"I'D LIKE to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair!"
That's young, luscious Bette Davis flirting with a wildly startled Richard Barthlemess in 1932's Cabin in the Cotton.
•VOCAL TICS. Over last weekend I watched two films, one a classic, the other not so much -- though it has a cult following. I do mean William Wyler's The Letter, with Bette Davis as a woman who murders her lover. Then, River of No Return with Marilyn Monroe as a tough saloon singer fighting turbulent rapids, Indians and Robert Mitchum. Quality wise there's no comparison, although River directed by Otto Preminger, is a great looking movie, with excellent use of early Cinemascope. It's an entertaining potboiler. The Letter based on Somerset Maugham's novel, is one for the ages.
And while you might imagine Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe were as unalike as two actors could be, they shared one quality -- an odd manner of speaking. Davis's clipped tones became famous instantly, and as she grew older, the static quality of her delivery increased, rendering many of her performances artificial. It took a strong director and an inspiring script to wrench Davis out of her habits.
In The Letter, she was at the peak of her career and artistry, and William Wyler worked overtime to control her. Still, she was Bette Davis and her trademarked quirks remained. One of the most noticeable was her inability to pronounce a D at the end of a word. They always came out sounding like a T. With her measured, precise style -- even in hysteria -- there was a surreal quality to her performances. She is theatrical to the nth degree in The Letter, but just try to look away. ("You've been watching me all night" she says to her lawyer. "Is it because I'm so...evil?" Great. Big. Close-up.)
• AS for Miss Monroe, shortly after she began working in films, she met a dramatic coach named Natasha Lytess who convinced the insecure MM that her diction was "sloppy" and she needed to enunciate more clearly. Well, Monroe, whose diction was just fine actually, did enunciate. Boy, did she en-nu-ci-ate. She came down so hard on her Ds and Ts she all but bit them off. Even she was not entirely comfortable with this, and when given a good script, her speech would relax, no matter what Miss Lytess said. River of No Return was not a script MM liked. The result was a performance that varies wildly. It's fun to see her as a smart-talking, back-talking woman. And when she unbends her diction, she's earthy and effective -- refreshingly strong. But in other scenes, she comes off like a gorgeous Martian, who is just learning our language. It's a pity, because despite Monroe objections, River was a change of pace, and all contract actors did westerns. They just did. (The chief pleasure of RONR is the sight of Monroe in her physical prime, athletically running around in skin-tight blue jeans!)
But unlike Bette, Marilyn's vocal impairment didn't last. (Even in The Seven Year Itch, she is merrily relaxed.) After Monroe abandoned Hollywood and her 20th Century Fox contract, she went into the Actors Studio. Lee Strasberg convinced her, first of all, that she was nothing, had accomplished nothing. Only he (and wife Paula) could help her. That she was the biggest female star in the world at that point didn't impress the Strasbergs. At least that's what they said. Presto! Out with Natasha -- who didn't go quietly -- in with Paula, who became even more hated on Monroe sets than Lytess. (Natasha at least lectured Marilyn on discipline. The Strasbergs told her only the "art" mattered, and she should take as long as she liked.)
There was little change in the essentials of Marilyn's acting, except the disappearance of her excruciating diction. (Although every so often it would pop up on a word or two. Lytess must have used hypnosis on her!)
Of course, neither Davis or Monroe could hold a candle to Marlene Dietrich's early performances under Josef von Sternberg. Not just vocally stilted, but under his direction, physically strange -- all furtive glances, rolling eyes and awkward body movement. Later, sans Sternberg, Dietrich became a much, much better actress. Although she could never pronounce her Rs. Well, English was her second language.
Oh, one more thing about The Letter. For years, Bette Davis impersonators would declare, "Petah, give me the lettah!" Well, Davis never says this. For one thing, there was no character named Petah in the movie. Nor at any point does her character ask for the note. The closest she comes is "Who has the lettah?" And it's rather off-hand.
I know this is probably a great disappointment for some of you. But just remember this -- Davis didn't say "What. A. Dump!" the way Elizabeth Taylor does it in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Taylor camps it up. Davis, in Beyond the Forest says it quietly, with grim resignation.
Film history lesson over.
•HEY, I didn't mean to imply that the great unwashed, uninvited could just waltz in to the Hunter College symposium of Tina Santi Flaherty's book What Jackie Taught Us tonight. But maybe if you were washed a bit, you might sneak in as an intellectual. Many have asked about the 3 of Jackie's favorite author Frederic Morton's past books which I am giving away.
Morton wrote The Rothschilds, ... Thunder at Twilight...and my pet A Nervous Splendor. (The last two are about the end of Hapsburg Empire which destroyed itself in World War I.)
•SOMETIMES civilians (people not necessarily in show business) are funnier than real pro comics. For instance, on Jimmy Kimmel's late night show the other eve, Oscar-winners Sally Field and Julia Roberts -- who are friends and appeared in Steel Magnolias together -- were very funny trying to out-do one another in a curse words game. ABC deleted practically everything they were saying in this "contest"...but both of these great actresses were still hilarious.
And Julia managed something I'd never or seldom seen before. In the middle of this hilarity, she managed to promote the coming move version of Larry Kramer's searingly serious play about AIDS, The Normal Heart, and how we all shrunk from managing it until after thousands of our friends had died. Julia has a small but important role in this film as a very tough doctor.