RSS

Tag Archives: Cancer

Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979)

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.

 
20 Comments

Posted by on April 8, 2018 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dark Victory (1939)

Dark_movieposterI have had Dark Victory sitting on my shelf for a long time and I have steadfastly resisted watching it. It’s a story about a woman who dies of cancer and since my own mother died of cancer, I thought I’d never have the heart to sit through it all. But last week I must have been feeling reckless (or morbid), because I voluntarily and spontaneous decided to watch it, fully prepared to drown in an ocean of tears.

But the oddest thing happened. I didn’t actually cry and I think it’s because the film bears absolutely no resemblance to my own experiences. It is a pure Hollywood fantasy of disease and death….which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t need a movie to teach me about grief. Movies either touch me on the raw (and they are only able to do so because I’ve already experience something) or they touch me in a more abstract, cerebral, certainly emotional, but not tangible fashion. Dark Victory was definitely in the latter category. I admired Bette Davis, enjoyed the drama, felt sad by the ending, was frustrated by the character’s decisions and generally was able to enjoy it like I would any other movie.

Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) is a reckless and willful heiress who parties all night and has a huge collection of relatively useless friends, including Alec Hamm (Ronald Reagan, in a thankless role), though her loyal secretory, Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald in her first American film) is more like a sister to her and genuinely tries to look out for her interest. But Judith’s doctor is worried about her. Dr. Parsons (Henry Travers) knows something is wrong, though Judith refuses to tell him her symptoms or see another doctor. The symptoms include trouble with her vision, numbness in her left arm and hand, terrible headaches and an inability to concentrate.

Dr. Parson finally does get her to see a specialist, however. Brain surgeon Frederick Steele (George Brent) diagnoses a brain tumor almost immediately, though he consults with a few other doctors before telling her that they need to operate. The operation is a success, clearing up all her symptoms, but the doctors learn that the operation was only a reprieve. Judith only has at most ten months to live. There will be no symptoms (?!), she will appear perfectly fine until she loses her eyesight, at which point the end will only be a few hours away.

Annex - Davis, Bette (Dark Victory)_11But Dr. Steele, Dr, Parsons and Ann elect not to tell Judith, feeling that she would be happier if she didn’t know (this is apparently rather European, where my piano teacher told me that it used to be quite routine for the family to choose not to tell a loved one that they were dying – the topic came up when we were discussing Rachmaninoff and I expressed surprise that his family should keep it from him that he had cancer, though eventually it becomes rather obvious to the patient that something is wrong – though this was in the days when there was really nothing that could be done). Judith is beside herself with gratitude for Dr. Steele and is falling in love with him, while Dr. Steele returns her affections. Should he tell her? And then things go haywire when Judith finds out that he and Ann lied to her about being cured and goes on a giant, months long bender.

One thing that interested me was Bette Davis’ performance. I am used to thinking of her as playing rather strong-willed women, but as Judith Traherne she plays her with a more childlike innocence, especially opposite George Brent’s Dr. Steele. She mentions that her father drank himself to death and that her mother lives in Paris and so there is a rather fatherly aspect to Dr. Steele’s love of her and her reaction to him. It begins when they first meet in his office. She is scared stiff and wildly resistant to his attempts to question her about her health. But as he gains her confidence, she suddenly relaxes, as if for the first time completely trusting someone else to take care of her. She plays Judith with wide-eyed, abandoned youthfulness that somehow isn’t really jaded yet, but also like a scared animal, shying away from kindness, who can’t quite fathom her fate.

Barbara Stanwyck evidently badly wanted the role or Judith Traherne and even performed the role for Lux Radio Theater, but because she was not associated with any studio, the role went to Bette Davis at Warner Bros. I wonder what her take on the character would have been. She can do many things, but I’m not sure childlike innocence is one of them. I am sure it would have been a good performance, but definitely different.

Stills-dark-victory-18866479-1699-2112Also in Dark Victory is, of all people, Humphrey Bogart. 1939 was a strange and busy year for Bogart. He played a mobster in The Roaring Twenties, an outlaw in the western (!) Oklahoma Kid with James Cagney, a convict in the prison drama The Invisible Stripes, another mobster in You Can’t Get Away With Murder with the Dead End Kids, a bloodless, undead  zombie scientist with a white streak in his hair and a rabbit to stroke in the very B The Return of Dr. X, yet another gangster in King of the Underworld and an impertinent, lusty Irish stable-hand in Dark Victory with an unconvincing Irish brogue-like accent. Bogart must have been very glad to finally be done with the 1930s.

George Brent and Geraldine Fitzgerald are quite good, but Dark Victory is all Bette Davis vehicle with her nobly going off alone to die. It’s actually a bit frustrating. After all, she is taking the choice away from those who love her who would want to be with her. But in the context of the story, it kind of makes sense. She acts so young and dependent on others, it is important to her, at the end, to do this on her own. Finally, to bravely face something on her own.

As a side note, isn’t it odd the kinds of movies that move one emotionally? It can be so unpredictable. A movie like Dark Victory will leave me unmoved and than I’ll bawl at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Cheesy stuff, random stuff, who knows what will affect one next! I never know. Do you?

 
12 Comments

Posted by on March 21, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: