ďWhat a dump.Ē Bette Davis utters her most famous line in Beyond the Forest.

Davis demands her rights, mainly her right to be heard. Attention must be paid.

Now, Voyager: The desire not to desire.

Davis as the American Medusa.

Davisís carnal ugliness.

Beyond the Forest is the supreme melodrama, in which woman breaks free of a series of gendered imprisonments.

Davisís indelibly venomous and slatternly Mildred in Of Human Bondage.

Davisís Regina Giddens contemplates her appearance in The Little Foxes.

The mercurial Davis: The Little Foxes.

Davisís Julie Marsden in Jezebel: ďIíll love her most when she's meanest, because I know that's when she's loviní most.Ē

The iconic image of Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve.

In contrast to Hepburn, Davis is almost always locked within an essential conflict over heterosexuality.

Heterosexuality as spectacle in the famous Olympus Ball scene in Jezebel: Davisís screen persona as coming out allegory.



American Medusa:
Bette Davis, Beyond the Forest, femininity and Camp

by David Greven

King Vidor’s 1949 film Beyond the Forest is, for many, a film chiefly notable for having provided the inspiration for a famous moment in Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Imitating Bette Davis’ singular line deliveries and quoting her in Vidor’s film, Martha says to George, “What a dump!” Albee’s play and the famous 1966 movie version made of it confirmed Beyond’s status in the public eye as, in Pauline Kael’s words, a “peerless piece of camp,” in which Vidor invents “his own brand of hog-wild Expressionism.”[1][open endnotes in new window]

A scandalous box-office and critical failure, Beyond the Forest was seen as a career low for Davis, who lost her long-standing contract at Warner Brothers after this film spectacularly bombed. Precisely what made this film unappetizing to the audiences of its release date is what makes it especially striking today: the Davis character’s “unwomanly” disregard for marriage and family, an extension of Davis’s ongoing experiment in the limits of female propriety. While other classical Hollywood stars, to be sure, undertook this cultural work, Barbara Stanwyck most notably, Davis was willing to risk audience alienation in pursuit of the assertion of female sexual agency.[2]

In film after film, Davis risks revolting the audience with her histrionic displays of neurosis, greed, obsession, depravity, desire run amok, or, at times, a seeming indifference to desire itself. The 1942 Now, Voyager most affectingly foregrounds this last theme, seemingly a film about the fulfillment of its heroine’s desire that concludes with her radical relinquishment of it. It is precisely the unabashed claim for agency — which can include, as it does in Now, Voyager, the desire not to desire — and a recognition of the the power and pitfalls of this agency that drive a Davis film. As such, she is an extremely important cultural icon and cinematic sign for feminist and queer audiences.

Martin Shingler has argued that, while neither Joan Riviere’s theory of female masquerade nor Judith Butler’s theory of gender as drag can fully account for the kinds of negotiations of gender identity within Davis’s star femininity, both theories illuminate the strangeness of Davis’s screen gender. Shingler has importantly argued for the ironic pleasures of Davis’s stardom, as exemplified in Mr. Skeffington, in which the unconventionally attractive Davis plays a woman famed for her beauty; Davis’s gender ambiguity and ironic detachment from the roles she plays make her a singularly interesting performer to watch, especially for queer audiences.[3] With her short hair and ambivalence over normative femininity, Davis’s Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager at times seems to suggest a lesbian identity, as Patricia White has argued in her study of lesbian representation in classical Hollywood.[4]

Mr. Skeffington: Davis and the female masquerade. Lesbian identity is suggested in Now, Voyager.

My analysis of Beyond the Forest attempts to explore the significance of the film to an understanding of Davis’s star persona. This film most revealingly figures Davis as a figure that I call the American Medusa. It is through the film’s evocation of the Medusa myth—through which its significant and highly charged representation of female rage emerges—that its queer themes of female transformation become apparent.

Ed Sikov, in an appreciative reading of the film and Davis’s performance in it, writes in his biography of the star,

Beyond the Forest is exactly the kind of film that must be seen to be believed, and the belief it inspires is the essential truth of camp.”[5]

Sikov brings up some important aspects of the film’s significance to Davis’s career—it was made as she had just turned forty-one, and at the time of its release, what seemed particularly vexing to reviewers was Davis’s onscreen appearance, specifically her ugliness. Sikov adds that part of the disturbance here is that Davis had “suddenly become downright ugly without losing any of her carnality.”[6]

Sikov sums up his sympathetic reading of Davis in Beyond by noting that one

“pays her the greatest honor by laughing. In awe.”[7]

Laughing at failed seriousness, as Susan Sontag famously noted in her essay on Camp, is one of this sensibility’s chief attributes. While I will be exploring the meanings of Camp and how they pertain to Vidor’s Beyond, I want to suggest at the outset that the classical Hollywood genre of the woman’s film, particularly the Bette Davis melodrama, rather too frequently gets described in such a manner, when the films are not dismissed as mere genre entries. To classify these films as Camp classics is simultaneously to enshrine them and to ignore them, as I will attempt to explain. I want, here, to reopen the question of Camp—and certainly not to take its “essential truth” as a given.

In this essay, I offer a reading of Vidor’s film and its often overlooked significance. Vidor’s Beyond the Forest is the supreme melodrama, in that it so passionately puts, in Robert Lang’s observation about melodramatic film, a woman’s “desire at the heart of the story.”[8] The film constructs female sexuality as a direct affront to patriarchy, an intransigent protest, albeit one always already doomed to failure. Synthesizing film noir, the family melodrama, and the woman’s film, Beyond the Forest at once enlarges and deconstructs all three genres.

Chiefly, the goals of my reading are to vindicate the film’s aesthetic, feminist, and queer worth and to argue against easy, conventional dismissals of it, dismissals that, in my view, are the core logic within its designation as a Camp classic. In terms of the latter, I revisit the question of Camp, gay male fandom, and the female star. At the same time, I treat the film as a key work in the development of Bette Davis’s onscreen persona. Her persona, which remains a powerfully resonant one for both female and queer audiences, undergoes a remarkable series of transformations in Beyond. At the same time, her transformations here are representative of defining aspects of her star persona.

Davis and the art of female transformation: Frumpy Charlotte. Davis and the art of female transformation: Glamorous Charlotte.

Her infinite variety

In her classical Hollywood heyday, Bette Davis made onscreen transformation her signature feat. In film after film, Davis transforms, usually on a physical level but often emotionally as well. Typically, this transformation is grueling on several levels, ranging from the woman’s social situation to her bodily nature to her psychic state. As I will be treating as a central issue here, transformation in the woman’s film genre, as Bette Davis roles evince, is a traumatic experience.

Her ferocious, slatternly Mildred in Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934) metamorphoses from tartly pretty to ruined and abject by the end of the film, a ruination that outwardly reflects the loss of her soul. In the bristling crime drama Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon, 1937), Davis plays Mary, a “hostess” (read prostitute) in a mob-run nightclub. Sharp and lively, Mary believes that she can outmaneuver the mafia boss. He eventually kills her kid sister (Jane Bryan). Mary defies him (“I’ll get you even if I have to come back from the grave to do it!”), but his henchmen savagely brutalize her, cutting a cross into her cheek, rendering her forever “marked.” In Mr. Skeffington (1944, Vincent Sherman), an odd, underrated film finally getting the attention it deserves, Davis plays, deliriously against type, the beautiful Fanny Skeffington, who dangles droves of suitors with thoughtless aplomb while failing to love her devoted, honorable Jewish businessman husband (Claude Rains). By the end of the film, the glamorous, beautiful Fanny succumbs to diphtheria, which leaves her prematurely aged, her vaunted visage indelibly marred.

Frequently in Davis films, her character will have a moment of devastating self-regard, looking at herself in the mirror, contemplating either the evidence of age or her own unspeakable ugliness. These moments occur in The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding, 1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz, 1939), The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941), Skeffington, and elsewhere. Tellingly, even when made-over into a glamorous, desirable version of herself, her Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942), while seated at an outdoor restaurant in Brazil looks at her reflection with the same bewilderment and self-alienation. These moments signify much more than a character’s negative self-confrontation, however. Most intensely, these moments allow Bette Davis to contemplate what she has wrought—not only the ravages but also the autoerotic pleasures of transformation.

The love that gay male audiences have had for Bette Davis throughout the decades relates, I believe, to Davis’s penchant for onscreen transformation. Trapped in the celluloid chrysalis, Davis bursts its confines. Transformation into a different form allows her to change not only her appearance but the course of narrative, to revise a constrictive scenario into a potentially liberating one. More than any other performer, Davis in her film roles allegorizes gay male experience, especially in terms of the closet and of coming out.

Bette Davis is forever coming out, popping out of prisons of conformity and convention, revealing herself. Not just her bodily metamorphoses but also her mercurial emotional states signal shifts in narrative. Suddenly seized by emotional disturbances, Davis becomes enflamed, enraged, excessive, flaunting her talent for reaching embarrassing extremes. She transforms conventional scenes into spectacles of emotional volatility. With her willingness to go ugly—emotionally as well as physically—she challenges expectations audiences have of the female star. Indifferent to whether we like her or not, she behaves badly, selfishly, cruelly, as if she and she alone had a right to satisfaction, pleasure, fulfillment.

Yet, somehow, her baroque narcissism is paradoxically a plangent display of empathy and feeling that reaches out to the audience, involving us in her self-driven campaign against bumbling men and conformist narrative. Her fits of rage lacerate because they lacerate her. As her cautious, sorrowful Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) says of her Julie Marsden in Jezebel (1938, William Wyler),

“I’ll love her most when she's meanest, because I know that's when she's lovin’ most.”

Given the constrictions of U.S. culture’s construction of femininity as nurturing, caring, tender, soft, vulnerable, generous, and so forth, Davis’s blazing bad temper and brutal tongue make her a distinctive and subversive screen presence.

Onscreen transformations happen frequently in the classical Hollywood genre of the woman’s film, as diverse titles spanning the three decades in which the woman’s film flourished evince:

  • Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935), where Katharine Hepburn becomes a boy;
  • A Woman’s Face (George Cukor, 1941), in which Joan Crawford transforms from ugly, scarred criminal to beautiful and morally pure heroine;
  • The Heiress (1949, William Wyler), in which the wallflower heroine played by Olivia de Havilland transforms into a force of female wrath;
  • The Three Faces of Eve (Nunnally Johnson, 1957), about Joanne Woodward’s schizophrenic housewife;
  • Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), perhaps most famous for Elizabeth Taylor’s innumerable costume changes;
  • Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964), which foregrounds female transformation early on in the scene in which the criminal heroine washes the black dye out of her hair to become gloriously blonde once more. And so forth.
Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlet. Joan Crawford in A Womanís Face.

Davis films take this trope to an altogether different level; they trope the trope. Transformation becomes not just a defining genre trademark but the crucible of identity in the Davis film. Her films posit that no character is fixed or stable but, instead, a series of personas, masks donned and discarded at will. Many have described the femme fatale of film noir in much the same manner; Davis’s characters turn melodrama into noir.[9] As I will show, Beyond the Forest is the exemplary fusion of both genre modes.

In contrast, Katharine Hepburn’s characters do not change; they only become more and more Hepburn-like. In part, we can speculate that Hepburn’s screen stability (especially after the 1930s, a decade of much greater flux for the star in terms of the varieties of femininity she put on display) emerges from the essential “healthiness” of Hepburn’s screen persona, which stems from her associations with good sense as well as genetic pedigree, on the one hand, and perceived ability to be “one of the guys,” evinced by her frequent pairings with the unimpeachably masculine Spencer Tracy, on the other hand.[10]

Hepburn in Dorothy Arznerís Christopher Strong, emblematic of Hepburnís sexually daring 1930s roles. Hepburn and Tracy in Woman of the Year: Remaking Hepburn as paragon of health and heterosexuality.

Comparing Davis’s star persona to that of Katharine Hepburn is revealing, and necessary, since these are, arguably, the two most significant women stars of the classical Hollywood period. Though they could not be more distinct from one another, both Hepburn and Davis have historically been accused of playing themselves. (One thinks of Dorothy Parker’s famous put-down, “Katharine Hepburn runs the emotional gamut from A to B.” It’s as if Hepburn’s lack of range, in Parker’s eyes, is indicative of her inability to create a persona distinct from herself.) If it is undeniably true that Davis is always irreducibly Davis onscreen, the source of her appeal must lie, on an important level, in her ability to remain resolutely and essentially herself no matter which persona she inhabits.

This essential sameness in her screen persona relates in key ways to gay male fandom, which is now inextricable from the Davis legend. I argue that an important aspect of the woman’s transformation, one of the woman’s film’s defining events, is its metaphorical value as a coming out allegory. I speculate that one of the reasons why gay men have been so drawn to the genre is that the woman’s travails and specifically her transformation allegorize both closeted gay male identity and coming out.

One of the mythic “truths” about the closeted gay man who can play straight is that he is always his secret, authentic gay self, inside. If the gay man who has played straight then decides to come out, he is only revealing that authentic, previously hidden identity. Correspondingly, the authentic Davis persona, even when hidden, eventually, triumphantly, and painfully emerges over the course of the narrative. Irving Rapper’s indelible Now, Voyager is the exemplary film in which Davis’s “true” self emerges, butterfly-like, from the chrysalis of repression and depression. As discussed in Mike Black’s fascinating documentary Queer Icon (2009), about the cult of Davis among gay men and, especially, drag queens and female impersonators, Now, Voyager is a sacred text for gay men, never mocked or subjected to Camp parody.

I would argue that Now, Voyager allegorizes the essential nature of Davis’s queer appeal: it lies in her access to the authenticity of an essential, true self despite her penchant for masquerade and metamorphosis. Whatever role she plays, Bette Davis always eventually comes out. Her star persona allegorizes the pain and deprivation of being in the closet and the possibilities and emotional liberation of leaving it behind. At the same time, Davis’s star career has become inextricably enmeshed with the history of gay male fandom, in ways that are both suggestive and disturbing, exciting and confusing.

Now, Voyager is a sacred text for gay men, never mocked or parodied. Charlotte Vale as mentor to a queer child. Beyond the Forest: The pain and deprivation of the closet.

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