Saturday, March 30, 2013

Dark non-victory: why we still watch this shit





I wasn’t going to watch Now, Voyager last night:  geez, no. I’d just seen it about three weeks ago on Turner Classics, my fallback system when reality TV turns unbearably sour.  But it’s one of those films, like Taxi Driver, that’s a virtual La Brea Tar Pit of absorption. Once the thing starts, you can’t get away even if you want to.

As with Gone With the Wind, you can dip in anywhere and enter the flow, but it’s better to plunge in right at the beginning, when the lush Max Steiner score swells with erotic longing. Gather ‘round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale, of a poor little rich girl named Charlotte Vale.




Charlotte is the crème de la crème of repressed spinsterhood, her wealthy Bostonian mother slashing and lashing her personality into meek submission. Charlotte was the “child of her old age”, and therefore stigmatized (and though they don’t come right out and say it, that means you shouldn’t fuck after age forty) and bound to a life of unpaid servitude (even though Ma could probably afford dozens of servants).

This is 1942, so how can thick-browed, tremulous Bette escape such hell? Enter the male rescue figure, in the person of Dr. Jaquith, a psychiatrist played to perfection by one of the great character actors of all time, Claude Rains. If Claude Rains were MY psychiatrist, I might just be able to finally get off the couch. This man who oozes erudite understanding runs a sanatorium that resembles a cross between a holiday resort and a self-help ranch retreat, with smiling staff and cozy rooms with fireplaces (in fact, when Charlotte bolts back to the place after a romantic reversal, the smiling nurse/receptionist/whatever-she-is cheerfully says, “I’ve put you back in your old room,” like it’s a luxury hotel or a college dorm.)




Something happens at this dorm, some sort of transformation, so that when Charlotte is given the chance to assume someone else’s name and wardrobe on a luxury cruise, she takes it. The shot where Dr. Jaquith literally sends her off on the gangplank is pure Hollywood: remember, be interested in everything and everyone! Go, girl, go! Charlotte’s newly-plucked eyebrows and stunning ‘40s wardrobe can’t help but attract the attention of a (MARRIED, MARRIED, MARRIED) elegant and somewhat androgynous hunk named Jerry Durrance (foreign name, God, foreign name - excuse me while I have an orgasm). He’s played by Paul Henreid, the murmuring, slightly bedroomy resistance worker in Casablanca, the one who gets the girl (or re-gets the girl) in the end.

For some reason, the fact that Jerry stays in a miserable marriage because of his disturbed daughter, Tina makes him into some sort of a hero. In truth, he’s a wuss, a cad, an emotional gigolo, and the sort of man who wants a fuck in every port. But his dashing habit of lighting two cigarettes at a time and giving one to Charlotte (implying, in subtle Hollywood code, that they’d slept together) seems to forgive all his little flaws.




Charlotte’s in love with a good-smelling skunk she can never have, but for some reason this just enriches the bubbling, seething stew of this women’s-novel-made-into-women’s-picture. Charlotte identifies with Tina’s screeching pathology, and she begins to claim her through emotional manipulation and ice cream: though in truth she’s just a cheap device to keep Jerry on the hook. Other things happen: Ma dies and Charlotte thinks it’s her fault (which it is), and she gets engaged and then unengaged to a dull, sexless rich guy who doesn’t even smoke. In one of the most turgid scenes in the whole picture, she and her fiance sit next to each other at the symphony, surrounded by the tumescent strains of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique: but Jerry sits on the other side. God, on the other side. . .on the other side. . . can’t she just reach over and grab his crotch?




Charlotte’s whole existence is Jerry.  Jerry, Jerry, Jerry. God, JERRY. I’ve had a Jerry; I don’t want to tell you how many times I’ve had a Jerry. It both sickens and thrills me. In a way, this is a Beantown Gone with the Wind, with hapless, passive Jerry playing the part of hapless, passive Ashley. They might have had sex, but it’s never spelled out (and in that era, who knows?). My Jerries never have sex with me, because they barely know I exist.




The capper in this splendid weepie is Davis’ classic line, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Every sploppy, soaky, drippy line in this thing is totally transformed by Bette Davis’ sheer genius: her smoky inflections, toned-down intelligence, the shy and slightly birdlike way she turns her head. Her hair, once straggly and ugly, is smoothed around her head like a shining helmet, and for some reason the Carol-Burnett-playing-Scarlett-O’Hara linebacker shoulders don’t look ridiculous on her.





I keep reading Bette Davis bios, and all of them seem to conclude that she was crazy, that she had some sort of fatal personality disorder that allowed her to tap into the darkness of the human psyche. Right. Then how did she last ‘til age 80, ravaged by cancer but still working right to the end? Granted, she married four unsuitable men, but is that so unusual in Hollywood? (Didn’t Mickey Rooney have seven – wives, I mean?). These biographers also conclude, all of them, that her emotionally fragile sister Bobby was mentally ill because she wasn’t able to have a career like her sister’s. Had she been able to, she would have been stable, joyful, happy in her personal life, and multiply orgasmic.




What a strange brew is old Hollywood. We couldn’t have a Now, Voyager now: it just wouldn’t play. It’s a pretty strange transformation, for one thing: from dowdy spinster with bad hair to elegant spinster with a better wardrobe and a million emotional frustrations. She still doesn’t get to marry or have children, as she longs to. She gets the old lady’s house, but that’s just because the old bird died at the right time. But ah! She has the stars. And thus she sails forth, to seek and find. Find what? A life forever on the emotional hook, with happiness just beyond the tips of her fingers.

NOW I get it, why I'm always watching this shit.

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