Sacred Monster: LACMA Celebrates 100 Years of Bette Davis
“I don’t mind scaring people,” Bette Davis once told the writer Boze Hadleigh. “It comes in handy — in the business, and in life.” Onscreen too, apparently, for in the whole of classic Hollywood history, no actor was more willingly, thrillingly scary than Bette Davis. These days, they make much of stars who wipe off their glamour to reveal the human hearts of monsters. For Davis, monsters have no heart — it’s what makes them monsters to begin with, and her full-body talent for erasing all womanly warmth from these diabolical sports of nature is dazzling to behold. In The Little Foxes, it’s Southern matriarch Regina, still as a coiled cobra, coal-pit eyes gleaming in a powder-white death mask as her husband struggles for his life a few feet away. In The Letter, it’s murderess Leslie Crosbie who turns a sopping line of melodrama — “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” — into one of the cinema’s most stunningly vicious coups de grace. In Of Human Bondage, it’s Mildred, a stomping, spitting fireball of scorn, whose still-shocking end is as pitiless as her teasing regard. It was her scorched-earth take on Mildred that bumped Davis up from miscast studio starlet to major player, a risk paid off and a lesson learned; afterwards, even the noblest, most vulnerable of Davis’ characters — Dark Victory’s terminally ill trooper, Now Voyager’s self-sacrificing swan — would have their edges. It wasn’t until Davis had aged past Hollywood’s cutoff for romantic viability that she truly knew what it was to be looked at as unnatural herself — or worse, simply not looked at — and it was only then that the monsters, most famously poor Baby Jane, got some love. LACMA’s centenary Davis series (presented in association with the Motion Picture Academy) offers four weekends of greatest hits, as well as a few notable lesser-knowns, including the grimly scintillating Warner Bros. crime drama Marked Woman, and The Nanny, a curious and understated bit of British horror, featuring Davis at her most startlingly restrained. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art; through Sat., May 31. 323-857-6010. www.lacma.org)
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