The centenaries of two of the giants of the movies -- David Lean and Bette Davis -- are being marked this month. Reflecting on the careers of both serves to remind us of how small the movies have gotten these days.
Anthony Lane's piece in the New Yorker, "Master and Commander," gives a good, quick overview of Lean's career. He started as a film editor, learning his craft on "quota quickies," films made quickly to satisfy British law requiring a certain amount of English-produced content be shown on the nation's movie screens. He also worked on newsreels, rapidly trimming film as it came in to the studio so it could be shown in theaters when events were still fresh.
In a sense, Lean remained a cutter all his professional career. As Lane says, Lean didn't believe in editing just to be flashy. A good cut had to move the story forward (case in point: his "Lawrence of Arabia" cut from Peter O'Toole blowing out a match to a red-orange scene of sunrise over the desert is one of the most famous in movie history ... and it serves to thrust you directly into the heart of the story).
Lean's name became synonymous, in later years, with the epic film. "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago:" All were huge hits and took years to make. Then, tastes changed, Lean created a huge flop (his first box office dud) in "Ryan's Daughter" and didn't make another movie for 14 years ("A Passage to India").
In the end, the restoration of "Lawrence" also helped to restore his reputation as one of the great filmmakers.
Recommended: Just about anything he ever directed, including the epics mentioned above but also earlier, smaller films like "Brief Encounter."
In the New York Times today, Terrence Rafferty writes about Bette Davis. Davis is probably remembered by younger viewers for her later work (mock horror films like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?") or her loud appearances on David Letterman.
But, in her prime, in the 1930s and '40s, she was a major star and a force both on-screen and off. She confronted studio bosses, demanding better parts and, for the most part won, setting a precedent that has benefited all actors, particularly women, to this day. In the 1950s, with her career on the wane, she pushed again and landed one of her greatest roles, as aging Broadway star Margot Channing in "All About Eve."
Rafferty writes about her role in "Eve" and also her starring role in "Jezebel." Davis, he says, was never afraid to take on a tough role that might not be popular with an audience. He notes that her power on screen was so great, and her skill as an actor so keen, that even when she wasn't in closeup, all eyes would be on her. And that she could convey her characters' moods even in a wide shot.
My favorite Davis entrance is the opening of "The Letter," one of three brilliant films she made with director William Wyler (the others are "Jezebel" and "The Little Foxes"). The sleepy evening at a Singapore rubber plantation is broken when Davis charges onto the veranda, following her lover and emptying a pistol into him. She stands over him, firing the gun until the bullets are gone and all you hear is the click of an empty chamber.
"All About Eve" is an acting tour de force, but so, in their way, are her earlier three-hanky weepers like "Dark Victory" and "Now, Voyager." Only Davis could take such potentially sentimental roles (a dying, spoiled rich girl in the first; an emotionally destroyed rich girl in the second) and make them believable. And sexy: No one ever looked better sharing a cigarette than Bette Davis did with Paul Henreid in "Now, Voyager."
Recommended: "Dark Victory," "Jezebel," "Now, Voyager," "All About Eve," "The Little Foxes" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner."