Saturday, April 09, 2011

Bette Davis Week: Old Acquaintance (1943)

The last time I saw Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins onscreen together, the notorious rivals were playing unusually close cousins in the mediocre The Old Maid. If I thought that Hopkins was straining to out-act Davis in The Old Maid, though, that's nothing compared to what she does in Old Acquaintance, in which she and Davis play unusually close best friends. Once again Davis plays the quieter, more sensible one, and once again she gives a fairly subdued, internal performance in contrast to Hopkins' histrionics. Those histrionics are so heightened here, though, that Hopkins is nearly impossible to watch. Her character is already unlikable enough to start with, a spoiled housewife who becomes even more insufferable when she starts writing trashy romance novels that bring in loads of money. Davis plays a fellow writer who takes more time with her work and reaches a much more limited audience.

Davis' Kit Marlowe is the one who helps Hopkins' Mildred Drake on her way to publishing success in the first place, but she's quickly overshadowed, and Mildred is pretty inconsiderate and shrill even before she becomes wealthy and famous. It's hard to tell just how villainous Mildred is meant to be; Hopkins' over-the-top performance marks Mildred as straight-up evil, but the story seems to be geared toward portraying her as tragic or misunderstood. Mildred's moments of berating her husband (played by John Loder), her daughter and Kit are so intense and overbearing (Hopkins raises her eyebrows so violently that they seem to be on the verge of flying off her face) that you just want to grab hold of her and shake her, as Kit does in the movie's most famous scene.

That bit is often excerpted for camp appreciation, but the film overall isn't quite silly enough to be enjoyed as camp. Davis, actually, is the one who takes things seriously, and she has quite a bit of soulfulness as the wry, world-weary Kit. This is yet another movie that takes place over a period of decades, and Davis is always good at conveying the development from a relatively carefree young woman into jaded middle age. The story's resolution is abrupt and silly, and any points it gets for not pairing up each character in the most obvious way are immediately discounted by the way Hopkins runs roughshod over the emotional nuances. She damn near ruins the entire thing.

No comments: