Thursday, March 13, 2008
The Belle of the Jezebel Ball – Bette Davis
William Wyler’s 1938 film, Jezebel, is one of the best examples of a Bette Davis vehicle imaginable. The role of Julie Marsden was allegedly offered to Davis as a sort of pay-off to not fuss over the fact that Warner Bros. wouldn’t let her out of her contract to compete for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Though I suspect the rumor is false, it’s hard not to notice the striking similarities between them - both films are set in the civil war-era South, both films involve a certain dress that helps/harms their persona's, and, most importantly, both Julie and Scarlett are strong, pioneering women who taunt and toy their way into becoming pillars of feminine power. Fact or fiction, I’m glad Davis landed the role of Julie and Vivien Leigh landed the role of Scarlett because both actresses are superb in their respective roles.
That being said, Davis and Wyler make Jezebel a far more resonating and important film than Gone with the Wind because Julie Marsden is one of the first cinematic examples of a feminist hero. The story is something like this – Julie, a free-spirited, free-thinking rich girl is engaged to be married to Henry Fonda’s Preston Dillard, a respectable, traditional banker who is both attracted to and repulsed by Julie’s outspoken nature. He loves her in private and hates her in public. But she’s no slut – she speaks her mind about the roles men and women play with each other and is vastly amused and disgusted by the rigorous formalities she must go through in order to be a “proper” woman in the patriarchical south. Julie connives and manipulates everyone around her just to entertain her whimsical nature. This is one of my favorite lines:
“This is 1852 dumplin', 1852, not the Dark Ages. Girls don't have to simper around in white just because they're not married.”
The most telling example of her character occurs in the first act of the film, when Julie decides to wear a garish red dress to the Olympus ball – an event in which all women are supposed to wear virginal white. Though Julie doesn’t really care about the color of her dress, she goes through with it just to see if Preston will still accompany her, which he does.
Davis, always the center of the frame, enters the ballroom with her head held high and her arm proudly wrapped around Preston’s. Despite the gawks, stares, and comments, Julie is strong enough to handle the polite public torment – at first. When Preston asks her to dance, everyone moves away to the edge of the room so that they’re all alone in the center. The whispers start. The camera casually glides up from Davis’ perspective all the way to the ceiling where an epic chandelier is placed. We see Julie dancing rigidly below with Preston and can still hear the (now) loud vocal disapproval Julie is receiving. She wants to run away, but Preston won’t let her – he wants to teach her a lesson in humility.
When Preston breaks off their engagement at the end of the night, no one is surprised but Julie. She thinks he’ll be back. He does come back – a year later, but not for her. He’s secretly married a wife that fits the bill of the genteel southern belle.
Hell hath no fury like a Davis scorned.
The story itself might sound a little shaky as far as feminist ideals go, but the subtlety in Davis’ performance and Wyler's direction derides any misogynistic patterns the story might have. As I mentioned earlier, Davis is always in the center/focal point of the frame, which isn’t unusual for a classic women’s picture, but it’s rare to see one like Jezebel that also places its female character towards the top of the frame so that she is almost always looking down at the men and women beneath her. Julie is totally in charge of the world around her.
The only time Davis is looking up at anyone is during the pivotal scene towards the end of the film when Preston has returned and Julie has put on the original white dress she was supposed to wear to the ball the year before. She is by herself in the center of the frame and almost sitting on the ground looking up at Preston who is so astounded by her womanhood that he can hardly breathe, let alone interact in the conversation happening between them. The overwhelming nature of her white dress, with its feminine lace, tulle, and massively poofy skirt, marks the first time in the film that Julie has actually embraced the traditional femininity bestowed upon her by society. In the previous scenes, she didn’t wear “manly” clothes necessarily, but she wore a set of outfits that were not designated for the occasion she wore them – the red dress at the ball being the most prevalent example. But wearing the white dress is no copout for her character, not at all. In fact, it advances the nature of Julie because she has discovered another way to push the boundaries of patriarchy – by playing into the role. Julie is far more likely to attain her goals if she enters the forbidden waters in a disguise. And, she does – at the end of the film, Julie pushes Preston’s real wife aside with her tower of feminine strength by going with him to the island of the lepers when he and several others contract yellow fever. She agrees to be the fearless protector Preston always longed to be for her. But that’s where she wants to be.
Davis won her second and final Oscar for Jezebel. It marked the first of three collaborations between Davis and Wyler - the second occurring two years later in The Letter (1940) and the last occurring in 1941 with The Little Foxes. Before Jezebel, no other filmmaker accurately captured the fiery sensitivity of the Davis persona we all know and love today. Though it doesn’t get its due as often as it should, Jezebel is a landmark film for feminism on film that also, in my mind, is the epitome of the Davis persona - strong, fierce, and brave.