THE INCOMPARABLE BETTE DAVIS
There is no disputing the fact that Bette Davis is one of the most talented actresses to ever work in Hollywood. Her success can be partly attributed to this talent and partly to her passion for her craft. With Davis, career always came first.
I cannot deny Bette Davis is quite the screen presence. Watching her on screen is like watching a force of nature. No matter what role she filled, whether the character was reserved and demure or aggressive and larger than life, Davis always imbued them with a backbone of steel, an unwavering stance against compromise and an inner intensity which was shown in her eyes. There is a line from The Philadelphia Story which Jimmy Stewart’s character says to Katharine Hepburn’s haughty heiress, “(There is) a magnificence that comes out of your eyes, in your voice, in the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts.” I’ve always thought this line was the perfect description of Bette Davis.
With all that being said, as much as I admire Davis, she is not on my list of favorite actresses. Much like a strong kick in the pants, I must take her in small doses or take the risk of being completely overwhelmed. Still, I have worked my way through a large portion of her films. So, when I ran across Winter Meeting, I was shocked to realize that there was a Davis film I had never heard of before. Of course, my interest was immediately piqued and it became my choice of entry for this year’s Bette Davis Blogathon.
In Winter Meeting, Davis plays Susan Grieve, a New England spinster living off the remaining wealth of her Puritan ancestors. Susan is not only an introvert, but also an extremely reserved, self-contained person. Aside from her volunteer work at a Naval hospital and her friendship with Stacy Grant (John Hoyt), Susan keeps to herself, living an orderly life, occasionally writing and publishing poetry.
But Susan’s life is turned upside down when she agrees to attend a small dinner Stacy is hosting for the famous Naval hero, Slick Novak (Jim Davis). To both Susan and Stacy’s surprise, Novak rejects his young, gorgeous date and follows Susan home.
Though it takes Susan some time to admit it, she and Novak have an instant connection. As they spend time together, Susan begins to open up to Novak in a way she has never done with another person. Eventually, she shares the tragic story of her family. Her parents’ actions have scarred her. But though Novak encourages her to talk about the things which have hurt her, he refuses to do the same with her. He withholds his secret pain from Susan. This becomes a point of contention between them and when Susan pushes him, he bolts. But not before dropping a bomb of a confession.
Susan is devastated by Novak’s confession and rejection. As she returns to her lonely life, she begins to realize that she has changed. When a chance meeting brings Susan and Novak together again, they will have one more chance to resolve their lives.
Winter Meeting is an interesting film as it comes at the end of Davis’ contract with Warner Brothers, during a personal film slump in the Forties and two years before her stunning performance as Margo in All About Eve.
Reviewers on IMDb have given it a fairly high rating, so I was pre-disposed to like the film. However, I found it slow going and don’t believe it is one of Davis’ best films.
The chemistry between Davis and leading man Jim Davis just isn’t there. This makes it very hard to believe their case of attraction at first sight is enough to overcome Susan’s guarded reticence. Not to mention, the way that Novak interacts with Susan is rather abrupt. Aside from his physical attention to her, we get few clues as to how or why he is drawn to Susan. At times he is rather forceful with her, grabbing her, touching her, challenging her and then he withdraws with no reason. For me, watching their relationship develop just felt unnatural.
Another complaint I have is the pacing of the film. As I said already it just felt too slow. If is very much like a stage production, with a few sets and lots of dialogue. Unfortunately, the dialogue is much more focused on introspection than advancing the personal relationships. Some smart editing would have benefitted Winter Meeting immensely.
Another small and superficial quibble is that I found both Bette Davis and Jim Davis hair an absolute distraction through much of the film. Our hero Novak, is a Naval officer, yet he walks around the entire time with his hair looking like he combed it with an egg beater. It makes him look unkempt. Though perhaps it is supposed to be a reflection of his inner turmoil? And Susan’s hairstyle suits her prim manner, but those bangs are just atrocious.
Despite my complaints, there are some things I did appreciate about Winter Meeting. Davis gives a very subdued performance as Susan, but that is exactly what the role calls for. I can’t say I enjoyed Jim Davis performance as much. He is rather bland and no match for Bette. I really enjoyed John Hoyt as Susan’s acerbic, jaded friend Stacy Grant. Though it is a role more befitting Clifton Webb, Hoyt really makes it his own.
I also really enjoyed the story line of Winter Meeting. It takes almost the entire film to understand the importance of Susan and Novak’s meeting, but when it all comes together, it is a pretty powerful message. There is a bit of romance between them but that is not the point. The film itself is romantic as it deals with deeper issues in their individual hearts. Sometimes love has a different impact and outcome than we expect and I like when that is featured in a film.
In many ways, Winter Meeting was hit and miss for me. But I also feel that it is a film which will stay with me for a while. I also believe it is one of Davis’ films which deserves some attention, particularly from her fans, if for no other reason than to watch a master at work.