The Great Enunciator

What a story a film’s credit sequence can tell.  Consider the one in Where Love Has Gone.  After the standard studio logo (in this case, the Paramount mountain) and the producer’s identification (here, Joseph E. Levine), top-billed Susan Hayward’s name appears, on the upper right of the screen.  Her name is then followed—popping up quick as a wink, mind you, as if making damn sure she’s not left out—by Bette Davis, just below but hanging towards the left.  That’s followed almost as quickly (but not quite), by Michael Connors, appearing below Susan’s name, falling in line with the top-named star:

If you were to take away the San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge backdrop (as well as that soupy title song) and flatten the names into lines, you’d have an abstract drawing, like this:

Two parallel lines on the right side, disrupted by a middle one on the left, which insists on hanging just out of sync with those other two—yet seems ready to slice itself in between.  And that slicing/sticking-out line is the one that represents Bette Davis.

Well, of course.

Even in the credits, Bette is Bette.

The film is summarized right there:  Bette stands apart.  The rest of the cast vainly flits and flutters around her, beating their wings to squeeze into a sliver of space at the bird feeder and grab whatever seed is left in the tray.  Even Susan Hayward, an actress I admire, and who does her damnedest here to hold onto her perch, emoting as if she were astride the burning towers of Troy and calling for rain—even Susan has to retire from the rooftops and take refuge.  Bette dominates the film, its story, its characters, and what sticks in your mind after viewing.  She twirls the movie around one fingernail and makes it all about her.

Anyone object?

Certainly NOT.

Not I.  I wouldn’t call what Bette does in the film ‘acting,’ not in the conventional sense.  I don’t know what to call it, but I loved it.  How to define what Bette does?  Full throttle here, and looking fabulous in furs, pearls, and silver-white hair piled atop her head like icing on a cake, Bette, though approaching 60, holds herself like a soldier—straight and square, shoulders back, head and neck solid, feet stepping into the ground, arms and hands slicing the air like power saws, and that swaying-hip walk, now so pronounced she seems to move by hinges on every stride.  Bette had honed herself into not an individual but a creed:  Bette Inc., Diva Extraordinaire, guaranteed to give you what you want in Camp Taste and more.  She shapes herself into a living caricature of her image, the lines as bold and big as in a Hirschfeld drawing; she is Bette writ large, her presence not that of a mere actress but of an icon expecting, yes, demanding worship—an exacting goddess, who knows precisely what she wants from her devotees’ sacrifice, down to the length and curl of smoke issuing from the burnt offering on the pyre.

Long live Bette, I say.

Despite all the camp flaunting (and if you’ve got it, then, whattady’know, flaunt it), a true actor’s imagination is still at work here.  Bette starts from an individual response to her character:  How would this particular person, with her particular background and story, be?  As opposed to another particular person?  My sense is that Bette’s starting point was the voice.  Her character, Mrs. Hayden, is an eccentric, wealthy, willful dowager, who dominates everyone in her orbit but from behind the scenes.  So Bette looked at this rich, outwardly genteel, socially conscious, upper-reaches-of-society dame, who yet burns with a hidden ambition that could have set Troy itself alight, and thought:  How does a lady of this caliber speak to the world without letting the world see what’s really going on in her brain?  It’s by working through this one feature that Bette manifests Mrs. Hayden and defines her to audiences—by showing how Mrs. Hayden chooses to express this layered self.

I have to admire Bette for her variety here.  She doesn’t give Mrs. Hayden the vibrating chest tones of Margo Channing nor the rasp of Baby Jane, nor does she use the heartfelt vocal throbs of her anguished spinsters in Now, Voyager or Winter Meeting (the latter I wrote about here).  Instead, she goes for high and light, a head voice, without diaphragm support; small, refined, but emphatic.  It has the fine thrust of an ice pick, as well as the thin, cold timbre of ice.  You hear it in the Voice’s first appearance, before Bette is even onscreen.  A half-awake, hung-over Hayward picks up the phone and snarls, “Don’t you ever sleep?”  The response from the receiver—“Not At my Age”—immediately pricks the eardrums, each imperious word snapped out like a rubber band from a kid’s fingers.  The frosty tone, the off-kilter stresses, are aimed right to where it hurts.  Just the thing to rouse one from a hangover on a bad morning.

Ow!

I wish I had a recording of that sentence—of that unmistakable Bette voice saying it.  Quick and sharp on every sonant, piercing the air like a bullet through glass, it’s the voice of a stiletto, not a broad sword—because how else would an elderly lady of outward class and distinction but of an inner lethal mind speak?  That sentence compresses a portrait into four words:  A woman intelligent, calculating, ruthless, skewering her prey not with weapons but consonants and vowels.  A real killer lurks behind those refined vocal cords.  Mrs. Hayden hasn’t even stepped in front of the camera and we’re already chilled to the bone.

Throughout the film Bette holds to this bizarre, skittering vocal cadence, as if she were conducting a private, eccentric field drill by speech patterns:

—  “Valerie. Was Destined. For Tragedy.”

—  “Well, LukeWhat a. Pleasant. Surprise.”

— “Don’t. Be Vulgar. Valerie.”

—  “AAANNY time you would like me. To take them Back. Just let me know.”

—  “How. Do you Dare. To malign ME?”

Note how the syllabic weight is weirdly placed, how the rhythm is chopped into fragments, how syllables are sliced into slivers of aural space.  Each word is shaped, sculpted, chiseled, polished to an exacting sheen, the phrasing cut and measured to centimeters, the tone clipped and cold:  “Is that. Clear?”  In comparison, Hayward booms her lines as if auditioning for a Yankees sportscaster slot, while teenaged co-star Joey Heatherton squeals like a piglet that’s stubbed its trotter.  In either case, neither owns it like Bette.  Which, no doubt, was exactly her intention.

The movie is based on a 1962 best-selling novel by literary schlock maven Harold Robbins, who in turn based the plot on the murder of Johnny Stompanato by Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner’s daughter.  Both Robbins and the movie hang enough gauze in front of the true-life specifics to provide (somewhat) plausible deniability:  Hayward’s ‘Lana’ character is from the San Francisco upper crust, not the working-class Middle West; she’s an award-winning sculptress, not a glamorous actress; she has a contentious relationship with her mother (Davis), not the close one Turner had in real life.  Turner’s scandal, however, would have been recent enough in the public’s memory for everyone to figure out the clef in the roman.  To these already sad, sordid events Robbins, and the 1964 film, added such tawdry elements as adultery, nymphomania, class conflict, family feuding, and then-shocking teenage sexuality.  Turner’s story didn’t need any more crassness than it already had, but Robbins believed firmly in the Nothing-Succeeds-Like-Excess philosophy and so heaped it on; and the film, despite some censored softening, followed suit.

What trashy stuff like this demands is the po-faced flamboyance of a Douglas Sirk or the damn-the-torpedoes bad taste of a Ross Hunter (preferably both).  It practically screams for kitsch—with garish color, tilted camera angles, mirrors, deep black-green technicolor shadows, and a use of space that calls attention to itself while making its points.  Edward Dmytryk’s direction, however, is too earnest and plodding for such fare.  His scenes are stagy and dull, without frills, as if done by numbers.  The film overall is so dreary to watch that I wondered if that was deliberate on Dmytryk’s part, if he were trying to indicate to audiences, in a ‘meta’ way, how crude and specious the story is.  A scene of reporters, for example, clustering around Heatherton’s car, looks like what it is:  A bunch of extras filling space with random motion while trying to hit their marks.  It could be amateur night at the local high school theater club, with everyone told to act natural when the camera starts.  Though nobody does.  Or can.

That’s why Bette stands out.  She gets it.  She knows that this stuff is guff, that it’s as tacky as can be, and that it should be played that way.  “Your bawth,” says Madame Bette, gesturing towards the bawthroom.  She actually says it like that.  I mean, who talks this way?  Oh, but Bette does.  And can.  And can get away with it.  And if she’s not speaking, she’s emoting to beat the band, with gestures such as the greatest, godalmightiest eyeroll recorded in cinema.  It’s not only priceless to watch (and Dmytryk must have known it; he gives her a sustained, isolated close-up), it upends the movie’s pretentious solemnity, giving us Bette raw—served neat, no ice or mixers, just her pure, undiluted self, choosing to let us know what she thinks.

And then there’s this one line she says, in her matchless style, that caps it all:

— “Now.  Bless you. Both.

I do wonder—could Someone have been imitating Someone Else here?


Bette Talks!:  Here’s a clip from Where Love Has Gone, featuring Bette Davis in All. Her inimitable. Glory; along with powerhouse actors Susan Hayward and Mike Connors.  But who is it you watch (and listen to)?  Plus there’s an artist’s studio that’s THREE times the size of my apartment (get me my brushes, I’m moving in):

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