If you’ve ever watched someone jump into a self-destructive cycle after receiving bad news, you know how hard it can be for them to climb out later.
Davis’ compelling character progresses through the emotional stages of her illness. At first, she denies anything is wrong. But when she is confronted with medical evidence, she is determined to overcome her illness. “I’m young and strong and nothing can touch me,” she says desperately.
However, when Davis learns her condition is terminal, she explodes with anger. She fiercely turns on those closest to her, because she feels they have betrayed her. She also engages in self-destructive behaviour (involving men and alcohol), because why not? She’s going to die anyway.
Dark Victory has often been criticized – and rightly so – for its unrealistic portrayal of a terminal disease; Davis’s character doesn’t lose weight, or become haggard, or seem to have symptoms of an actual disease.
In fact, the only lasting physical evidence we see of Davis’ character undergoing brain surgery is the ever-present hat she wears for the next several scenes. As one character says, “You can’t tell a thing.”
In our opinion, Dark Victory isn’t meant to be the kind of film that examines how an illness affects the body. Rather, it’s the study of how an illness affects the psyche, and how one might come to terms with their mortality.
Dark Victory‘s script may phrase things euphemistically, but it’s dealing with some pretty raw stuff. It shows us how the main character moves through shock and anger to eventual acceptance.
We first observe Davis’ sliding into self-destruction when she learns, by accident, that her case is terminal. This is just before she is to meet her surgeon/fiancé (George Brent) and best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) for lunch. Not only has she discovered the truth about her illness, she realizes they Knew, and didn’t tell her.
She’s already drinking heavily. When Brent and Fitzgerald arrive, she’s angry and sarcastic. “Am I well?” she asks them. “Shhh! It’s a secret. Or don’t you two know about secrets?”
As her anger ebbs, her character becomes detached, almost as though she’s numb. When her stableman (Humphrey Bogart) discovers one of her horses has bronchitis, Davis says, unfeelingly, “Why not just put her out of her misery.”
In this stage, she pushes away friends and gives no thought to personal safety. When Brent implores her to make peace with her condition and to meet her end “beautifully and finely”, she mocks his words. “I’ll die as I please,” she snaps. “Now leave me alone.”
Eventually, Davis starts to accept her fate, and wonders if she shouldn’t hurry things along. “It’s the waiting, day and night,” she says. “Would I be wrong if I made it [death] happen?”
Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar with Dark Victory, which was her fourth Best Actress nomination. In our opinion, the nomination was well deserved.
Throughout her turmoil, Davis makes sure we understand her character’s pain and the very difficult task of accepting she will die. She behaves rudely and meanly, but never so much that we lose sympathy.
In fact, we start to wonder if we would behave any differently, and if we would ever arrive at the same kind of compliance.
If you’ve never seen Dark Victory, we recommend it – but save it for a day when you’re feeling upbeat.
•Read Christina Wehner’s excellent review of Dark Victory HERE.
•For a list of Bette Davis’ Oscar wins and nominations, click HERE.
Dark Victory: starring Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Written by Casey Robinson. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 1939, B&W, 105 mins.
This post is part of the Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click HERE to see all the fab entries.