Performance of the week: Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938)

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Movie legend Bette Davis won her second and final Oscar for playing Julie Marsden in William Wyler’s Jezebel. It’s almost strange to think that this would be Davis’ final Oscar considering how the immense popularity of her later works (All About Eve in 1950 and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? In 1962) would eventually eclipse this one. I have always been curious about this work, since it is one of Davis’ lesser talked about performance despite it being the one she actually won the Oscar for.

Jezebel is a solid movie that is very good but not legendary by any means. I am a huge fan of William Wyler in general (The Collector, Roman Holiday, Mrs Miniver, The Little Foxes, Wuthering Heights etc.) so I know that even his lesser works will be “good” at the very least. And that’s what I feel about Jezebel: It’s a solid, perfectly watchable film made by a master. The story is not very interesting, but the scenes are very well shot and filled with emotional tension. I also love the set and costume designs, which is always a plus for period films. The performances are solid throughout, which is another plus point, but I find Fay Bainter’s Oscar win a bit much. I mean, I usually love these supporting aunts/guardian roles but hers was a bit one dimensional even though she played what was required of her very well (very nice, reassuring presence). Interesting to note that she was the first double nominee in history though, receiving a best actress nomination the same year for her work in White Banners. Having said all that, I sorta understand why Jezebel is a bit forgotten nowadays, considering how Gone with The Wind was made one year later.

And the same can be said for Davis’ Oscar winning turn as manipulative Southern Belle Julie Marsden, which will eventually be overshadowed by Vivien Leigh’s legendary Scarlett O’Hara the next year. But firstly: what more can be said about Bette Davis? I’m sure most film fans would have heard of her at the very least, even if they haven’t watched any of her films. This woman is one of the most interesting Hollywood personalities I have ever known; I can seriously just watch an entire interview of hers to listen to the stuff that she says. I am full of admiration at how she seriously fought for her career, giving her 200% in all her roles and delivering fantastic performances. People tend to compare her to Katharine Hepburn; original, straightforward personalities with distinct acting styles that can be a turn off (“always seeing the actress”). Although I prefer subtle acting, I won’t deny my huge admiration of these two actresses because of the risks they take in their acting choices. Personally, I prefer Hepburn’s acting style and yet I don’t think less of Davis. She is really LOUD sometimes, but the way I see it is because of the 200% energy she injects into the roles, which can payoff tremendously or result in hideous overacting in some of her lesser performances. In short, she is brilliant.

While Katharine Hepburn’s forte was spinsters and manipulative women, Bette Davis was particularly known for playing bitches. Amazingly, the bitches she play are as different from one another as possible; can anyone honestly say that Margo Channing, Regina Giddens, ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson and over here in Jezebel, Julie Marsden are the same characters? To me, this demonstrates Davis’ capabilities as an actress in her understanding and delicate handling of her characters, and not just some scenery-chewing, Oscar-baiting actress (there’s some truth to this though). In Jezebel, she displays a side of her that is lesser seen; a quiet, vindictive side. I’m even amazed at how she manages to change her usual way of speaking, adopting a soft, quietly dangerous way of delivering the lines. With this, she establishes Julie Marsden as a frivolous, “devil-may-care” lady on the surface, but is in fact someone who can be ultra manipulative deep inside. There’s a quiet fierceness to this role that makes it quite juicy to watch; it’s as though Davis is deliberately containing that energy within her instead of letting it explode out of her. Watching her insist on wearing the red dress to the ball even though she’s not supposed to, or when she kisses an already married Preston in the garden and then subtly manipulates Cantrell into getting into a fight with him afterwards without saying it out loud is just delicious to watch in a sadistic way.

Yet beneath all that bitchiness, I feel like Davis actually added a lot of depth and layers to this part. She shows the emotionally vulnerable moments of the character very well, like her palpable embarrassment during the famous red dress sequence (considering she was the one who masterminded it!), and at the end of the day, you realise that she is nothing more than a spoilt Southern Belle who is a bit too manipulative and possessive for her own good. She goes all out to wreck havoc to get things her way but regrets her action afterwards. Also, throughout the whole movie, I feel that Davis handled the development of her character very naturally, and her final monologue to Amy (Preston’s wife) actually showed how Julie has wised up. She realises that she can never have Preston as a lover but still wants to take care of him as he is about to be sent off to be quarantined because of his illness. It’s a scene that shows how complicated Julie is; she knows that Amy can never survive in a rough environment (“I can fight better than you”) and wants to go in her place, and yet there are times I suspect that this is her way of indicating she has won the battle: that Preston is better off with her, even if his heart isn’t.

This is a delightful, underrated performance by a terrific actress that should be discussed more often. I really really enjoyed Bette Davis work here, and I daresay her Oscar win is deserved even if the character is a diet version of Scarlett O’ Hara (and it’s meant to be for that matter). Great, enjoyable work.

p.s. As you realise, I have been neglecting my 1971 best picture for a while. I definitely will not give up on it, but I must admit that at the moment I’m feeling a bit lazy and I’m focusing my attention more on these performances posts for a while. I will certainly resume it once I’m in the mood, which has been affected by incidents such as the tragic MH17 crash. Thankfully, no one I know was involved but it just saddened me greatly over the past few days (I don’t know why) and I wasn’t really in the mood for movies. R.I.P to the victims.

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