Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Anniversary (1968)

Bette Davis is so inextricably linked with old Hollywood that even her later films seem to have an air of classicism to them, or at least that's the way they come off to me. Even as she's chewing scenery in late-period roles, Davis imparts a certain poise and regal sensibility that permeates her films, so that they often seem like they could have been made decades earlier. That isn't the case with The Anniversary, which looks and feels very much of its late-1960s time. Not that Davis isn't impressive or poised, because she certainly is. But everything from the fashions to the sexual politics of this movie scream 1968.

And that's a good thing: The movie is about the contrast between Davis' monstrous matriarch and her three adult sons, who've been failing for years to get out from under her grasp. Although the political climate of the time doesn't come into play, it's easy to read Davis' judgmental, controlling Mrs. Taggart as the old guard horrified by the sexual revolution. Her sons aren't hippies, although one is a cross-dresser and panty-snatcher, and another has knocked up his girlfriend out of wedlock. But they are perpetual disappointments to the absurdly demanding woman, who detests the wives and girlfriends who deprive her of time with the sons she relentlessly berates and infantilizes.

The movie takes place over one trauma-filled night, as Mrs. Taggart, her sons Terry, Henry and Tom, Terry's wife and kids and Tom's fiancee gather for the twisted tradition of celebrating Mrs. Taggart's wedding anniversary to her late husband. Although it's a Hammer film, The Anniversary isn't horror; it's a pitch-black comedy about hateful family relations, with Davis wearing an eye patch and absurdly loud outfits as the mother from hell. Most of the movie takes place in Mrs. Taggart's sprawling mansion, which gives it a claustrophobic feel but also makes it seem a little inert and stagebound (it's based on a play).

There's a surprising amount of real nastiness to the dialogue, though, and the acting (other than Davis, the players all come from the original stage production) is strong all the way through. Of course, this is from Davis' camp period, and she does more acting with one eye than most stars would do with three. But her performance is pitched perfectly to the material, given that Mrs. Taggart's behavior is a kind of performance itself, a show she puts on to prove to her children that she owns them, body and soul. I found myself laughing a lot, in a bitter, cynical way, and that’s the kind of movie this is: With people this mean and ugly, all you can really do is laugh.

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