Op-Ed: 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Now, Voyager’ (#23)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judging whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
Bette Davis was a star who was so big that her presence was often able to overwhelm the films she appeared in. She never felt the need to employ subtlety and clearly loved dominating every scene. I suppose she had the right to desire 100% of the audience’s attention because she was an enormously engaging actress and she did have a lot to offer when she was handed a decent script. However, I can’t help but feel like her shameless scene stealing did lower the quality of a lot of her performances and films. She was so hesitant to let anybody else get their moment that she would engage in mugging when her co-stars were meant to have their big moment and establish their characters as major forces within the plot of the film. By doing this, she would diminish the impact of their performances, but this would also reflect poorly on her as her mugging only seems distracting and silly and she has nothing to play off of. When she was able to spar with an actor who was on her level, such as Geraldine Fitzgerald, she had an extra spark and her acting appeared less technical. She could let go of some of the forced, attention grabbing gazes towards the camera and focus on her line delivery and shifting between different emotional tenors. This was a problem when she appeared in films that would only work if several characters were well developed but if she had a vehicle where she was the only focus of attention, such as The Letter (1940), she could soar to great heights.
That was a lengthy opening to this article, but when we think of Now, Voyager (1942) we all think of its iconic star. Her performance as an ugly duckling who becomes a confident, elegant lady might have been thought of as one of her quintessential diva turns but she is exceptional in this film because she allows others to have their moment in the sun. While she is still not subtle, she does aim to bring nuance to this role and doesn’t shamelessly chew the scenery in moments that ask her character to display some introspection. Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper and Ilka Chase all shine in supporting roles and the director is allowed to drift away from Davis for a few seconds at a time in certain scenes. This film is of a higher quality than a lot of Davis’s vehicles and I blame Warner Brothers for not gifting her with the opportunity to play sensitive, troubled women more often. This is a feminist classic in many ways and it makes a good argument for woman’s pictures being a genre worthy of serious analysis. It sees the issues that women face as important and is content to state that a woman can live a fulfilling life without being obsessed with the idea of getting married and being subservient to her husband.
The film concerns the overweight Charlotte Vale, Bette Davis, who has become a friendless spinster at a young age because she has always been under the thumb of her cruel mother Windle (Gladys Cooper). Psychologist Doctor Jaquith (Claude Rains), encourages Vale to gain independence and she sets off on board a cruise ship to experience life without her mother for the first time. She falls in love with the married Jerry Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid), but the two have to part when the cruise ends so that he can go back to his wife and children and she can remain with her controlling mother. Windle is shocked by the change in her daughter and Vale resists becoming a shrinking violet in the face of her mother’s taunting but falls into a relationship with Elliot Livingston (John Loder), whom she does not want to marry. She later decides to care for Duvaux Durrance’s insecure daughter Tina (Janis Wilson), who is similar to her in many ways and feels that this is her opportunity to repay the man she loves for all that he has given her.
The ugly duckling transformation is a common trope in films produced for women and it has frequently been criticized for being sexist. But I think that there is a tasteful way to go about depicting a change for the better in the physical appearance of a person. We can all agree that the way we look can cause us to feel self conscious and tweaking aspects of your physical appearance can boost your self esteem. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, as long as we don’t end up going to extremes. When you have twelve-year-olds who want liposuction, it’s a problem. I appreciated the fact that this film points out that Vale has to improve her mental health before dramatically changing the shape of her eyebrows. If she isn’t in the right frame of mind when it comes to how she thinks of herself, none of those cosmetic changes will matter. There is a little thrill that can come out of looking in the mirror and noticing that your jeans don’t make your legs like sausages that are close to exploding. Davis gets to strut her stuff when she appears in one of the fancy hats that was so popular in the 1940’s and a figure hugging jacket that flatters her thin waist. She isn’t boastful about her appearance and the film has the good sense to suggest that this is just one aspect of her transformation and not the most significant part of it. We don’t have to feel guilt as we see Davis parading around in an array of gorgeous dresses because she is also allowed to work with a script that gives her a lot of gloriously swoony, romantic lines to deliver to nobody but herself.
The film also upends your expectations by making you consider whether Vale is actually happier as an independent, unmarried woman. On its surface, this is a story about a great love that has been thwarted by outside forces and we are meant to cry over the fact that Vale and Duvaux Durrance were not able to be together. That final scene is supposed to be poignant because it represents Vale being a self sacrificing woman who is willing to settle for what she has been given rather than being selfish and ruining the lives of others in order to marry Duvaux Durrance. Yes, it is touching to think of this as one of those brief, passionate affairs that always had to end and you get to revel in the exquisite torture that Vale feels as she thinks back on the perfection of their short time together. At the same time, I do feel like the film frees itself from the restrictions of the Motion Picture Production Code and the social mores of the time. More conservative audience members might still see Vale as a sad, lonely woman because she isn’t married, but more perceptive audience members might realize that this is one of the few woman’s pictures where the protagonist is single but happy at the end of the film. She finds fulfillment through raising a child but she isn’t simply a doting mother. It is clear that she still has a healthy social life and interests outside of the home. She is self possessed, intelligent, and full of compassion for the people around her while still being flawed and human. She does still love Duvaux Durrance but we aren’t led to believe that her life is a nightmare because she isn’t with him and she is strong enough to forge ahead in life without some man.
Vale’s breakup with Livingston is also handled in a refreshingly adult manner. He is presented as a genuinely nice guy and the film doesn’t give him some ridiculous defect, such as sneezing too much or having a wart on his chin. We are invited to like him and we see why Vale appreciates him as a friend while not wanting to be romantically involved with him. She politely breaks up with him and we can see that this is painful for her, she doesn’t want to hurt him and lose the bond that they had built together. He doesn’t violently attack her or start blubbering like a baby and we see him as a man who has the common decency to step away for a while and mull over this situation. He is also in pain but we sense that he will eventually get over this and they can resume their friendly relationship. They treat one another with courtesy and kindness and neither of them flips a table when Vale has to tell him that she doesn’t want to be with him. We also don’t have to wait around for their eventual confrontation while plot contrivances conspire to make it as dramatic as possible. Their breakup doesn’t happen in the middle of a wedding and there aren’t crowds of shocked people who listen in on their conversation. Vale chooses to cut the relationship short at a reasonable point in time rather than unnecessarily dragging their relationship on and that reinforced the idea that she is a mature, reasonable adult, the sort of woman who was often absent in romantic dramas from this era.
I love the fact that all of the men in this movie are so utterly lovable and essentially nice. I have used that adjective multiple times already and maybe it sounds a bit basic but I do feel like we don’t get enough romances where men are just allowed to be pleasant and likable. So often, you get bad boys who are incredibly macho and the female protagonist ends up leaving the nice guy for the man who almost killed her earlier on in the film. Now, Voyager affirms the idea that good people are rewarded for honestly expressing their emotions and being sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others. Rains feels like the sort of psychiatrist who didn’t exist in 1942, he is hardly Bruno Bettelheim as he quietly instructs Davis to begin focusing on dieting, physical exercise, and asserting herself in the face of her mother. He isn’t forceful, he never slaps her across the face and he is willing to engage with her on a personal level without overstepping any lines. Rains is magnificent in the role as he is warm and fatherly but not overly familiar with Davis. Sometimes I feel like we all take Rains for granted because he was brilliant in everything but I was able to look at him through fresh eyes in this and rediscover his greatness all over again.
The actors all appear to have a firm grip on their characters and what drives them. Cooper is giving a campy performance as a nasty mummy who gets sick pleasure out of manipulating and embarrassing her child. She licks her lips to signal the fact that she is relishing the opportunity to do dastardly things; like throwing herself down a staircase just to make her daughter feel bad for her. Cooper was usually so reined in and controlled, so it was nice to see her let loose for once. She is aiming for camp more than the other actors but she doesn’t feel out of place within the film and she actually enhances Davis’s tragic performance. The star herself is in top form as she finds new ways to beguilingly flash those eyes of hers and captures the nervous anxiety of somebody who feels uncomfortable in their own skin. Even when Vale starts wearing fashionable pantsuits, she still has to deal with the nagging feeling that people are whispering about her behind her back and conspiring against her. Davis displays a lot of hesitance as she warms up to her married lover and she gives Vale a touch of self consciousness when she notices him looking at her. Henreid is less charismatic as her knight in shining armor, but his European stiffness and cool demeanor do serve to make him seem different than the American men who throw themselves at Vale. He is making overtures towards her, but he does possess a believable reserve and he only lets out his emotions in a few scenes. That does make it difficult to form an emotional attachment to him but, as stated before, you can still love this film without caring about Duvaux Durrance.
I must admit that I am glad that the filmmakers did not go along with the demands of Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of the novel on which this film is based. She had extravagant demands about how the film had to be shot and I can’t help but feel like this would have been the Cleopatra (1963) of its time if they had gone along with her whims. Prouty was also responsible for the novel that Stella Dallas (1937) was based on, and that severely flawed picture is an example of all that could have gone wrong with this film. Where that fell victim to a shamelessly manipulative story that aimed to beat its audience into submission at every turn, this film takes a gentler approach. You do end up crying but you don’t have an insistent Barbara Stanwyck fake crying or an annoying Anne Shirley sitting around and mumbling about the fact that rich boys won’t date her.
So, did this film deserve to make the list? I think it did. Even though I would argue that it is more of a character study than a romance, I still think that it is an exemplary version of a love story. It deals with a woman who is learning to love herself and her romance with Duvaux Durrance is an important part of her journey of self discovery. There are many iconic scenes that memorably illustrate how it feels to be truly infatuated with somebody. When he leans down and presses a kiss to the side of her head, you can’t help but sigh and wish that they could embrace out in the open. There is also the notorious two cigarette scene, which convinced a whole lot of people that you could look sexy while smoking. Davis and Henreid pull it off but I don’t think that the rest of us would look quite so dashing with a Pall Mall between our lips. The film also touches on the agony that we experience at the end of a holiday. While you are on holiday you can convince yourself that you are living in a fantasy world and nothing you do will have consequences but once the holiday is over, you realize that you will have to return to your normal life and you will lose everything that you gained from this experience. That is what makes this fleeting romance so intense and it is hard not to be swept up in the passion that the characters feel.
It ranked 23rd on the list, rather high, but I’m not necessarily going to object to that placement. It fits within the genre and it is a great show for Davis’s talents. I can see why voters why were happy to reward a project that spotlighted one of the most beloved movie stars of all time. She frequently popped up on the list with entries like Dark Victory (1939) and Jezebel (1938) and she is strongly associated with the woman’s picture genre. You can’t talk about entertainment for women in the 1940’s without referencing her and she still captures the interest of young women today. Her timeless appeal must have caused voters to have a soft spot for her work and that accounts for the fact that she is attached to so many entries on the list. This film also has all of those iconic scenes on its side and the concept of tragic love is deeply moving to a lot of people.
Next week I will be writing about Beauty and the Beast (1991), which caused a major sensation when it was first released because it was the first animated film to earn a Best Picture nomination. It garnered the sort of critical acclaim that had eluded previous animated features and even those who got sniffy about the genre were able to display some grudging respect for it. This will be the first animated film that I will cover and, if I am honest, I am looking forward to seeing it. I feel like I have been burdening myself with so many tragic dramas in the past few weeks and I want to decompress with a musical for kids that simply aims to entertain. Is that so much to ask?