town at heart.  Rosa never does figure that those magazines sold her a bill of goods.  Just to get her to push a 25-cent-piece across the counter.  Those really in the know don’t need magazines to go figure.

Poor, clueless Rosa.  She’s the kind of woman none of us ladies want to be.

Including Bette Davis.

Bette Davis was furious when Jack Warner cast her as Rosa in Beyond The Forest.  Beyond fury, you might say.  In a 1965 Sight and Sound interview, Bette said it was a “terrible movie,” and that she was too old for the part.  She had a point.  Rosa is a youngish, none-too-bright woman, maybe in her late 20s, a crude, flaunting sexpot with guttersnipe morals.  It was the kind of tarty role Bette had been forced to do 12, 15 years earlier, as in Ex-Lady or Parachute Jumper or Satan Met A Lady; roles she despised.  And at the time of the film’s release, in 1949, Davis was also past 40.  She had been acting for 20 years, she had recently birthed a child, she was spreading middle age throughout her body.  She was beyond the aspiring sexpot stage.  Bette was nothing if not a realist.

And she was also the Queen of the Warners Bros. lot—a twice-awarded Oscar winner, who starred in such substantial films as The Letter, The Old Maid, Dark Victory, Now, Voyager.  Movies in which she played mature, complex, multi-faceted women facing heartbreak and crises.  Roles worthy of an actress of her range, genius, ambition—and of that I’m-The-Diva-In-The-Room-And-Don’t-You-Forget-It attitude.  Bette made sure you’d remember that.

But the role of Rosa was that of a twitchy, bitchy slut.  A woman who scorns her dull husband because he’s dull, and who lusts after a rich guy because he’s rich.  Who cold-bloodedly shoots a man as she would a deer because he’s in her way, and who destroys her unborn child because she’d rather be in Chicago.  This is a dame who wants, more than anything else, sex, money, and luxury goods (and not necessarily in that order).  The perfect role, Davis protested to Jack Warner, for the studio’s newest sexpot, Virginia Mayo.

Ah, Virginia.  Beautiful, blonde, busty Virginia, whose golden splendor, the Sultan of Morocco supposedly said, gave “tangible proof of the existence of God.”  Virginia (some 12 years younger than Davis) had big brown eyes and ripe lush lips; her figure was an hourglass made flesh, and her legs were as long as Bette’s career.  Maybe longer.  Virginia could have twirled Rosa Moline round her God-Made-Tangible finger and have had a lot of fun with the part.  Put Virginia in Rosa’s Dracula wig, said Bette to Jack, and let her strut her stuff on a set.  It’s what she’s meant for.

What If?…

Whereas Davis was meant for Quality.

But I wonder if Davis—the great, the brilliant, the fierce Miss Bette Davis, whose performance in her (first) Oscar-winning role in Dangerous made David Shipman think she’d have been a great Hedda Gabler—I wonder if she may have had more in common with Rosa Moline than casually perceived.  Note how they converge—two strong, determined, frustrated, even outrageous women (rather Hedda Gabler-like), eager to break beyond constrictions imposed by a society that doesn’t give a damn about what these ladies would want.  And both these ladies really do—Want.  Rosa wants Happiness at all costs—represented by sex, money, men, excitement, the Good Life (hence her urge to reach Chicago).  And Davis wanted, beyond anything else, Greatness—even as a young, hungry actress, she demanded to be taken seriously as an artist, demanded roles worthy of her talent.  Had Davis been 12 or 15 years younger, what might she have found in Rosa?  Into what depths of this extreme, restless woman might she have plunged?

Oh, sure, the film’s a hoot.  A downsized Madame Bovary, stuffed with Wisconsin cheese, it plays out its grimy little tale of dangerous desires with the delicacy of a jackhammer against Waterford glass.  Director King Vidor bangs out the film’s symbols as if they were spelled with a capital C; take that lumber furnace near Rosa’s house, which belches flames like the Fires of Gehenna.  There’s also Max Steiner’s score, wringing out every last, itty-bitty, infinitesimal variation on the song “Chicago,” till we hope someone puts that damn tune out of its, and our, misery.

And then there’s Bette herself:  In fright wig and bad rags, slut-walking down brightly-lit studio streets, hips, arms, shoulders, head, boobs a-swingin- and a-swayin’, and slicing through the air as if she means to chop her way right out of the celluloid.  There’s nothing small, neat, or mild, nothing expected about Bette’s Rosa.  You can see it, tangibly, in her reading of the film’s most famous camp line—basically throwing it away, with a sideways glance that says, with a silent, bitter eloquence, how utterly fed up Rosa is with life, the universe, and everything—as she files her nails.  Who else would have the cool, the moxie, the nerve to do that?

Maybe gorgeous Virginia Mayo would have done a credible job here.  Maybe she could have swung and strutted her stuff to beat the band (as well as Steiner’s score), maybe she would have given further proof that the Divine Afflatus resided in her heavenly body, no doubt giving the Sultan of Morocco even more cause to rejoice.  But I think Virginia, as charming and delightful as she was, would have stayed within bounds.  She’d have done her job as the movie’s Rosa and then left it there.  Whereas Bette—Bette-as-Rosa—is more than the sum of her and their parts.  Bette-n-Rosa fuse, meld, bind, as in an alchemical process, to transform into something we will, even must, remember.  And this kitschy little film can’t contain that; it can’t embrace the whole chaotic, blazing, glorious mess of its lead character and her interpreter.  Whenever Bette/Rosa appear, the movie fades from view.

What do I mean?  I mean that, even though Beyond the Forest and its leading lady are considered prime camp, Davis transcends the junk she was dumped with and gives a real performance in this film.  She doesn’t slough off the role, she doesn’t slouch through the script.  She digs into the plot, she tears into her character, she makes Rosa a human being.  That’s one reason why the film is a camp classic.  Davis doesn’t relax onscreen, she gives too much, she works at Rosa every second, seeking for honesty and plumbing for the tragic.  She’s acting, damn it.  AND she’s a Star.  She’s aware of her responsibility, to herself, to the film, to her audience.  Almost nothing else in this movie (except for a fine, fiery performance by Dona Drake) is at her level.  And no one else dives into it like Davis.  To the other actors, it’s a job.  To Bette, it’s what her whole life is about.  She’s an actress; she ACTS.

You want proof?  Just watch Davis’s final walk to the train station—in the dark, the lumber yard fires raging behind her, the locomotive’s demonic smoke steaming in front—as, dying on her feet, she stumbles, staggers, weaves, trips, falls, yet through sheer will pulls herself up and onwards—always moving, always forward, always on.  It’s silly, funny, campy, dumb, awful, and—magnificent.  Only a star, a real star, and a real actress, could have carried this off.  Could have, in spite of the camp, the silliness, the sheer incredulity of it all, kept us watching, kept us ROOTING for her to get to that Chicago train.  This is Davis at her most ridiculous, yet her most sublime.  This is what it is to be Great.

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