The following is a guest post submitted by Camiele White of Star Costumes. You'll find more information about Camiele at the bottom of her article. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:
I've always had a keen interest in Bette Davis (and being a product of the 80s I'm sure you can guess from whence my interest was birthed). So, when I eventually emailed Immortal Ephemera to do a guest blog I instantly knew that if I was going to tackle any films from before 1950, I'd have to begin and end my search with Bette Davis.
Long before I'd even heard of her it was en vogue to laud (or lambaste) Davis for her perceived combative and confrontational approach to filmmaking. And, indeed after an appearance on a late night television show in the late 80s, it was ruefully observed by Lindsay Anderson that the public, in fact, loved to see her "behaving so bitchy". I, however, doubt I'm alone in thinking that her so-called confrontational nature on (and at times, off) screen was nothing more than an average woman in above average circumstances playing the hand she's dealt, and often with brassier cajones than her many male contemporaries. She may have appeared unsympathetic, bordering on vitriolic; however, to belittle her attitude as "feisty", as was the unfortunate case when speaking lightly of her personality, is nothing if not making a very solid case for her downright necessity to be as defiant and brash as she was after brushing off the green dew of her early career in the late 20s.
Incidentally, it's this aspect of her career that I would like to consider. After all, everyone has a beginning to their eventual greatness. I've always been somewhat obsessed with understanding the origins of someone's career --those green seconds before the dawn of fame and fortune-- to see just what it is that engendered so much will, grace, and craft in those public personas that interest the masses. Whether sports, writing, or any number of the glorious arts that we’ve come to lionise, it has to be said that the most interesting aspect of anyone’s career is always at the beginning --well, at least in my eyes.
The Bad Sister was the world's first glimpse into the coquettish face and spell-bounding eyes from whence emerged one of the most memorable songs of the 1980s. While not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, it certainly made an impression on me as to with what the world was so enraptured. Bette Davis seemed to carry within her an innate sense of facial emotion. Whatever lacked in scripted nuance or even acting chops is more than compensated for with an understanding of how to portray the emotions of the scene. Her eyes, as deep set and dreamy as they are, seem to carry the entire film, quite frankly. Davis also seemed to know how to give the emotional physicality. Her body language was spot on, while her brunette counterpart, Marianne (portrayed by Sidney Fox), seemed to depend on her cutesy and often times gratingly impish looks to make her presence on the screen known. What strikes me as brilliant is Davis’ ability to hold back any pretentious drama to give the scene its due course --no overambitious acting from a young thespian trying to make it; no need to do more than what the role requires. Her incredible attention to the moment is what makes her presence all the more palatable to me.
Of course, one can’t really consider the early career of a young Ms. Bette Davis without looking into the film that made her one of the first true female idols to emerge from this Immortal Ephemera. She was truly in a class of her own, a woman not afraid to take on roles that most women in this “golden era” of Hollywood would’ve stuck their noses up at the very thought of marring their shining exteriors for the sake of a scene. Of Human Bondage not only allowed Davis the opportunity to flex her theatrical muscle, at also informed Hollywood of the true nature of the beast. Acting is just that --separating one’s self, one’s personal idiosyncrasies, for the sake of bringing a typewritten character to living, breathing life. With impeccable grace and elegance, the woman seemed to give the screen a new sense of direction, a glamour that it hadn’t before thought to appeal to. It was gritty, more realistic of a woman’s complete character. Davis shone as a star only could, but never gave herself up to the clichéd nuances of every other Hollywood starlet --because she chose to be nasty, she exposed her sexuality as sarcastic, sinister, more human. She was snide, abusively snobbish. It was this characteristic that many women would’ve shied away from, if only for the sake of maintaining the perfect feminine façade. Davis, however, wanted to show the female for all the facets she had --flirtatious, precocious, quirky, crazed, even the one characteristic that would continuously follow her in her career, bitchy.
No one can forget the scene that carried her from obscurity to superstardom. Her turn from a flirtatious waitress to a raging harpy is undeniably frightening in a time when women were flinging their hair and making eyes to the camera. Davis moved away from the glamour and embraced the dark insanity of femininity, bringing light to the insane side of the beauty so idolised in film. The switch is almost ghastly, grotesquely frightening, screaming at the top of her longs, wailing words that would turn any heart to shattered glass --“And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH!!!” In her silk negligee and tight curls, the woman is a living doll with the soul of a demon, and her acting pushed the film industry to tackle the maniacal side of soft charms of the on-screen damsel and place cracks in the shiny mask of beauty.
Bette Davis was truly a marvel on the screen, though many a critic would deem her cold, unsympathetic, and even cruel. She knew how to play up her almost alien looks, giving her a personality that could level you with just a twinkle in her eyes. She also knew how to give her energy to a scene in such a way as to elevate the entire film from something mediocre to something special. In this, the Immortal Ephemera, Bette Davis is a treasure. From her humble beginnings taking bit parts in unexceptional films, to totally encapsulating the torment and sensationalism of human nature in a single scene, Davis truly is what Hollywood has always wished to be.
As unexpected as her path was to loving all things weird, more unexpected is her ability to get attention for writing about the stuff. From Japanese horror and Korean melodrama, to the acid soaked animation of the 70s, Camiele White loves to talk about, debate, and watch film that teases, pleases, and abuses the senses. Right now, she gets her jabberjaw jollies writing about Halloween costumes. If you want to give her a buzz, she can be reached at cmlewhite at gmail [dot] com.