Katharine Hepburn, considered by many to be the true feminist icon of the classical Hollywood era.
Hepburn, with gay icon Montgomery Clift, in Suddenly, Last Summer: one of her least appreciated and most unconventional great performances.
At times, Davis’s acting can be heartrendingly simple.
“Who would believe that a woman would ever reject Joseph Cotten?” said Davis of her role in Beyond the Forest.
Drag impersonator Arthur Blake and Tallulah Bankhead, who always accused Davis of impersonating her.
Joan Crawford’s indelibly resistant heroine Vienna in Johnny Guitar.
Davis’s legendary Margo Channing in All About Eve, still telling us to fasten our seatbelts for the bumpy night ahead.
The realism of Davis’s performance in Beyond the Forest is almost entirely overlooked.
Contemporary audiences prefer the wild, unhinged Davis.
Bette Davis in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte: beyond Camp lies terror and loneliness.
The anguish of betrayal, female disconnection, and loneliness in Hush, Hush. Are there ways other than Camp that such films can speak to gay audiences?
John Epperson (a/k/a “Lypsinka”) and Charles Busch, the star of Die Mommie Die!
The character actress Marjorie Bennett plays Victor Buono’s mother in Baby Jane.
Mercedes McCambridge as Joan Carwford’s arch-rival in Johnny Guitar: lesbian jouissance.
It is worth lingering on the disparities between Hepburn and Davis not only as stars but also in terms of audience reception. Despite the legion of female fans Davis had in her heyday as well as now (as the various Bette Davis fan pages in social networking sites attest, she continues to appeal to both women and gay men), Katharine Hepburn is considered the true feminist paragon of the classical Hollywood era. In contrast, Davis seems more problematic for feminist thought. Associated with melodramatic suffering and “trash” plots, Davis seems either too masochistic or too much the diva for feminism.[open endnotes in new window]
While in no way dispensing with Hepburn’s singular, angular appeal (especially vivid in George Stevens’ 1935 Alice Adams), I would argue that Hepburn ends up being a much more conventional embodiment of Hollywood constructions of femininity than Davis. Deft, droll, and witty though she is, Hepburn is tethered to her leading men—most often Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant. Despite her considerable gender ambiguity and lesbian appeal (especially in her much more interesting films of the thirties), Hepburn is most famous for being a witty sparring partner in battle-of-the-sexes heterosexual marriage plots.
If Dorothy Parker was unfair to Hepburn, it is nevertheless remarkable how unvaried most of Hepburn’s post-1930s roles are. With some superb exceptions such as Summertime (David Lean, 1955) and Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959), based on Tennessee Williams scandalous gay-themed play, Hepburn maintained a fixed position as the tough-minded woman who achieves heterosexual bliss by beating men at their own rhetorical games. With Davis, the situation is different. Her blazing emotional states often preclude heterosexual fulfillment; her messy, histrionic suffering scrambles normalizing programs.
As Andrew Britton argues in his superb essay “A New Servitude,” what he calls the “radicalism of the woman’s film” emerges from its refusal to force the heroine to capitulate to the normalizing effects of heterosexual marriage, a refusal that Britton sees at the heart of several important Davis films, including The Old Maid, Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939), and The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding, 1941) along with Now, Voyager. That several of these films were collaborations between Davis and the gay director Edmund Goulding cannot be overlooked. I would argue for the equal importance, however, of the films that Davis made with William Wyler, diminished in Britton’s treatment. Jezebel, The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes all feature a Bette Davis equally resistant to the normalizing codes of heterosexuality or who is a figure of striking gender ambiguity.
In Jezebel, Davis’s passionate, willful Julie Marsden destroys her own prospects of marriage to the man she loves by simultaneously exceeding all the boundaries of feminine propriety—wearing a red dress to the Olympus Ball—and challenging her fiancé’s sense of his own masculinity. This last point is key, for within it lie the seeds of her “failure” as a woman. So challenged, Pres (Henry Fonda) forces Julie to endure the Olympus Ball and the opprobrium the dress generates, insisting that she dance with him despite her protestations and as various attendees disapprovingly shun them.
In the opening scenes of The Letter, Bette Davis strides out into the nighttime air as she pumps her lover full of bullets. The moon, her emblem, shines upon her cold, murderous face as she stares down at the body of the man she loves and has killed. In such moments, Davis exceeds the boundaries of gender, no longer woman but cold, phallic vengeance, Diana and Fury at once. As I will discuss in my reading of Beyond the Forest—a neglected masterpiece of Davis’s, as well as the director King Vidor’s, career—Davis’s ascension (or devolution) to Fury links her roles not only to the film noir femme fatale but also to the avenging woman of modern horror.
In The Little Foxes, another relatively overlooked film in the Davis canon and certainly one of the most interesting, Davis transforms herself into a cold, death’s head-mask, a corpse-like woman animated only by her seething contempt for her weak-willed husband (Herbert Marshall, adept at such roles) and her financial ambitions. This film, based on the Lillian Hellmann play, is an extraordinary counterbalance to Jezebel. A stinging critique of the Reconstruction-era South, it links Davis’s Regina Giddens, in her malice and indifference to others’ needs and feelings, to the region’s racism and corrupt politics. Exceeding all of these concerns, however, is the rage Regina feels towards her husband, which isn’t so readily classifiable.
When she allows him to die of a heart attack before her very eyes, Davis allows you to see the fear in Regina’s eyes along with the pragmatic hatred. Is this a fear that she will be caught? Or is it a fearful recognition of the avidity of her own desires, which are distinctly non-feminine? Her chief desires are not for love and companionship but for material gain; for capital, not marital intimacy. While most famous for Gregg Toland’s superb deep-focus cinematography, this sequence demands attention today as a classical Hollywood set-piece of heterosexual alienation: a stronger female refusal of marital ties cannot be imagined.
In these terms, I am in disagreement with André Bazin’s famous reading of the scene:
While I concur with Bazin about the way Wyler’s “cinematic expression superimposes its own evolution” on the scene’s dramatic development, I argue that much of the scene’s hypnotic power derives from Davis’s performance—her willingness to let us see the full range and the full coldness of Regina’s desires. Far from wanting to shove Davis aside to get a better look at Marshall as he gropes his way to the staircase in the distance, more or less expiring once he reaches it, we are chiefly arrested by Davis’s immobile but wide-eyed face, those eyes that span cosmic mysteries.
If Davis was peerless at achieving such states of snake-like intensity, she was equally adept at emotional urgency. When her daughter (Jane Bryan), who knows her only as desiccated, tyrannical Aunt Charlotte (anticipating Now, Voyager), kisses her on the cheek before riding off with her new husband at the end of the period melodrama The Old Maid (based on an Edith Wharton novel), Davis registers surprise and a pure, quiet joy that is wrenching precisely because it is so simply, unshowily displayed. Known for her onscreen pyrotechnics, Davis can be, in such scenes, heartrendingly simple.
What’s also powerful about her as a screen heroine is her resilience, even in the face of impossible circumstances. When she discovers, in Jezebel, that her beloved former fiancé has married someone else, a bland, prim Northern woman, her instinct isn’t to mourn, much less to accept defeat, but immediately to “fight.” She plots to win him back, defying the constrictive laws of matrimony, pitting men against each other and wreaking more than enough social and gendered havoc to earn her right to her titular biblical name.
In that so many of Davis’s heroines either defy, thwart, or on some level resist marriage, the theme of transformation that informs so many of her films suggests a resistance to assimilation into the conventional marriage plot of the woman’s film. The very fluidity of her identity emerges as an attempt to stall or circumvent the achievement of heterosexual normalization. In her first really important role, she rejects marriage to her young, earnest boyfriend in Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, 1933), much to her angry father’s chagrin; when they do eventually marry, the couple is shown to be miserable. It is worth considering just how frequently Davis’s characters reject marriage and other markers of conventional heterosexuality.
Chafing against the strictures of 1852 New Orleans society, Julie Marsden wrecks her chances at heterosexual fulfillment just as ardently as she pursues them; Davis’s Elizabeth R fiercely remains forever the Virgin Queen; Aunt Charlotte remains the Old Maid; cold, murderous Leslie in The Letter rejects her husband (whose savings are lost as a result of his wife’s adulterous affair, the letter of the title part of a blackmail plot) in favor of devotion to her dead lover (“ I can’t, I can’t, I can’t anymore,” she shrieks at the climax to her husband, who remains bewilderingly devoted to his adulterous, murderous wife. “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!”); in Beyond the Forest, she betrays her pious, loyal husband. In film after film, Bette Davis rejects stable heterosexuality for elusive pleasures with no clear sexual fulfillment, resolution, or identity.
Camp and its discontents
Beyond the Forest is a foundational text in the emergence of a Camp sensibility that would be indelibly associated with gay male subculture. Martha, the vicious and unhappy wife of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (which premiered on Broadway in the October of 1962) saunters into her kitchen early on, broadly and emphatically quoting Bette Davis’s now infamous line from the Vidor film: “What a dump!” The citation of both the film and Davis’s performance in it, taken as emblematic of all of her screen performances, can be seen as indicative of an awareness of both as representative of Camp sensibility.
In Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version, the actress playing Martha, Elizabeth Taylor, delivers the line in a manner that presents Davis’s original line reading as an outburst of wild, drag-performance excess. Hands circling and hips sashaying wildly, Taylor offers a flamboyant Camp homage to Davis’s famous elocutionary and physical mannerisms: “WHAT…AHH…DUMP!” As the theater critic and playwright Robert Simonson notes,
By the early 1960s, Davis was already enshrined as a Camp icon.
As Mike Black notes, the Camp appreciation of Davis dates back even earlier. It is present in 1952’s Diplomatic Courier, directed by Henry Hathaway. In this film, as Black observes, the female impersonator Arthur Blake,
While the Davis-Bankhead rivalry and its possibilities would make for a fascinating discrete discussion, let me note here, for our purposes, that clearly, even by the early 1950s, Camp, specifically associated with gay male and/or drag queen responses to the female star, was becoming a public, discursive practice. As Pamela Robertson notes in her discussion of the development of Joan Crawford’s Camp-icon status in the context of her star vehicle Johnny Guitar, a famously Freudian 1954 Western directed by Nicholas Ray, what helped to solidify Crawford’s nascent status as Camp icon was her rivalry with the younger actress Marilyn Monroe, coming into prominence at this time, and the release of pictures in which Crawford was shown to be transforming from a “hardworking, self-made star” into a “pathetic and lonely shrew whose career is her only fulfillment.”
While comprehensively historicizing the development of Camp discourse far exceeds the parameters of this essay, we can establish, along the lines of Robertson’s analysis, that for Davis her biggest failure, Beyond, and biggest success, All About Eve, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and an enormous critical success that was seen as Davis’s spectacular come-back, each contributed to her Camp status. Both films concern rivalry between an aging, powerful woman and a younger (in Beyond, this rivalry occurs between Davis’s Rosa Moline and her venomously contemptuous “Indian” maid, a relationship I discuss below), and both are about the loneliness and anger of this woman, though in quite distinct registers. If, as Robertson points out, the Camp icon is the female performer who has been “recoded,” so that “her persona becomes that of an excessive grotesque unsuited to the dominant ideology,” then Davis in Beyond has already begun her transition to Camp.
One of the major points I want to make is that Camp discourse homogenizes the works it enshrines, rendering them free of their particularities, idiosyncrasies, discordances. The first point to make in our analysis of Davis and Camp is that, in Beyond, the famous line that is so extravagantly parodied in both the stage and film versions of Albee’s Woolf has a markedly different character in the film. Davis delivers the line quietly, with an undercurrent of resignation. The line and her delivery of it are very considered, even methodical, as is, actually, much of Davis’s work here.
While both Vidor’s film and Davis’s performance in it are stylized and in some key ways anti-mimetic, there is also a very determined insistence on cinematic realism in the film. One of the major points I want to make is that Camp discourse homogenizes the works it enshrines, rendering them free of their particularities, idiosyncrasies, discordances. The first point to make in our analysis of Davis and Camp is that, in Beyond, the famous line that is so extravagantly parodied in both the stage and film versions of Albee’s Woolf has a markedly different character in the film. Davis delivers the line quietly, with an undercurrent of resignation. The line and her delivery of it are very considered, even methodical, as is, actually, much of Davis’s work here.
The moments in which her femme fatale-masks slip and a demonic, hysterical energy bursts through are the focus of the Camp appropriation of Davis’s performance here and elsewhere. While her wild moments are not insignificant, their relationship to the more measured aspects of the performance is lost, as is the depth and precision of Davis’s work generally within Camp. This disjunction between the reception of the film and what the film itself attempts to do is a wide, fascinating gulf. The film itself forces us to question the validity of such culturally freighted categories as “Camp classic.”
In Susan Sontag’s famous 1960s essay “Notes on Camp,” she influentially argued that “Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony” are our defining cultural sensibilities. Her essay remains a touchstone text, albeit one often critiqued and challenged in current critical investigations of Camp. For Sontag, Camp is always “failed seriousness,” and she is careful throughout this essay to distance herself from any kind of cultural legitimation or endorsement of Camp.
In his essay “Uses of Camp,” Andrew Ross provided a notable rebuttal to Sontag in which he makes a case for the value of camp. Ross specifically valorizes Camp as a resistant queer mode. There are some inherent frustrations in this valuation, however, chiefly that his surprisingly celebratory essay institutionalizes a view of gay/queer appropriation of Classical Hollywood and other related archives as consistently, irreducibly Camp gestures. Moreover, Camp becomes an exchange object, a queer exoticism readily appropriable by mainstream and heterosexual audiences.
Critiquing Ross’s essay, Moe Meyer discusses the discursive sleight of hand involved in the Pop/heterosexual appropriation of Camp discourse:
While in agreement with Meyer’s views of the covert politics of these cultural maneuvers, I number these disturbing aspects of Camp discourse among those inherent within the function and form of Camp discourse itself. Camp was once a way for an oppressed minority to read against the grain of popular, heterosexist culture, employing an array of cultivated defenses—wit, sophistication, taste, irony, et al—as a form of counterattack. Inseparable from Camp discourse has always been the sense of marginalization—it is the self-consciously minoritizing stance of a minoritized group.
With all due consideration for the political urgency of Camp as well as for its considerable usefulness as a means of gay/queer negotiation of a heterosexist culture, a way of making humorous lemonade out of homophobia’s lemons, I also think it has emerged as a fairly limiting and often vexing social, cultural, intellectual, and personal position, when it is considered not just as a sensibility but more dramatically as a repertoire of affects and attitudes toward the past, and as such an attitude which has been so assimilated into cultural practice as to be, in some ways, effectively “de-gayed.”
Many who have written on Camp have rightly pointed out its essential duality—that it blends satire and, at times, mockery, with admiration and love. It would be a mistake, then to pursue simplistic concepts of Camp and to treat it as purely a mode of satire or parody. Watching, or rather, hearing the audio commentary on the 2006 DVD edition of Robert Aldrich’s film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)—the Camp classic par excellence—by the authors, film historians, and drag performers Charles Busch (the star of the 2003 Mark Rucker film Die Mommie Die!) and film historian John Epperson (a/k/a “Lypsinka”), one certainly gets a joyous and affirming sense of not only the fun but also the thoughtful, analytical discretion possible in Camp appreciation. Particularly salient to me are the commentators’ notes on the creativity and acting choices made by the performers, Bette Davis in particular, but also Joan Crawford, Maidie Norman (who plays the secluded sisters’ African American maid), and even the unsung Australian character actress Marjorie Bennett (who plays Victor Buono’s mother).
The problem, however, is that the Camp response, usually delivered in tribal and collective settings such as revivals of older films, tends to be anything but analytical, measured, thoughtful. Without putting too fine a point on it, there is a sense of older films generally, but especially those starring “diva-gorgon” icons like Davis and Crawford, as always already Camp.
I want to make it clear that I understand and appreciate the finer points of Camp, its dual modes of satire and admiration, as exemplified by Busch and Epperson in their commentary. Therefore, let me establish that what I oppose is uncritical Camp, a species of a general contemptuousness, which expresses itself in the form of derisive humor, toward the past that, as such, has a great deal to say about U.S. attitudes regarding not only its own cultural history but that of cultural history, generally.
I am well aware of how polemical this all sounds. While I want neither to be hyperbolic nor insensitive, I do feel that it is of some urgency to point out that at least one dimension of Camp—though only one—is its relation to the ways in which cultural artifacts, earlier modes of representation and performance style, previously held attitudes and associations, and earlier, no longer fashionable genres are routinely treated as ephemeral, obsolete, and generally valueless. Understanding the patterns and practices of the past takes time, discipline, and sustained engagement. In ways far too complex to do justice to here, the failure or the unwillingness to bring such tempered attitudes toward past forms of representation must, on some level, relate to the hetero-reproductive capitalist standards of our culture and their insistence on newness, progress, and futurity. This is, of course, a bizarre wrinkle in a cultural practice historically associated with homosexual subculture.
Any mention of these terms inevitably evokes Lee Edelman’s arguments in No Future, which can be roughly summarized as a call to queers to embrace the death-drive and to resist cultural directives that emphasize futurity. My effort here is not to pursue Edelman’s line of argument, but, rather, to open up a new space in which the past, especially in its queer valences, can be experienced in fresh and sympathetic terms. Along the lines of Pamela Robertson’s excellent deconstruction of the Camp response to Joan Crawford in the Nicholas Ray Western Johnny Guitar (1954), I want to acknowledge the Camp potentialities of Davis in Beyond the Forest but, much more comprehensively, treat both as significant to queer theory and feminism in ways that transcend or denature or at least problematize the Camp response, which at its worst robs works of their particularities and certainly of their political implications.
What I specifically wish to draw our attention to is the way in which Camp can distort not just the texts we study but the means whereby we study them—our reading itself. My goal in reading Beyond the Forest in non-Camp terms is to attempt to understand it in ways that exceed or are not contained, and constrained, by Camp response. My hope is that in doing so, I will also make sense of Camp’s value as well as its place in the history of gay male fandom. My discussion of Beyond the Forest will be oriented around the question of its value for queer as well as feminist audiences.