Remembering Bette Davis's 'Dark Victory'

This photo of Bette Davis is, I think, the most perfect ever taken of her. Why? Because it is the most boldly complete, capturing what was most beautiful about her but also what was most dangerous: the unreleased dreams boiling behind her eyes and in the full pout of her mouth.

I never really understood nor appreciated Davis’s greatness as an actress until I watched her performance recently in ‘Dark Victory.’

Bette Davis

For those who’ve never seen it, ‘Dark Victory’ centers entirely around the Davis character Judith Traherne and the manner in which she copes with her certain and imminent death from a brain tumor.

To me, Davis had been a very eccentric woman more than a great artist — one who, with turned-down lips, had an eternal chip on her shoulder. At any moment, Davis might snap your head off in the most histrionic manner possible before anyone who simply happened to be present, making you feel smaller, more useless and pathetic than last year’s want ad.

I crossed paths with Davis for a very brief instant on stage in New York when she was the one to hand me my Tony Award for a performance in John Hopkins’ play, ‘Find Your Way Home.’

Perhaps that “chip” she seemed to carry was, in some way, a central part of her character. I really don’t know nor can I say that for certain about her, never having had the intimidating privilege of working with Davis. That, however, could not diminish the enormously powerful size of her acting. Like Katharine Hepburn, with whom I did work, she was larger than any corner of a so-called ordinary life.

What brought me around to being not just impressed – Davis, like Hepburn, has always been impressive – but moved by her in the film ‘Dark Victory?’

I learned, I believe, the terms Davis set for herself in life.

I have a profoundly strong hunch that Davis had a great deal to do with the shaping of that role in ‘Victory,’ both its meaning and its very dialogue. The power of that script for me came from the two main but starkly contrasting ways her character chose to deal with the unremitting and imminent presence of death in her life.

It wasn’t so much the classic denial of death for her but a raging temper tantrum at everything around herself — fury at most of humanity’s good fortune and rage over her own bad luck. No one could perform that half of the drama better than Davis!

Not even Hepburn.

The other alternative, of course, and one I hadn’t thought Davis capable of, was a profound joy and gratitude for every additional second of life she could beg, borrow or steal for herself. It was then I knew how great she had been as an artist.

It was the ecstasy with which she hurled herself into what was left of her life, sustaining its bliss until the very end — a joy in life rarely seen in a Davis film role. The moment when her character begins to go blind was beautifully written, with her initially unaware of what was happening at all, while we in the audience and Geraldine Fitzgerald are agonizingly confronted with the truth of the situation. Dramatic irony at its most powerful, this realization was one of the most powerfully bittersweet moments that I have ever seen in the theater or movies or can so swiftly and emotionally recall.

Why “sweet” as well as “bitter”? Her character’s tribute to what she thinks of as only the setting sun still leaves me savoring such moments in life through tears.

One always startling fact of great performances by both Davis and Hepburn is the oceanic momentum both could drive an entire movie with. If anything defines a great actor or actress, it is that momentum he or she establishes which can carry many audiences through the inevitably more boring parts of a drama or comedy.

One female performance that has recently reminded me of the Hepburn/Davis powerhouse size is Dianne Wiest’s “Actress” in ‘Bullets Over Broadway.’ For me, Wiest’s Helen Sinclair seemed to be a diva-sized replica of the great Stella Adler, whom I did know and love. Nothing in Wiest’s Helen Sinclair was over the top. As Stella Adler herself taught her students, “When Checkov’s Masha of Three Sisters looks at the sky and speaks of such a huge part of the Universe, it is not ‘The sky.’ It is ‘THE SKAAAAAAHHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!'”

Since ‘Dark Victory’ is, indeed, a Davis tour de force, there are no boring moments. The very end of the film is a particularly Davis brand of ‘Victory.’

This is, in Shakespearean vernacular, “not for all markets.”

The now-legendary Davis pride and self-respect are boiling over in her ‘Dark Victory’ decision to let her husband run off to New York City on business when she’s certain of being close to death. In retrospect, I, as George Brent’s role of husband, would have been furious at such a selfish and vainglorious decision to die so bereft of his love and comfort.

That, however, was, at least in the eyes of Davis’s fans, a quintessentially Davis thing to do.

As I said, you took and take the likes of Hepburn, Davis, Adler and Wiest on their terms and not your own. If you can’t, find yourself a minor talent and bore us to death.

As Davis once replied to the bitter comments of a fellow actor on a television film, one starring a much younger but very well-known actress, “Her name’s above the title! She needs all the help she can get!”

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