I started a few weeks ago, with “All This, and Heaven Too.” I’d watched it long ago with my mother — she introduced me to a lot of old movies — and it seemed like just the right escapist melodrama for a hot summer evening.
Here’s the plot: It’s 1846, and Bette Davis is the governess in the Paris mansion of the unhappy Duke and Duchess de Praslin. The Duchess is volcanic, possessive, sexually frustrated, maddened by her husband’s rejection. The duke is repelled by his wife’s outbursts, and the children are afraid of her. Into this turbulent household, lovely young Bette Davis brings peace and order, soothing the children, eliciting unspoken love from the duke, and driving the jealous duchess even further around the bend. The characters spend a lot of the movie telling one another that it’s not going to end well, and it doesn’t.
Watching this movie again, I found myself thinking about rage. Not the rage of the duchess, even though she’s the obviously angry character, but the rage that seems to simmer right below the modest surface of the governess. Part of what’s fascinating about the movie is that — intentionally or unintentionally — Bette Davis is not all that believable as a demure servant. The duchess isn’t convinced by the governess’s hushed voice and lowered eyes, and neither are we, quite. Beneath Davis’s gentle exterior there’s erotic sizzle and also a wounded bitterness — a sense of resentment at having to confine herself to, as she says, “a few crumbs of happiness from other people’s tables.” (Davis is given almost the same line to speak in “Now, Voyager,” where she plays a repressed but passionate spinster from a fancy Boston family.)
This complex mixture of suffering and resentment at being made to suffer sent me back to watch more of Bette Davis. It turns out that her movies are a master class in rage. You can see it in her early turn as Mildred, the feral waitress who devours Leslie Howard in “Of Human Bondage.” You can hear it in the martyred quaver of the “Now, Voyager” heiress who must renounce her true love (the suave fellow-traveler who seduces her by putting two cigarettes in his mouth, lighting both, and handing one to her). And you can relish it in the sleek witty malice of Davis’s aging actress Margo Channing in “All About Eve.”
“All About Eve” is Bette Davis’s greatest movie (and one of the best movies of all time). Like “All This, and Heaven Too,” it’s a story of the threat posed by a demure newcomer, but here Davis is the older woman. Her character, Margo Channing, is a theatrical star who takes under her wing an earnest young protégée named Eve. But Eve doesn’t just want to be an actress; she wants to steal Margo’s entire life — her stage roles, her friends, and her lover, a famous director.
Margo’s rage is overt and scathing. She’s on to Eve, quickly recognizing that she’s a manipulator and a climber. But everyone else thinks that Eve is humble and innocent, and that Margo’s suspicions of her are irrational, which of course only makes Margo angrier: She’s reacting to an unfair situation with fury, and then getting rebuked for being furious. The movie’s most famous line, which Margo delivers to guests arriving at a party she’s about to give, is: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” Bette Davis is in control about being out of control: She is announcing coolly in advance that she’s about to lose it.
Over the course of her long career, Bette Davis played sympathetic and unsympathetic characters (a couple of times she really went to town and did both in the same movie, playing twins). Not all of her movies are great. But there is always something wonderfully cathartic about watching her, as she sneers, screams, simpers, and smolders her way through the many permutations of rage. She loses her temper or she controls it, but she never lets you forget that it’s there. And she is never less than mesmerizing, because the trigger of her fury has to do with a sense of injury or injustice that you can share. She reminds you of the dignity of human emotion, and of the power of anger as a creative force.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.