Bette Davis, Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

Monday, September 02, 2013

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Friday, October 14, 2005

Ethan Mordden

"....Dark Victory ... concentrated the gathering opulence of Davis as a star; and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) imploded this opulence to its essence.

"Davis as Elizabeth I is Davis prime, the Davis one imitates, without the cigarette. She has the crazy deep voice, the restlessness, the imperial rage. Her entrance is star-turned, the queen heard unseen as she dresses for a ceremony behind a screen. Moments later she is manifested in all her consequence, superb on her throne at the end of a huge hall hung with shields and tapestries. Still, we don't see her face-on till the camera pans up from her feet past a tumult of robes complete with green ostrich plume to a red-wigged horror of a head. Elizabeth I is a figure scarcely to be imagined, and to produce her Davis resorted to a more effusive style than usual, in musical terms all sharps and flats with abrupt changes in tempo and volume. She tears papers, smashes mirrors, slaps her fist against her waist, staggers around her rooms, raves and sulks, takes umbrage at a look, grabs and snarls and fidgets and grumbles. And of course there's the odd pronunciation, all T: "Rabat, let's be kint, for a momenht."

"Robert, Earl of Essex, was Errol Flynn, a curse of Davis' existence; she wanted Laurence Olivier in the part. But doing a historical epic for Warners meant playing with Flynn. As queen of Burbank, where the Warners lot was located, Davis had to pay prices MGM's Crawford and Paramount's MacDonald never even thought of.... "He carries himself like a king!" trills one of Elizabeth's court ladies... No, Flynn carries himself like a randy doorman, but who else looked good in tights? Anyway, the central business in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is not Flynn's halfhearted adventuring but Davis' incredible commitment to playing a loveless, ugly woman as loveless and ugly. Davis was the great no-glamour star, a handsome woman who couldn't have cared less about how she looked on screen. No, she does care: to appear precisely as the character should appear. In Of Human Bondage, in Marked Woman, and her in Elizabeth, she shatters the wisdom that a star always looks her best....

"....[S]he played Elizabeth I again in The Virgin Queen (1955)--wasn't her first try definitive?...."

Ethan Mordden
The Movie Star (1983), p. 187-88, 192

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Pauline Kael

"Bette Davis, well painted and dressed for the role of the shrewd old Queen, looks the part and gives a magnetic, tough performance, but an impossible task was set for her, since as Essex, Errol Flynn couldn't come halfway to meet her. His talents were in other directions; the role was totally outside his range, and the poor man seemed to know it. Davis's performance is bound to suffer from comparison with Glenda Jackson's multifaceted Elizabeth on television, but Davis's Elizabeth is a precursor of Jackson's--it might almost be a sketch for the Jackson portrait...."

Pauline Kael5001 Nights at the Movies