“I’ve never taken orders from anyone. As long as I live, I’ll never take orders from anyone. I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me.”
Dark Victory (1939) is a prime example of the power of a Bette Davis performance. Playing the part of terminally-ill heiress Judith Traherne, Davis commands full attention when onscreen, capable of breaking even the most apathetic audience. Full of youth and beauty herself, Davis passionately portrays this character with a tragic fate.
The plot of the film centers around a lovely, vivacious young woman who is diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. At first, her handsome doctor, Frederick Steele (played by George Brent), attempts to conceal the truth of her condition in order to allow her as much happiness as she can gather during her last months. The two fall in love as they await the inevitable.
The main character Judith, once aware of her fate, understandably undergoes a wide range of emotions. Upon the discovery, she first becomes enraged that her fiance/doctor, with the help of her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), has hidden the truth of her condition. Believing that he is only marrying her out of pity, she turns to the company of many other men (including a young Ronald Reagan) as a distraction from her unavoidable end. But an encounter with no-nonsense Michael (Humphrey Bogart), one of the grooms who handles her racehorses, leads Judith to a moment of self-realization in which she finds the inner strength and peace needed to face her fate.
During the filming of Dark Victory, Davis was suffering her own personal tragedy; she was going through a divorce from her first husband, “Ham” Nelson, who was leaving her. Like her character in Dark Victory, Davis also reportedly had a string of lovers following her divorce. In fact, the emotional progression of her character in the film is nearly parallel to her own off-screen reality. Davis seems quite blissful toward the end scenes of the film as her character learns to accept her fate; perhaps this is because she was in the throes of love, embroiled in a new romance with her (frequent) leading man, George Brent. Though Brent proposed, Davis eventually left him a year later to marry Arthur Farnsworth.
Early in the shooting for the film, Davis reportedly asked to be replaced as the lead role, fearing that in the midst of her personal emotional upheaval, she could not effectively play the doomed Judith. Thankfully, her request was ignored, and she went on to give a tremendous performance, one that scored her the third of ten Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. Just imagine what a tragedy it would have been for this role not to have been played by Davis, whose own emotional experiences during this period of her life must surely have assisted her in performing so brilliantly.
This post is an entry in the ongoing “Summer Under the Stars Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. Make sure to check out the other entries that have been dedicated to the inimitable Bette Davis today.