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21 December 2016

Bette's First Oscar: Dangerous, 1935

An actress who cared nothing for glamor
Very frequently Bette Davis’ first Academy Award for Best Actress for Dangerous in 1935 is described as a consolation prize because she had not even been nominated for her striking performance in Of Human Bondage the year before. This may have been so; but I think she fully deserved this Oscar.

Dangerous, directed by Alfred E. Green, is based very loosely on the story of the great and tragic actress Jeanne Eagles, an extraordinarily talented Broadway star who died at the age of 39 as a result of alcohol and drug abuse. Davis plays Joyce Heath, a young actress who has enjoyed enormous success on the Broadway stage, but whose career has sputtered to a halt due to her drinking (drug abuse was strictly taboo in movies by this point) and an unspecified “jinx.”

The plot begins when a young man who is a devoted fan of Joyce, Don Bellows (Franchot Tone), comes across her in alone in a bar. He tries to tell her how much she has meant to him but she angrily repulses him. He persists, and eventually invites her to stay in his country cottage to recover her health, while he goes back to the city. He has no intention of getting involved with her; he sincerely wishes to help her change her life and make a comeback. He intends to leave her in the care of his devoted housekeeper (Alison Skipworth).  But of course a romance does develop, instigated by Joyce. Naturally, this causes conflict with Don’s fiancee (Margaret Lindsay), and eventually his employers. And Joyce is running from more than bad luck and her addictions; it turns out she has an estranged husband who swears he will never let her go, no matter what.

But the rather formulaic sensational aspects of the plot are not the point of this film, or Bette Davis’ performance, which transcends the material. She is simply brilliant in this role. By this time in her career, she must have seen the ravages of substance abuse first hand; it is a constant peril in show business. Her Joyce Heath is a talented, ambitious, egotistical, creative artist — and she is also an alcoholic, who has squandered her talent and wastes her time with a circle of hard-drinking hangers-on whose main interest in her is exploiting her fame.

Davis paints a detailed, meticulously observed portrait, with no concern whatsoever for her character remaining glamorous or attractive. She is, however, real. When we first see her she is drunk, untidily dressed, sulky, resentful, and ready to lash out at anyone who opposes her smallest whim. Davis shows us from the start that beneath Joyce’s arrogance lies desperation and self-loathing. This is what keeps her on the destructive see-saw of bingeing, unsuccessful reform, and more bingeing; and she has reached the stage where she really believes she can never stop.

Anyone who has known an alcoholic or substance abuser has seen this story unfold — the shame, the defiance, the sorrow, the disappointment, the hopelessness. Davis, very ably supported by Tone, Lindsay, Skipworth, and others, proves herself a clear-eyed and uncompromising artist. She somehow portrays Joyce as intelligent enough to see what is happening, yet unable to avoid it. She comes to really love Don, but knows that she can do nothing but ruin his life; the reappearance of her estranged husband (a fine performance by John Eldridge), who is as addicted to her as she is to alcohol, sparks the tragedy, but it seems that Joyce’s story was inevitably tragic.

Davis was redefining what being a movie star meant; she personally loathed the glamor machine that restricted the ability of actresses to act. Being a sexy pin-up meant less than nothing to her, and as she insisted on being taken seriously, other stars took notice. So did studios; her realistic portrayals did not lose her any fans, though she was still stuck in soap operas like Front Page Woman and The Girl From Tenth Avenue. She took the extraordinary step of going on strike and eventually going to court to get out of her contract. She failed to do so, but Warner Bros., progressive as always, changed their policy and gave her better roles for the remainder of her time at the studio. This led to her great series of films, Marked Woman, Dark Victory, and a dozen more.

1935 was a good year for films, and there were better films than Dangerous. There were some excellent performances by actresses, such as  Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina, Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp, Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams, and Margaret Sullavan in The Good Fairy. But I really don’t think any of these performances top hers, and the Academy was right to vote for Bette Davis as the Best Actress.

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