Bette Davis, The Old Maid

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Ethan Mordden

"....She had made it to the top.

"All the more amusing, then, to watch Miriam Hopkins defy Davis's supremacy in The Old Maid (1939). Ostensibly the rivalry of cousins in love with George Brent and co-"mothers" to his daughter, the film is in fact a rivalry of divas, spiced by Davis's ultra-pro resistance of Hopkins's many tedious little difficulties during shooting, perhaps inspired by her resentment of having played a mere four weeks on Broadway in Jezebel--the property that gave Davis her second Oscar.

"La, the duels! Of hairdo: with Davis in a giant snood and Hopkins in enough corkscrews to outfit fifty Little Evas. Of costume: as Hopkins grabs Orry-Kelly's velvet-and-lace decollete while Davis, in the spinster part, makes do with aprons and shawls and a high nec. All goes well at first, for Hopkins can preen and Davis can act, a sutiable separation of gifts. Comes then Davis's big confession scene--unmarried, she bore Brent's daughter--and Hopkins pales with jealousy. She didn't know they were dueling over portrayal, too.

"Just as well, for Hopkins is utterly outclassed. This is what being Queen of the Lot is about: overwhelming force of personality. Given a heavy line, Hopkins storms. Davis knows how to fling an accusation in a whisper, as we marvel. Granted, Davis's role is a knockout as written. She has the best bits: sitting alone in her room listening to party music, dancing by herself, stopping, sitting, and sighing for the late George Brent; being hurt again and again by her unwitting daughter, who calls Miriam Hopkins "Mummy" to Davis's "Aunt Charlotte"; playing mother in soliloquy by her fireside, chiding her by now virtually imaginary daughter. It's a Queen's part especially in that it successfully contradicts Hollywood's first and second principles of stardom: (I) Look your best no matter what, and (2) Don't have competition. Maybe Hopkins isn't competition in any true sense, but Bette really turns into an old maid here, gray and pinched, fussing about the disposition of the doilies for the daughter's wedding. Yet Davis has us in her grip, if only by startling us with the rightness, the profound pain, of her feelins as never-wife and near-mother. After "Aunt" Charlotte, Davis can play anything...."

Ethan Mordden
The Hollywood Studios (1988), p. 245, 248