Throughout her long and varied career, Bette Davis excelled at playing complicated women. From the slatternly waitress in Of Human Bondage (1934) to the spoiled Southern belle in 1938’s Jezebel to the grand dame of the theater, Margo Channing, in 1950’s All About Eve, Davis’ filmography is stacked with a series of unparalleled performances. Part of the brilliance of Davis’ talent comes from her ability to wrestle the most unsympathetic, broadly-drawn women in the history of film into submission, transcending stereotype to make them shine. Even the most unequivocally shallow female characters are given new depth when Davis tackles the role.
Nowhere is this more evident than in 1944’s Mr. Skeffington. In this gem of a melodrama, Davis takes a wholly unpleasant woman (seriously … the character’s a pain in the ass) and forces the audience to not only sympathize with her, but to actually come to like her, on some level, despite her numerous perceived flaws.
Davis plays Fanny Trellis, a popular, beautiful, and unceasingly vain young woman who lives with her equally irresponsible brother, Trippy (Richard Waring), in New York in the years leading up to World War I. The siblings have lived well beyond their means for too long, and in order to make ends meet, Trippy takes a job working for Job Skeffington (Claude Rains), a Jewish businessman. When Trippy is caught embezzling from Skeffington’s business, Fanny sets out to win and marry the older man in order to protect her brother. Skeffington, who loves Fanny in spite of his better judgment, marries her even though he realizes her motives. But Trippy is far from happy at the news and angrily enlists in the military, going overseas to fight in the growing conflict in Europe. After Trippy dies in the war, Fanny blames Job, leading to their separation and divorce. Job becomes sole custodian of their daughter, and Fanny gets involved with a younger man. But a bout with diphtheria devastates Fanny’s good looks, and when her many admirers have dispersed, she is left with the harsh realization that her lifelong vanity has isolated her from everyone who ever truly cared about her–including the man she wronged above all others.
Throughout the movie, Fanny is lauded for looking 20 years younger than her age (which is 50 by the end of the film). The men who flock around her, even after she has married Job and has ostensibly settled into a domesticated life, value Fanny not for her thoughts or her personality (which is simpering at best), but for her girlish figure and smooth, lovely skin. Then again, the movie does not give us much indication that there actually is anything more of value to Fanny, as a person, than her attractiveness, so it’s difficult to label her admirers as any more shallow than she is.
However, after her illness, Fanny’s former paramours want nothing to do with her when she finally looks as old as they do. Her illusions about herself are shattered–for Fanny judges herself by others’ expectations, and thereby deems herself unworthy due to their reactions. In the scene where she is confronted by a swath of mirrors, forced to stare at her harshly-aged face, she is really confronting herself–and her own selfishness–for the first time.
In truth, Job is the only one who seems capable of seeing through the veneer of Fanny’s childlike behavior to the woman beneath. How and why this is, the movie doesn’t see fit to tell us; Job’s character is so sparsely developed that his motivations are murky, at best, and his reasons for marrying Fanny in the first place are unclear–is it mere infatuation, or does he see himself as a sort of rescuer? The character is a glorified punching bag, taking his licks and retreating regularly after putting up with Fanny’s repeated aggravations and misbehaviors. Rains does his best with the material he’s given, but it can be difficult to watch Job’s strained, pain-filled expressions. And, like New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who panned the movie as “an exercise in female frippery,” you, too, might wonder why Job “never gives his wife a light clip on the jaw” (because it’s not spousal abuse if she’s really, really annoying, eh, Mr. Crowther?).
Still, Job is the only romantic interest in the film who honestly shows a modicum of respect for Fanny. This doesn’t stop him from passing judgment on her, however; his homespun wisdom that “a woman is only beautiful when she is loved” (good to know) serves as both chastisement and the purported moral of the story–as well as a cinematic warning to every woman to find a loving husband, quickly, lest she wither away to nothing!
The movie functions as a kind of reverse “ugly duckling” tale, in which the beautiful swan only learns the importance of inner beauty by losing the outer attractiveness she values so highly. In that sense, Mr. Skeffington also seems to borrow from the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” in which Fanny becomes the unsightly “bestial” figure and Job the saintly “beauty.” By equating Fanny with a “beast,” she becomes somehow less than human, and her humanity is only restored when she has been brought to her lowest point and “reborn” through the love of a good man.
Women are not generally depicted very kindly in the film (with the possible exception of Fanny’s daughter, whose only moment of true assertion comes in her final scene in the movie). For the most part, the female characters are all painted with the same clichéd brush: they are by turns flighty, false, fiercely vain, and, in the end, vindictive. Seething with jealousy at first because of Fanny’s beauty and grace–and its appeal to their husbands–the society wives take great glee in Fanny’s misfortune after her illness, laughing about her “pathetic” behavior at dinner as Fanny tries in vain to recapture the allure of her youth. The stereotypical “catty” female has rarely been on better display.
Fanny’s shallowness is not limited to her vanity–she’s a hypocrite to the umpteenth degree. She fully engages in a double standard when it comes to her extramarital affairs. While Fanny engages in flirtations with multiple men, often right underneath her husband’s overly tolerant nose, she judges her “minor” indiscretions as less of a betrayal than Job’s succession of “secretaries” with whom he consoles himself. It does not occur to Fanny that her own rejection of Job is what drives him to find pleasure in the company of other women; she cannot allow herself to believe that her womanly charms cannot keep her husband happily waiting for her in their lonely home night after night.
Not only is Fanny a classic example of a disinterested wifely figure, but she’s also a paragon of the “unmotherly mother.” She acts more maternally toward her brother, Trippy, than she does her own daughter. Fanny actually makes a “sacrifice” (at least, in her mind) on behalf of her brother–she marries Job to protect Trippy, and then blames Job when Trippy dies because her brother had initially joined the war effort out of disdain for Fanny’s marriage to “the Jew Skeffington.”
But with her own daughter, Fanny refuses to sacrifice her own pursuit of entertainment and happiness for the benefit of young Fanny (and while we’re on the subject–how egotistical is it to name your daughter–or your son, for that matter–after yourself? Maybe it’s just me). It would be easy to assume that Fanny rejects her maternal role simply due to her own selfishness. But there’s more to it than that–she demonstrates a real fear that motherhood ages her, and Fanny finds that intolerable. Self-realization of what this fear has cost her, however, comes a little too late. When her daughter usurps her position in the relationship with her much-younger paramour, Johnny Mitchell, the ensuing conversation with young Fanny actually helps her mother grow a bit and recognize that she may just want to forge a relationship with her only child after all. But Fanny Junior has the power now, and tells her mother that since she is moving to Seattle with new husband Johnny, trying to build a familial bond is no longer possible–thus cementing the shift of power from mother to daughter.
The ending of the film doesn’t necessarily mark a permanent change in Fanny’s character–it feels too abrupt for that. But it leaves the viewer with the hope that Fanny’s selfish nature will melt away for good in the face of her husband’s suffering. More likely, the ending indicates that Fanny relishes the idea of receiving her husband’s renewed worship since he cannot see the ravages diphtheria has left on her face and body. The thought of receiving that adulation again makes Fanny’s face light up with joy and, perhaps, more than a hint of love and respect for the man who will give it to her (okay, so maybe that’s a bit of wishful thinking).
Overall, Davis walks a tightrope throughout the film and somehow makes a wholly unsympathetic character somewhat appealing. The film’s success hinges on her ability to make us want to root for Fanny despite the character’s (many) flaws and general lack of growth, and in my opinion, the actress does a beautiful job. Fanny is a spoiled brat, but she’s also an obviously lost soul, and Davis’ portrayal of her indicates a depth of character that keeps us engaged in Fanny’s story even after she has thoroughly alienated those who actually love her. You may find yourself wanting to reach through the screen and shake some sense into Fanny at times, but at least you’ll be entertained along the way by Davis’ effective performance.