Watching Bette Davis for the first time in ‘The Letter’ and ‘All About Eve’ is like discovering a talent for the ages; except for a few cases, she is heads and shoulders above most of today’s talent, possible 99% better except for such actress like Jane Fonda or Meryl Streep but still one is not sure; reason being is that one does not have the great stories, directors and scriptwriting in today’s movies. These two films are prime examples, the merging of great script, director and actress coming together; one cannot recall any other performance in recent years, though there are great movie scenes, like Meryl Streep as a rabbi speaking at a funeral in ‘Angels in America’, but there is no sustained brilliance throughout the length of a film as exhibited by Bette Davis, possibly with the exception of Katherine Hepburn in ‘A Lion in Winter’. It’s her eyes that capture the audience, her eyes portray her intelligence and skill, similar to Elizabeth Taylor but whose beauty eclipses her performance, one of the better actresses but not in the caliber of Bette Davis; an artist of the first level, perhaps as a person too, working well into her advanced age.
One cannot help but think the great ones are long gone, people like John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Ingmar Bergman and Bette Davis; replaced by self-obsessed narcissists with limited though admittedly brilliant output (Warren Beatty?), brilliant people who could have produced more like John Huston; sadly only Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Woody Allen remain inventive and prodigious in their advance years. So discovering Bette Davis is a revelation, someone with the talent and courage to accept difficult roles like an adulteress or an ego-centric actress and making her portrayals fascinating and riveting, perhaps like Charlize Theron – a competent actress willing to accept unglamorous roles though without the same quality of talent as Davis. One thought that one has seen all the performances, then one day one discovers an artist like Davis and realizes that all is not lost, seeing someone in fine form despite the old dated films, someone that can still inspire people in the future. Going back to the past make one feel that one has completed the circle, the newness of certain films are really not new but a return to the old, where actresses like Bette Davis had already pushed the envelope long ago that later artists seem boring and uninspired when compared to her.
In fact, there is newness in Davis performances simply because no one does her type of roles anymore, perhaps it’s a lack of talent which I suspect or lack of material; perhaps even a lack of courage from today’s stars; an accusation made by Francis Ford Coppola, accusing great thespians like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro for not striving for difficult roles; unlike Marlon Brando who was willing to portray an aging mafia don, a sexual obsessive and an insane military officer in his later parts. Most artists today prefer the classic leading man or woman roles; avoiding deviant personalities, with the exception of Clint Eastwood who seem to thrive in anti-hero types; perhaps this is the real American character, not those wholesome personages like George Washington but interesting personalities like J. Edgar Hoover, Dick Cheney, slave owning Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton and, yes, Bette Davis. People love their eccentric heroes; someone who is imperfect, who acts with conviction despite being misguided; people who strive in the end to rise above their flaws or perish in their failures like Captain Ahab; trapped in the side of the great white whale and drowning to his death.