TCM is my favorite TV channel because it shows classic movies without commercials. Their programming will devote a whole month to light hearted favorites like Cary Grant. For some reason, on New Year’s Day, the day when most people are reciting their resolutions or nursing their hangovers or both, TCM decided to feature alternating Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies during the late period in their careers. The mid sixties was a time not that different from now as far as Hollywood is concerned. As women turned forty, and with the great exception of a movie like All About Eve (which was made in 1950) they disappeared from the screen as serious characters.
In September 1962, Davis placed an advertisement in Variety under the heading of “Situations wanted—women artists,” which read, “Mother of three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway).”
As if in answer to this ad, Crawford and Davis were exhumed from their non-status for melodramatic horror parts where they played murderers and tricksters, whose clouded pasts made them act in desperate ways. Some of the features on TV that day were:
Where Love Has Gone (1964) with Bette Davis. Family secrets come to light when a teen-ager murders her mother’s lover.
Straight Jacket (1964) with Joan Crawford. Recently released from the criminal asylum, Joan plays an ax murderer with a beautiful young daughter about to become engaged.
Dead Ringer (1964) with Bette Davis murdering her twin sister so that she can live large.
These old dames were murderous psychopaths.
In Dead Ringer, Bette Davis plays a set of twins, both interested in the same man. Margaret, who succeeds in marrying him, becomes rich, waited on hand and foot by a devoted crew of servants in a mansion. Edith, on the other hand, is the twin who was truly in love with Frank DeLorca, who mourns him when he dies, whose lifestyle is in complete contrast to the rich Margaret.
Edith runs a night club in a less affluent part of town. When she sees that Margaret does not truly feel bad at the death of her husband, she schemes to take her place, and inherit all of that worldly wealth she deserved. Watching Bette Davis perform two roles in one body was riveting. First we see the effect of the black crepe over her as Margaret, her regal bearing, her privilege. Edith is full of resentment at losing the man she loved, and comes up with a spiteful plan. Even though she has a man who dotes on her (the sap Karl Malden– did he ever play a man whose woman was normal?), she ditches all of that dreary life so that she can wear the mink stole she saw at Margaret’s house.
The murder is ludicrous compared to how contemporary movies treat graphic violence. (Think of Gone Girl and its gore.) A bullet in the head barely makes a hole. Edith doesn’t even wash her hands. But what happens next as she adjusts to her new hair style and life with the help in the mansion is what makes the movie suspenseful. We wait for Edith to fall. What we are not expecting is the oiliest of B grade actors, Peter Lawford, to show up and demand something of her, something more than love.
Next up was The Nanny. The boy as bad as the Bad Seed meets The Nanny (Bette Davis.) Curious to think that this movie came out just one year after Mary Poppins with the cheerfully singing, youthful Julie Andrews. Bette Davis’ charges suffer drowning, poisoning, and heart attacks.
I admire that both Crawford and Davis kept working even in some pretty execrable material. As their stature in the industry diminished, their talent was still in plain sight. Sometimes taking an outlandish role allowed these actresses to make fun of the less than plum roles in a subtle way. Davis just acted as if she were in a different film, one that still held her as the star most dear.
I don’t think actors are forced to stoop to such laughable roles as they age. Roles taken by Clint Eastwood, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Don Ameche, and Christopher Plummer in their old age offered them complex characters that defy the stereotype of someone past their prime. Fifty years after The Nanny we still have a problem with women in film. There are too few of them, both in front of and behind the camera. Manohla Dargis’ excellent series of essays in the NY Times, The Director Gap, provides the statistical data and history to prove it. In the second essay of a three part series, she states: “The researcher Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, found that in 2013, female characters made up just 15 percent of protagonists and 30 percent of all speaking characters in the top 100 grossing movies.”
I watched Bette Davis with glee on New Year’s Day, thinking how antiquated those roles are now. Or are they? All of the top movies in contention for Best Picture Oscars are about men, with little screen time for the women around them. To watch women in complex parts, with witty wonderful lines, sometimes, I feel I have to go back in time, to the 30s and 40s when screwball comedy was popular.
Of course independent movies feature women more prominently. I love the movies of Nicole Holefcener. And I got sucked into watching Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail the other night, with its witty banter, found myself weeping at the gut wrenching loss Meg Ryan’s character feels when her bookstore closes. There are other examples of women doing solid work behind the camera. Lisa Cholodenko’s Olive Kittredge was a revelation. And yes, her characters are innately irritating, but Lena Dunham has taken a TV show and created a successful comedy with a sterling ensemble cast. It is full of satirical swipes at a narcissistic culture. It’s not that there aren’t any women in film and TV. I just wish there were more of them.