Tropes of Women in Film: Bette Davis in The Little Foxes

Part of the reason we create art is to work out who we are. At the heart of even modern TV and movies is the struggle of a person to become a person. The easiest example is Mad Men. Not just a saucy show about office romances in the 60’s, it is the story of Don Draper becoming a man. Don struggles with his values, his relationships, and his identity (him more literally than others, but you get the idea). These struggles form the core of most films. Unfortunately, or interestingly, I’m not sure which modifier to use, most films and TV and art deal with a man’s struggle to become a man, not just any old person’s struggle. Think of great film noirs of the 1940’s. It’s Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart or Robert Taylor up there finding themselves. The women are basically pin-ups. I could not name one Robert Mitchum female co-star, and I’ve seen several of his films. A few women and a few roles stand out, but even lauded women like Myrna Loy, praised for the “equality” of her on-screen marriages to William Powell, is put in a cab and shipped off to Grant’s tomb so she won’t get in the way. So what are little girls watching movies supposed to think? Yes, we watch movies for fun and entertainment, but we also look for and see something of ourselves on the screen. Do women have to envision themselves in the man’s place? Or are they to idolize the women who are tossed around and all too often, one-dimensional? What do women have to look up at on the silver screen? I give you, a new series, Tropes of Women in Film, beginning with the inimitable Bette Davis, in my favorite role of hers, The Little Foxes.

Bette Davis is credited for 122 films from 1931 to 1989, she won 2 Academy Awards for Best Actress, and her name has become synonymous with beauty and talent. In reality, she was rather short with buggy eyes. But boy, did she use those. She played a wider range of roles than almost any woman at the time, from period pieces to romantic melodramas to comedies to tragedies to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Some representative roles include Dark Victory, in which she is the brash daughter of a millionaire who refuses to face her brain tumor and falls in love with her doctor and her stable boy. In The Petrified Forest, she plays Gabrielle, a girl who works at a gas station in the desert with her father and dreams of running away to Paris. And in The Little Foxes she plays a conniving, controlling family matriarch. Bette’s simpering females are not my favorite. Mademoiselle “D” in All This and Heaven Too is so “oui monsieur” and “non monsieur” and downcast eyes and respectful propriety. It’s uninteresting. She was a powerful actress and did better with meaty scripts, unafraid to play villains. Something unsympathetic was good for Bette. She made her name as that simpering woman, that doe-eyed girl blinking her gigantic lashes. But in the early 40’s, at the same time she took back her career from the studio system and from Warner Brothers, she made films like The Little Foxes and others that were more romantic, but still beefy and dramatic.

The Little Foxes was a stage play written by Lillian Hellman, a female playwright famous for her affair with Dashiell Hammett, and unfortunately less famous for her magnificent plays about women. The Children’s Hour (notably the film version starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn) was a scandal about two school teachers whose lives are ruined when one of their students accuses them of being lesbians. The Little Foxes tells the story of the decline of an aristocratic Southern family, and the matriarch,Regina, desperately trying to regain their former glory. Regina has two brothers, both idiots. Her older brother is a bachelor, and her younger brother is married to a nervous alcoholic named Birdie, and they have a weak son named Leo. Regina is married to Horace, a sickly man being treated in Baltimore for a heart condition, and they have a daughter, about Leo’s age, named Alexandra. “Xan” loves her father and is thrilled when he comes home to recuperate. She’s also about 17 and just starting to flirt with her beau, David. Regina has called her husband home because she is in the middle of trying to close a merger with a businessman from Chicago and closing the deal is contingent on her manipulating her husband and her brothers into putting up the money. Regina plays the brothers off each other and the elder brother plays Leo off of his father. They manipulate Leo into stealing bonds from Horace, in order to close the deal. It all comes crashing down around them, as Horace dies, Regina alienates her daughter, and the deal falls through. The house of cards collapses. Hellman wrote it as a direct attack on a powerful Southern family from her hometown of Demopolis. The play premiered on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead in the Regina role. A year later, it was put to film with the two brothers reprising their roles from Broadway, and Bette Davis as Regina. The film was directed by William Wyler, and while some call it a “grim and malignant melodrama” (ahem, Bosley Crowther), I see nothing over the top in the story of Bette’s performance. The New York Times review called her performance “abundant with color and mood” and the film as a whole, “one of the most realistic character studies yet shown on screen.”

“Henrik Ibsen and William Faulkner could not together have designed a more morbid account of inter-family treachery and revoltingly ugly greed”

This theme of the fall of the Old South is prevalent in literature and film, especially of the time. William Faulkner spent his entire career musing on that very subject. Hellman’s twist on this theme, and skewering of the South, is that it comes with a female in the spotlight. Faulkner often used women as storytellers or matriarchs or vamps, but the real heroes of his stories were men. Regina is a woman trying to live in a man’s world, and in order to play with the big boys, she has to act like a man. She is cold, hard, and calculating. She never gives anyone a straight answer. And nowhere is that more apparent than in her treatment of her daughter. On the subject of Leo marrying Xan (no doubt to inherit Horace’s bank), Regina is coy. Oh, she’s smooth. She knows Leo is spineless and powerless, but she wants her brothers to sign on the business deal, so she cannot risk alienating them. She doesn’t give a straight answer on the marriage and keeps them dangling, letting them think she may end up on their side, even though she knows she won’t. Bette’s physicalization of Regina is almost painful. She is always seated or standing ramrod straight, with her hair piled on top of her head. Her dresses are tight and her collars high. While that was the fashion at the turn of the century, Regina’s movements and costumes just seem exaggerated to look more constraining and restraining. According to Wyler’s biographer, he wanted Regina to still be “handsome and charming,” despite her selfish and greedy nature. Bette disagreed and used make-up to lighten her skin in an attempt to make herself look older (she was 33 playing 41, especially rare in actresses of that time, used to playing ingenues well into their 30’s). Apparently she used too much “venom” in her interpretation of Regina and clashed with Wyler over the role frequently. She uses a clipped speech and a put-on accent. She is no nonsense, business-like, and unemotional, but she does all of this because she desires class. She wants to move to Chicago and live in a fancy house and have all of the things she wants for her daughter. She wants to gain back the aristocratic position she felt her family has lost at the hands of weak men. She uses weak men, and women, to get what she wants.

Xan, on the other hand, is a different sort of woman, played by Teresa Wright, a trope Wright would repeat again and again. A post for another time.

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