It’s been a while since my last Feminist Fridays post, so I thought today I’d take a crack at one of my favorite minor Bette Davis dramas—1943’s Old Acquaintance, costarring Miriam Hopkins, Gig Young, John Loder, and Dolores Moran.
Davis plays Kit Marlowe, a celebrated author who returns to her hometown to give a lecture. Waiting at the station is her best friend from childhood, Millie Drake (Hopkins), eager to show off her new husband and fancy house to her oldest friend. Millie also eagerly shares a secret—inspired by Kit’s success (and jealous of her friend’s acclaim), Millie has written a book of her own—a racy romance tailor-made for the “regular reader.” Meanwhile, Millie’s husband, Pres (Loder), immediately feels a sense of camaraderie with the down-to-earth Kit, which over the years turns into love—a love that Kit returns but does not act upon out of deference to her friendship with Millie. The two women reach differing levels of success: whereas Kit goes on to write more literary novels and a well-received Broadway play, Millie’s pulpy fiction amasses a fortune, straining both her friendship with Kit and her marriage. When Pres finally leaves the temperamental Millie after an argument, it sets off a chain of events that ultimately leaves the two childhood pals questioning the merits of their longtime friendship.
From the start, the film asks us to choose between these two women. Who should the audience support—spiteful, hysterical Millie, or down-to-earth Kit, who takes all of Millie’s petty peccadilloes in stride? As a whole, Old Acquaintance does not paint a particularly flattering portrait of female friendship—in this scenario, one friend is a veritable doormat, the other a jealous and posturing fool, and their only connection is through the mutual experiences of a shared childhood—a tenuous thread called into question, both explicitly and implicitly, by the other characters in the film.
In many ways, the film is a perversion of the classic Madonna/whore complex, in which we are presented two sides of the prototypical female coin: the good wife and the good-time girl. But the good wife is not so good, regularly mistreating her husband, child, and purported best friend; and the good-time girl has, for all her perceived transgressions, a staunch moral code that dwarfs that of her counterpart. Those “transgressions” are only hinted at in the script (thanks to the Hays Code), but the implications are there. When Kit falls in love with a younger man, Rudd (Young)—who is ten years younger than she—Millie derisively refers to Kit’s “cradle-snatching.” When Pres returns after ten years of self-exile to forge a relationship with his and Millie’s daughter, Deirdre (Moran), and subsequently confesses his now-extinct love for Kit, Millie scathingly calls her oldest friend a home-wrecking “Jezebel” (never mind that it was Millie’s own behavior that drove Pres away, and that Kit refused to ever act upon her feelings for him). And when she tells Deirdre that Kit intends to marry Rudd (with whom Deirdre has recently fallen in love herself, unbeknownst to either Millie or Kit), Millie’s jealous cattiness knows no bounds. “Apparently Rudd is still infatuated and anxious for marriage,” she sniffs, “in spite of the ‘closeness’ of their relationship.” Hint, hint, wink, wink.
In the hands of another actress, Millie’s jealousy could come off as something sinister or potentially dangerous—if Davis herself had embodied the role, for example, Millie’s hysterics would no doubt have been coldly controlled, with a steely glint more frightening than any mere hot-blooded temper tantrum. Just look at Davis in films such as 1940’s The Letter or her bravura performance in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, and dream about the possibilities.
In Hopkins’ hands, however, the role of Millie becomes an almost off-kilter piece of camp. Arms waving, eyes widened to the extremes, voice raised in high-pitched squeals of frustration, Hopkins’ Millie is nothing more than a child. The performance is insanely over-the-top at times, especially in the scenes in which Davis is absent—when there’s no steadying force to draw attention away from Hopkins’ histrionics, we see just how amateurish Hopkins’ acting truly is within the context of the film.
That being said, Hopkins’ take on the character does, to some degree, clarify a sticky point in the plot—the question as to why Kit puts up with Millie’s ridiculous behavior for so many years. Kit explains herself to a disbelieving Pres by citing her shared history with Millie, but that is ultimately insufficient to justify years of continued verbal abuse at the hands of her friend. It is only when Kit offers an astute analysis of Millie’s personality that we begin to understand; as she explains, “If you’d just look at Millie’s activities as confession of weakness, an admission that there’s something essentially lacking in her nature, you’d find it a little touching and love her.” Hopkins’ performance underscores this point to a tee. Whether intentional on the actress’s part or not (I think sheer serendipity plays a key part in this), her depiction of Millie as little more than an overgrown, spoiled child does help explain why Kit remains a loyal friend—as indulgence begets acceptance and an abundance of lenience.
Davis’ role as the film’s “good girl” heroine is a rare one for her, indeed. Kit Marlowe is, at heart, another in a long line of self-sacrificing screen mothers—for make no mistake, Kit is more of a mother to Deirdre than Millie can even comprehend—who give up their own chances at happiness to ensure that of their children. But she is not without her faults, and she is self-aware enough to recognize this. In fact, Kit is the only character who sees herself clearly in the film. She’s wise without being cloying, witty without being unkind, and yet she’s far from a saint, rejecting any assignation as such from Pres or Rudd or Deirdre. Bringing a weepy, grateful Deirdre to meet with Rudd, having relinquished whatever hold she may have had on the younger man for the sake of Deirdre’s love for him, Kit says with a weary smile, “It’s late, and I’m very, very tired of youth and love and self-sacrifice.”
If Old Acquaintance, a prime example of the stereotypical “woman’s picture,” does one thing right, it is in portraying Kit Marlowe as a relatively progressive, independent woman. The film, of course, cannot allow such freedom to go unchecked by the establishment—which is so ably represented by Millie—but Kit ignores Millie’s judgment, deriving only amusement and mild exasperation from her friend’s criticism … until that criticism affects Kit’s relationship with Deirdre. By and large, Kit forges her own path, eschewing melodrama, marriage (at least initially), and even pants (Millie is horrified to learn that Kit does not wear pajama bottoms in bed) in favor of a satisfying career. That she does so without compromising her own standards is remarkable (and something Millie cannot claim, for all her wailing about her “glorious career”). And that she manages to avoid snapping and going ape-shit on Millie until the end of the film is more remarkable still.
When Kit finally snaps, it is a prime moment in the film and, frankly, a joy to behold. Calmly walking across the room, she suddenly grabs Millie by the shoulders and shakes her within an inch of her life, finally shoving Millie down on the nearest sofa with a generous heave. With a smirk in her eyes and an insincere, biting “Sorry,” Kit walks out the door, leaving Millie to scream and carry on in the background, throwing a girlish temper tantrum complete with pounding fists and childish sobs. One can only imagine the sheer pleasure Davis felt in being able to manhandle longtime rival Hopkins on the screen—in fact, Davis would later confirm as much while reflecting on the movie.
Much of Millie’s jealousy toward Kit comes from the sense that Kit’s work is more critically respected than Millie’s own—though Millie denies this, claiming that she writes for the “regular people” as opposed to the critics. But Millie, who has made a fortune from her pulpy romances over the years, takes every opportunity to undermine Kit’s work, flaunting her wealth while making snide comments about Kit’s low-selling, high-minded literary efforts.
The differences between their respective works are summed up in a scene during the middle stretch of the film, as Belle Carter, a reporter who comes to interview Millie, inadvertently manages to insult her.
Belle [to Kit]: Tell me, how is your new book coming along?
Kit: Well, I write and I write, and I still don’t like it.
Belle: But at least when you do turn one out, it’s a gem! None of this grinding them out like sausage … [She and Kit glance over at Millie and Belle pauses with embarrassment.] I suppose I could cut my throat.
Millie [haughtily]: There’s a knife on the table!
Ah, the classic fight between literary and commercial fiction, a debate that continues to rage to this day, as “prolific” writers such as James Patterson (nine novels this year alone, most of them co-written) and Danielle Steele (three novels in 2010) churn out multiple books every year and continue to make bestsellers’ lists (and millions of dollars) despite the lagging quality of their more recent efforts. Millie, who happily produces one “sausage” per year throughout the course of the movie, revels in her fame and fortune, but cannot fully enjoy it in the face of Kit’s greater critical success. Still, what infuriates Millie the most is not that her work is less revered than Kit’s, but that Kit herself does not care that Millie has made much more money. Millie is indisputably capitalistic—money is the ultimate sign of success in her mind, whereas Kit derives pleasure from the act of writing more so than its sometimes dubious rewards.
Though the male characters in Old Acquaintance are little more than plot chess pieces, seemingly shifted about at the whim of the script only to move the story along, they show themselves to be … well, not so very enlightened. Pres leaving his wife is understandable given her preference for writing over spending time with him, but leaving his daughter for ten years—reasoning that seeing Deirdre in the ensuing years would have prevented him from fully breaking free of Millie’s machinations—is far from excusable. That Deirdre is so willing to invite her father back into her life indicates a generous and forgiving spirit that I, personally, would be unlikely to match under similar circumstances.
And poor Deirdre—having been left by her father and almost seduced by philandering playboy Lucien Grant (Philip Reed), she finally falls in love with Kit’s young lover, Rudd, who goes from begging Kit to marry him one day to becoming infatuated with Kit’s surrogate daughter the next. He’s a real winner, too. Confessing his newfound love for Deirdre, Rudd tells Kit, “It was sort of a protective sense, I guess. She’s such a kid, I want to slap her if she does wrong, and yet I’d kill anyone who’d touch her. You know what I mean?” Yes, we all know what you mean, Rudd. And don’t worry: Kit will survive your leaving her for Deirdre. After all, heartbreak seems a small price to pay to dodge a massive, fist-shaped bullet, doesn’t it?
The film ends on a false note of peace—Millie has miraculously come to her senses, apologizing for her behavior, and Kit graciously offers forgiveness. As the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” fill the air, the hurts of the past ostensibly behind them, the two women toast both the renewal and continuation of their friendship.
Resolution? Not by half. People may be able to change, but not in the course of an evening. But is it a happy ending for these characters, as the film seems to indicate in this final scene? That depends solely on perspective. In Millie’s pessimistic mind, the resolution of the conflict is an unhappy one due to their mutual spinsterhood, and in the book she plans to write based on their friendship, she vows to give the characters a happier conclusion. But for Kit, at least, being alone in middle age is not an unhappy prospect. She has already begun to set aside the heavy cloak of her love for Rudd, and there is a renewed optimism in her face as the movie comes to a close.
Their roles have not changed altogether much from the beginning of the film—the mature Kit will move, onward and upward, throughout the rest of her days in a relative sense of contentment, while the more childish Millie will always strive to outdo and undermine her friend in the pursuit of an ultimately unattainable happiness. Regardless of the unwanted encroachment of “realistic expectation,” the movie would at least like us to believe that their friendship will continue, unabated and unscathed, for the rest of their lives … but that, dear viewers, would truly be little more than a fairy tale.