Slow Curtain: David and Cameron Discuss Of Human Bondage and The Whales of August

Bette Davis in The Whales of August.

David Fox: Cameron, it was your inspired suggestion that we put together these two very different movies from more than half a century apart—Of Human Bondage (1934) and The Whales of August (1987)—and thus get a sense of the long arc of a career. This is “Bette Davis: Coming and Going,” as it were. There’s so much to be said about both these memorable and very different performances, and the movies themselves, too! But one thing that jumped out was a reaffirmation for me that Davis represents the near ideal of what I think of as “movie star acting.” What I mean by this is a delicate balance between immersive character work, such that each performance feels different; while at the same time always reminding you of the actor’s own, indelible personality. I think audiences really want both, and with Davis, they certainly get it. Here, she is, at one end, an incendiary, sexy Cockney waitress and walking time bomb; and at the other, an ornery, rigid Maine dowager. But in both she is—gloriously—Miss Bette Davis.

Cameron Kelsall: In both films, Davis gets a superb entrance, one that immediately captivates the viewer and communicates her star power. In Of Human Bondage, she’s seen across a tea room, the instant objection of Leslie Howard’s affection. Her alabaster skin and platinum hair practically pop out of the black-and-white frame. In Whales, she appears almost as if an apparition—the once-platinum hair now shockingly white, the delicate features somewhat ravaged by time (and the devastating stroke that affected Davis in the last decade of her life and career). Even ghostlike, though, she is still utterly captivating and utterly herself. I think that is one of the most interesting things to consider when you look at these opposite poles: from the very beginning to the very end of her career, her sense of assurance and self-possession was undeniable. It was there all along—which is likely why she, alongside the similarly uber-confident Katharine Hepburn, is often regarded as the greatest screen actress of all time…

Click here to read the entire post at Parterre Box.

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