Sunday, July 5, 2009


An '80s pop song was inspired by Bette Davis 's eyes, but surely Davis's mouth is what we remember. It was a remarkable instrument, set in the great star's heart-shaped face like a jewel, but vital and malleable as if alive on its own – at one minute bee-stung and coquettish, at the next a crocodilian thresher snapping at everything in reach. And the things that came out of it! Scalding, blistering, barbed, awful things. No actress in all Hollywood kingdom ever dared be so plainly and willfully sour as Bette Davis. For a brilliant display of especially mean and throbbing licks, the 1941 film THE LITTLE FOXES is hard to beat.

In Foxes, Davis plays a character tailored to her cataclysmic talent and famously cross moods. Regina Hubbard Giddens, the middle sibling of a Southern mercantile family that has accumulated wealth by ruthless cunning, has driven her sickly husband (Herbert Marshall) to live in Baltimore and persists with her brothers in schemes to gain the riches that will liberate her from her dull, entrenched life. Nothing – not social quibbles, nor any sense of fairness, not even her husband's grave condition – so much as slows her down.

With the precise, psychological camera work of director William Wyler (who'd been Davis's lover during the filming of Jezebel three years before this film was made) supporting her portrayal, Regina's trespasses, insults and sins are revealed in pieces. Davis conveys the savage inner workings behind Regina's falsely delicate veneer with a variety of carefully honed gestures. Regina slouches in chairs like an empress, arms spread in casual dominion over her surroundings, eyes hooded but missing nothing in the room. She stares into the distance when absorbing news that she doesn't care to hear, calculating her next move. She gives orders to all around her in such a businesslike manner, it's clear she assumes she's the sole natural authority in everyone's world. Called out for her regal ways, Regina breaks into a wide smile, but fidgets with her fingertips, telegraphing the rage that lies beneath the show of complacency.

Then there is Davis's intimate understanding of vanity and deterioration. Done up as the bitter dowager with powdered face and slightly disheveled nimbus of hair, she twice treats us to a bit of business in which, cross-eyed, she hones in on an errant strand. She goes for the jugular when Regina, past her sexual prime but planning to seduce her estranged mate, compares a long-ago photograph of herself with the current version in a mirror, and sets about applying wrinkle cream like war paint.

And, yes, there are those words, those ghastly, ugly, hurtful words enunciated with relish and crispness. There are blithe little daggers: "You should tell me everything you thought someday," she declares to someone eager to open up dark secrets; and there are truncheons: "I hope you die," she tells her husband with hurtful prescience, "I hope you die soon. I'll be waiting for you to die." When Regina commits her most heinous crime – sitting by idly while her husband suffers agonizing death throes for want of a dose of medicine – Wyler gives her to us in full face with her lips closed; she never turns from the camera to watch his suffering and the silence, after so much invective, is devastating. You'll recoil from the power of Davis's malice, but you can't avert your eyes. Which explains the actress's Oscar nomination for The Little Foxes. If she hadn't already had two in the bag by 1941, she'd probably have won.

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