We feel sorry for people who discover Life Isn’t Fair. It’s an unpleasant realization, one that’s often accompanied by fist shaking, table pounding and other notable hand gestures.
Life is not fair, and we must either accept it, or follow Miriam Hopkins’ lead in the 1943 drama Old Acquaintance, which is to ensure life is more fair to you than to others.
Old Acquaintance is what’s called a “women’s picture”, one of several melodramas made by Warner Bros around World War II. This one is about the friendship between two women over the span of 20 years. It stars Bette Davis as Kit, a down-to-earth, roll-with-the-punches kind of gal, and Miriam Hopkins as Millie, a vain, tightly-wound, self-centred greedy-pants.
The two women could not be more different and it’s almost unfathomable they should become and remain friends. The screenplay acknowledges our disbelief: In one scene Hopkin’s husband (Jon Loder), asks Davis why she’s been life-long friends with Hopkins. Davis replies, “She knew me when everyone called me ‘Chucky’.” This matters to Davis, although we can’t imagine why.
We can, however, imagine millions of reasons not to remain friends with Hopkins, the greatest being her infuriating nature. She is so volatile. She’s cheery, then furious, then in tears. You never know what’s coming next. Plus, she chooses to see life as she wants it to be, not as it is. (For example, she dresses in the frilly costumes of her characters in the popular romance novels she writes.) Yet, this approach brings her material success – which is even more maddening.
Not only that, she’s always on the verge of a major crisis. In one scene, she wails, “I should have thrown myself out the window like I planned. How can I face people?”
No wonder Davis snaps and does this:
Many have criticized Hopkins for being too over-the top, as though she were playing to a large outdoor theatre rather than studio cameras.
Yet, we mustn’t be too dismissive of Hopkins’ performance. It’s her theatrics, for instance, that make Davis look even more even-tempered – the neck-shaking event notwithstanding. It’s also worth nothing that Hopkins maintains a high level of intensity throughout the movie, which deliberately keeps the audience on edge.
Hopkins is mesmerizing as this difficult character. She has a daughter and a husband, but doesn’t seem to have deep feelings for either one. “Yes, a husband can be a great comfort at times,” she sighs, as though it were the same thing as keeping extra sugar in the pantry. In another scene, she sniffs, “People are a nuisance. The only people who matter are the people in my books.”
She’s not telling the truth, of course. The person who matters most in the world, besides herself, is Davis. Hopkins, strangely, almost becomes subservient to Davis’ character. Davis is the only one who can reason with her, calm her down and, ultimately, forgive her.
Old Acquaintance is pure melodrama, but it is an interesting look at women’s friendship – a topic Hollywood normally overlooks. As much as Hopkins’ character infuriates us, she has a way of making us exonerate her in the end.
Old Acquaintance: starring Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Gig Young. Directed by Vincent Sherman. Written by John Van Druten and Lenore Coffee. Warner Brothers Pictures, 1943, B&W, 110 mins.