Saturday, June 19, 2010

When She Was Bad

Of all the femme fatales on the Warner Brothers lot, Bette Davis had a uniquely restless, desperate carnality. As Stanley Timberlake in John Huston's 1942 In This Our Life, she plays the kind of wild girl the older generation thought the younger generation was coming to: a spoiled, lazy, amoral, shameless vixen who uses her body for anything she wants, whether it's her sister's husband or her uncle's money, and has no problem letting an innocent young black youth take the blame for an auto accident where she kills a little girl.

Davis was in her early 30s when she took this role; a little too old to play someone a good ten years younger. There are lines in her face; the soft features of the girl in Of Human Bondage and The Petrified Forest are gone. Still, she had a body for sin and the feral grace to go with it. In this Darwinian family melodrama, she’s the predator with the firmest bust, the trimmest tummy, the roundest bottom, and the sharpest claws. When her new husband tells her she needs a good spanking, she hands him a hairbrush, with a wicked smile that says nothing is out of bounds, that if you can dream it she can do it, and that she'll do anything. "Anything! Anything! Anything!" she promises her lecherous old uncle in another scene, as she all but crawls in his lap. The role is pure Davis, amplified by Huston’s trademark malicious wit.

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