Hello, dear readers!
For those who don’t know me, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Nora MacIntyre and I am an LA based film writer.
I am beyond thrilled to have been granted the opportunity to feature and share my writing with you. April is a dear friend of mine and I look up to her work immensely. Going forward, I am excited to share pieces both new and previously published on my own site, which you can find here.
The article below is an example of my work, and an excerpt from my continuing series on silver screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. I hope you enjoy the read, and as always I welcome feedback and input!
Bette Davis in publicity for “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino,” 1982
The year is 1982. The film, a made for TV vehicle filmed for CBS, is titled A Piano for Mrs. Cimino. The title is simple, yet piquant: what importance could a piano hold to the story that would warrant it top billing? It’s a film that wouldn’t even normally cross one’s radar — just another dated featurette from the 1980s. What makes it so unusual? It features a leading performance by veteran actress Bette Davis, in one of her last roles before her debilitating stroke. It’s a far cry from the star-studded blockbusters she churned out during her golden reign at Warner’s, no question about it. However, it stands out against the other TV oriented projects she made for the way in which it candidly approaches the many consequences of old age, and how the elderly are perceived and consequently treated by members of society. For its time, it’s incredibly self aware, pushing a dialogue that was seldom visible, particularly in the public media. Death was typically characterized as tragic, unfortunate and dramatic — death was not news unless it was catastrophic. The whole conversation around aging was a tacit taboo, even more so when it came to women.
Bette was in a slow descent to the dusk of a legendary career. She had traversed decades and eras, enduring over half a century in an industry that was constantly changing and shedding its skin in favor of new ways. 1982 alone would mark her fifty-first year making motion pictures, with credits for over eighty films to her name. She was seventy-four and plenty fit; but in the eyes of the studio executives, she was a relic from an era that no longer held any interest or value. Even today, older actresses struggle to find work that is meaningful and not espoused directly to their age — forty years ago, one was lucky if they could even land a part after the age of forty, no matter how small or humiliating. In today’s standards, that’s daunting enough for any female actress. Bette, along with Joan Crawford and a few other contemporary stars, were exceptions to the rule back then. In other words, they were tireless trailblazers that pioneered the way for older women in cinema, even if and when the roles were less than flattering or desirable.
Mind you, every actress approached their respective opportunities differently: some eager, some reticent, some caught in between both extremes, and others adopting perhaps an entirely different attitude. Seeing as the core of my series centers around Bette and Joan, I will be using Joan in reference to illustrate the ways — both similar and vastly different — in which both actresses responded to the inevitable courtship of old age. A lot of the points discussed here will likely be familiar to the reader at this point, if not through my other works then through basic knowledge of a well publicized (and grossly aggrandized) feud. The largest difference between the two women lay in their line of work, not their discipline. From an early age, Bette never shied away from taking on roles that were seen as unconventional and career threatening.
Joan’s case is a bit more complex. Ever the natural beauty, she benefited off of being luminous on screen (whereas Davis struggled to accumulate sex appeal), which gave her a nice boost — but it wasn’t one she wanted handed over freely. She was eager to prove herself, and, like Bette, took on unconventional and unsavory roles for the first two decades of her career. She even at one point joked that she would even “play Wally Beery’s grandmother if it was a good part” in 1939. Consider the difficulties Davis faced when lobbying for meatier roles at Warner Brother’s in the mid-thirties: as a woman described by executives of having “the fat face of a dutch girl,” she still struggled to break out of the ingenue type roles being thrown at her. If Joan, long perceived as one of the most stunning actresses in Hollywood at the time, wanted to prove herself, she’d have to go to even greater lengths. Perhaps her beauty was an asset in the sense that it helped her career to climb, but it was more than anything a thorn in her side that hindered her from being seen as an actress of prestige. This, along with a lifelong inferiority complex born of childhood, stacked the odds tremendously against her favor.
Their seemingly joint mindset came to a fork in the road by the time the forties rolled around — ironically, when both women were employed by Warner Brothers, and sharing adjacent dressing rooms. While Bette plodded onward dauntlessly, unphased by age, Joan began to cower in her own humanity. I believe it was purely an intrinsic reaction — sure, she had wanted to prove herself as competent and capable despite being pretty, but never shied away from the boost that her beauty awarded her. By the middle of the decade, she was approaching middle age — expired goods by industry standards. There’s a marked and definitive shift in the range of her roles, and it begins around the time she won her Oscar for Best Actress in 45’s Mildred Pierce.
Suddenly, Joan was taking on a much more limited range of roles: no longer was she vying to be the redeemed prisoner nor Wally Beery’s grandmother — instead, she opted to embody the role of the elegant debutante or the bitchy glamour woman, clinging to these trope for as long as she could before age caught up with her. In fact, these tropes are the ones with which she’s most strongly associated today, also in part on account of the sensationalism roused by 1981’s Mommie Dearest. She made it as far as the late 1950s (Esther Costello in 1957 is really the last “glamorous” role she inhabited) before finally having to capitulate to the constraints of age. Every film she made after Baby Jane (1962) was a sad testament to what once was. Power and control were long out of her grasp, and instead she was subjected and relegated to roles that would make any woman shiver, particularly one who had molded her entire image and brand around being glamorous.
It was in this arena — the arena of confronting one’s own mortality — in which Bette had the edge. Unlike Joan, she never embraced the glamour image and even went insofar as to eschew it. Like other starlets, she was subjected to a fair number of “Cheesecake” promotional shoots in the early thirties — but the second the power was in her court (notably after her impressive performance in Bondage), she fought against the studio in a way no young actress had ever done before. By refusing roles and campaigning for ones seen as “heavy” or dangerous to her image, Bette violently and assiduously carved a reputation as a “serious actress of the stage,” refusing to take on any glamorous or superficial role unless it was exceptionally well fleshed out (rare examples include Kid Galahad, where she plays a opient mistress, and Mr. Skeffington, where she is the titular character’s viciously narcissistic spouse). By the time she received AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1977, she had been crowned “the First Lady of the American Screen.” Thus, by the time she reached middle age — when she garnered a comeback with Eve — Davis did not shy away from any opportunity, glamorous or not. In fact, when she filmed The Catered Affair in 1956, she came onto the set without makeup, purposefully opting for a self-imposed haggard appearance. In her own recollections, she cites her inspiration as having stemmed from the poor and well worn New York mothers she saw during the time she spent in New York City briefly studying acting.
All of this brings us back to Cimino, where the role Bette takes on is nothing short of daunting. Not only does she portray an aging woman, but one who is senile and is first introduced to the viewer as someone struggling to retain their mental faculties. Esther is forgetful and has difficulty recognizing dates, names, and people. The doctors diagnose her with “atrophy of the brain” — in other words, in a catch-all sort of way they acknowledge she has dementia. However, the diagnosis is presented vaguely, and because the doctors see so little faith in fighting what they see is a hopeless battle, do not provide any rhyme, reason, or course of action to treat things. The situation seems disconsolate at first: Esther is unable to distinguish her reality from the thoughts that dominate her mind, and she is forced to relinquish her independence. It’s a scenario that, while dramatic, is no exaggeration of the experience that many older people go through.
The film presents a dismal prospect at first — for the first half, Esther seems to be making scant progress — if any at all. She still cannot grasp basic questions, and displays obvious signs of confusion that alarm her family. When gently prompted, “What day is it?,” she smiles and answers, “A good one.” The performance Davis gives in these scenes particularly is heartbreaking — she beams in ignorant bliss, unaware that not only are these obviously phrased questions, but in addition ones that are specifically being asked for the purpose of testing her. It is here in a role that is so traditionally non-Davis like — one that requires subtlety, restraint, and introspection — that Bette delivers one of her finest performances.
Davis’ career is best highlighted by powerhouse portrayals of bossy women — women who go against the tide and aren’t afraid to take a stand for themselves. They are loud and emphatic, just as physical as they are emotional: wild gesticulations, bugging eyes, lips snarled back with a stinging delivery of a searing insult. While Cimino certainly harbors certain aspects of this (the very opening scene is nothing short of dramatic, with Davis screaming for her life as she’s involuntarily removed from her home), the core of the piece is a much more quiet and thoughtful venture into the mind and environment of a woman forced to come to terms with symptoms of something she literally cannot comprehend.
Watching this movie was haunting for me in a way, because my mind couldn’t help but to ponder how Davis herself felt during production. By all accounts, Bette maintained her sharp wit (and lucidity) until her death in 1989. Still, being seventy-four and aware of one’s encroaching mortality is not something to be taken lightly. I often wonder what was running through her mind when she filmed this movie. Did she wonder how much time she had left on this planet? Did she see her own reflection in Mrs. Cimino, worried that she would befall the same fate? Perhaps she pushed all these worries aside in favor of her gusto for taking on new and challenging roles, or perhaps the thought never crossed her mind at all. Only Bette can answer this question, and I hope she does one day — but at the very least, one can surmise. What I took away from Bette’s performance is that while still healthy, she was actively working through — and manifesting — her own fears in regards to her mortality and what was yet to come. She displays a vulnerability that’s almost jarring for anybody used to the cold, closed-off types of characters she so often embodied. This vulnerability is what makes what would otherwise be a boring, run of the mill TV drama stand out against the crowd. Because Bette had never struggled to come to terms with aging, she was able to tap into and draw upon authentic and visceral emotions.
By the time Cimino was released in 1982, many of her contemporaries had already passed or were either physically or mentally restricted by their senility. Joan Crawford had died in 1977, only fifteen years after she and Davis had made Baby Jane together — a huge loss not only to the surviving roster of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but to Davis’ own legacy as well. Had Joan lived long enough to be offered such a role, would she have taken it? Likely not. She had passed on numerous film offers after she retired from the public eye in 1974 after a series of unflattering candids made their rounds in the papers. She would spend the rest of her life holed up in her Upper East Side apartment, still writing faithfully to her fans until the very end. Even an offer in early 1977 to play Martha Kent in Superman could not persuade her to return to the screen (though arguably by this point in time, even if she had wanted to she was far too ill to do so). It makes one wonder what could have been — as Joan was always the more emotional actress of the two, the thought of her embodying a Cimino type character is titillating to imagine. Had she continued to let her vulnerabilities surface to the screen (something she did faithfully until she reached the one she could not supersede — aging), she would have likely given a performance so authentic and riveting that it could have easily revived her once illustrious career.
While we unfortunately never were able to reap the harvests of Joan’s career in this way, Bette’s final few films allow us to gain invaluable perspective. Besides being stand alone films of their own, they are, in essence, portals into the personal world of a fading star: glimpses of greatness that shine through, skills honed to perfection by years of hard work. For actresses like Joan and Bette, the near entirety of their lives can be observed in its many stages. Gone may they be from our world, they will be preserved forever — in both youth and age — in celluloid.