I’ve seen a vast number of Bette Davis films during the studio era, during the height of her stardom, from the early 1930s to the 1950s, but I haven’t seen many of her later films, though she worked her whole life. However, after reading about a TV movie called Strangers: A Story of a Mother and Daughter, in which she co-stars with Gena Rowlands, I couldn’t resist. I’m a sucker for stories about mothers and daughters anyway, but the cast made it irresistible.
The film was made for TV in 1979 and proved to be everything I was expecting. It’s the story of Abigail Mason (Gena Rowlands), who returns from Boston to live with her mother, Lucy (Davis), in a small New England fishing town. Abigail hasn’t seen her mother in over twenty years and is at first not even sure her mother will let her in the door. Lucy doesn’t say a word, only glares at her and continues doing her puzzle, while Abigail talks nervously. One can feel the tension in the room.
The story follows the two of them as they argue, accuse, talk, unbend, do puzzles, plant tomatoes and come to understand each other for the first time in their whole lives. Lucy, in particular, works on her puzzle a lot, though she isn’t very good at it. Her daughter, however, has a knack for doing puzzles. She has a knack for life, or perhaps a determination to persevere in life in general and gets her mother to do all sorts of things she hadn’t done in a long time: go out among her neighbors, eat out in a restaurant, buy a new dress. She even gets her mother to help her repair the toilet and fix a lamp.
Abigail brings a can-do attitude into Lucy’s life and even opens the blinds, exposes the dust, and then dusts. Ultimately, watching the two of them accomplish ordinary things together and grow closer and open up in the process is lovely. It’s not a film about dramatic events – the dramatic events were mostly in the past. As Lucy says, she thought she was destined to live and die alone, until her daughter came home to keep her company. Except there is something that Abigail has not told her mother.
Both performances are lovely as they play off each other. Bette Davis is her usual fierce self, but you can see the vulnerability beneath, the disappointments of her life, and her proud refusal to express her feelings. She’s a recluse at the beginning of the film, chasing away the neighborhood kids who like to ring her doorbell, when her daughter arrives and Gena Rowlands is equally excellent, fully up to starring opposite Bette Davis. Vulnerable in her own way, it manifests itself in frustration with her mother, eagerness to help, even a determination to help and not be bothered by anything her mother says or does, and a propensity to talk so that there won’t be too much awkward silence.
It’s really a bittersweet movie, as they discuss Lucy’s husband, Abigail’s father, and their conflict and misunderstandings. Bette Davis’ character literally unbuttons in the film. When we first meet her, she buttons every button on her shirt. By the middle of the film, the top button is undone, making even her casual appearance look less severe and, well….less buttoned-up.
(Spoilers) It turns out that the reason Abigail has returned home to live with her mother is because she is dying of cancer and wants to be with her mother, the only one she has left in her life, but she doesn’t tell her mother right away. Lucy has already nursed her husband during his illness and death, and she is angry and shocked when she learns that Abigail is dying, too, at first accusing Abigail of using her again, saying “How dare you come back and make me care.” Bette Davis makes her anger scalding, but also manages to convey that her anger is because of how much she does care.
“I am not going to go through that again,” Lucy tells a doctor, when he tells her that she is going to have to bring a hospital bed into the house and prepare. It reminded me of when I lost a family member to cancer, having had a hospital bed in the house and spent time nursing that family member; it seemed all the more poignant. The first time you nurse someone, you don’t really know what’s in store. How much worse when you know what is going to happen? When it is your own daughter, your last relative, who you’ve just found again?
The film doesn’t show Abigail’s death, but leaves the viewer with the renewed relationship between mother and daughter and how Abigail has found peace, but also brought her mother back to life again, so to speak. Very bittersweet, but with an emphasis on relationship rather than loss or death.
The film can be found on youtube, but the quality is admittedly poor. However, I have not found another place to view the film. It is worth viewing, however, for the excellent performances of Bette Davis and Gena Rowland.
This post was written as part of “The Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I made a mistake, however, and mistook the day the blogathon ended, so I am regrettably getting my post out a day late, but thanks so much to Crystal for her acceptance! Visit Crystal’s site for more posts celebrating Bette Davis and her films.