Bette Does

I swear, Bette Davis in the 1968 film The Anniversary is doing Joan Crawford. Her character, Mum, has a way of smiling sickly-sweetly with eyes wide open in faux-innocence, which recalls those late-career, bless-you Crawford performances in such marvels as Queen Bee and Berserk! The sweetness here is a put-on (as it was with Joan); otherwise, Mum’s verbally disemboweling everyone in sight. Was the mimicking Davis still exacting revenge for Joan’s glamour? Still smarting from prima donna rivalry? Still yearning for Franchot Tone?

Had Tone ever really tied the knot with Bette, he would probably have ended up as does the not-so-dear departed and unseen husband of The Anniversary: unlamented in death but whose memory is used by his widow as a sentimental lure to bulldoze his hapless surviving family. Davis’s performance is sledge-hammer heavy, pummeling us with Mum’s monstrousness toward her brood. Not that the film is subtle; we’re set up from the start to expect Something Big, Mum-wise. And we get it with Bette’s arrival, 15 minutes in, as she waltzes (literally) down the stairs to greet her three cowed sons and two sulky daughters-in-law. It’s an entrance worthy of Crawford, with Bette flashing furs and pearls, garbed in a girlish salmon-colored dress and a glued-on matching eyepatch, which swirls towards her temple like a gravity-defying tear, fat with malice. Already the hex signs should be raised. Mum is a grotesque, and Bette lets not one centimeter of this character escape the Treatment: she grins fiendishly, laughs manically, swishes her arms, saunters round the room like the Queen of Hearts musing when and where to lower the axe, and booms her lines, her voice projecting out of the theater and across the street. Into the next block, for all I know. Just to alarm the neighbors.

Based on a 1966 British play, The Anniversary presents Mum as a castrating horror, who hated her late husband, whom she kept close and now, like one’s enemies, she keeps her sons closer. Henry the eldest is a cross-dresser who steals women’s clothing off clotheslines (leaving ten-bob notes pinned to the cord in exchange, so sweet of him); Terry the middle kid is unloved and scared, married with five lookalike tots of his own (all of whom can’t stand a visit to grandma’s), and nagged by his wife to escape to Canada; Tom the youngest is a cheeky loudmouth, whose idea of naughtiness is to fuck his fiancée in Mum’s bed (while Mum, he hopes, will pound on the door in helpless rage; but he doesn’t know Mum!). Terry’s wife is shrill and unhappy; Tom’s fiancée thinks she’s a match for Mum (she ain’t), and the house Mum lives in is large and dark with weird accessories, such as the stuffed cockaktoo in the greenhouse. Perhaps a leftover from dear dead Dad, kept around for nostalgia. Or to inspire dread.

The movie retains its theatrical structure: Act One has Mum revealing layers of her true, terrifying self; Act Two (with Mum switching to a dress of emerald green and a coordinating black eyepatch) shows the brood rebelling. In the original play Mum was played by Mona Washbourne, an actress whose persona was radically different from late-career Davis. Washbourne, who looked like a cuddly dumpling, usually played sweet little old ladies with a touch of dimness; she much have relished the chance to play the mother from hell. Davis, however, was already deep into her Psycho-Biddy phase when she took on this role; oomphed up in garish 1960s fashions, she’s like Auntie Mame crossed with Madame Defarge. You keep expecting her to cry “Live, Live, Live, my darlings!” while skewering her spawn with a sharpened swizzle stick. Or maybe a martini-moistened knitting needle.

There’s something very Crawford about this pose…

I can’t say I enjoyed Davis’s performance all that much. It was too deliberately over-the-top, all foregrounded effects. It may have been intended as a parody of her well-known screen persona, but Davis doesn’t shape or build her performance. She comes on in full-blast diva mode, amping the volume all the way through. The screenplay is partly to blame; it’s structured as constant one-up-man-ship between all characters, no prisoners taken. The film becomes an endurance test for viewers, too exhausting to watch. The tension never lessens, the characters are unlikable, and the direction, by Roy Ward Baker (who replaced the original director after Bette had him fired; could Bette have been going Method-Mum off the set?), is stage-bound and static: lots of close-ups of contorted, angry, or agonized faces, lots of cutting in-between, but little sense of the actors in space. Maybe the claustrophobia was deliberate, but surely not to the point where you want to run from the movie theater.

I also wish I could have enjoyed the movie better, as camp or as black humor or as horror. It can’t seem to make up its mind which way to go. It lacks the lightness and precision, the control that black humor requires, and it’s too grueling for camp. Horror is maybe what it succeeds best at; by the end you want the villagers to rise and march and dispatch Mum in a grand torch parade. The one likable performance is by James Cossins as the pathetic Henry (repeating his stage role). He’s sweet and sad and resigned to being labeled a “pervert” (it was the 1960s, so his behavior was still considered a bit more than eccentric). He brings the one note of gentleness to this strident work. And he’s also funny. I think it’s because he underplays. Henry’s not a swish or a criminal but a mild, decent, if somewhat baffled fellow, who just has this strange urge. Despite his compulsions, Henry’s dignified in his oddness; he’s the sanest person in the room and the one, you suspect, who will survive.

How much Davis survives her own performance is debatable; she was never known for her comedy playing. Did she understand what she was doing, or did she misunderstand her effects (I suppose Baker was too intimidated to rein her in)? But she leaves no doubt who’s front and center here. The excellent actress Sheila Hancock, as Terry’s wife, also from the original play, was put off by Bette’s star posturing (and Bette did not want her in the movie to begin with). In the film Hancock is photographed plain and one-note in demeanor (she looks like a squeezed prune), and her make-up is unbecoming; it adds to the film’s overall harshness. Hancock herself later played Mum to acclaim in a 2005 West End revival. I’m curious if, in her portrayal, she decided to ‘do’ Bette (though she claims her model was the actor Kenneth Williams). Even if she had, it wouldn’t have been the same. With all cylinders roaring, Bette is always, inimitably, Bette. Nobody does that better.

Somehow I don’t see Joan doing THIS…

Bonus clip, my darlings: Bette shows us how to do an entrance worthy of a diva in The Anniversary, while the whole brood watches:

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