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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.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2018 in Movies

 

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The Chalk Garden (1964) – Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills, John Mills

download (2)1964-65 was a good year for governesses. Julie Andrews accounted for two of them, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, but Deborah Kerr does very well in her own, less known, 1964 governess role in The Chalk Garden. Of course, the film is not very like Mary Poppins and Kerr’s Miss Madrigal is not very like Fraulein Maria. She has a secret. And the child she must care for, Hayley Mills, makes Julie Andrew’s charges look like haloed little saints.

The film stars Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills – in a brief departure from her Disney films – and Hayley Mill’s father, John Mills. The film opens with Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr) applying for the job of governess at a large home near the coast. She has no references and no experience. However, the child she is supposed to take care of, Laurel (Hayley Mills), is a positive terror and scares away the other applicant for the job with outrageous behavior, statements, and tales of horror about governesses being eaten by sharks. But the butler, Maitland (John Mills) rather likes Miss Madrigal. She meets Laurel’s grandmother, Mrs. St. Maugham (Edith Evans), who is at first not willing to hire Miss Madrigal until she discovers that she is extremely knowledgeable about gardens. Miss Madrigal makes the observation that the reason the flowers won’t grow for Mrs. St. Maugham is because the soil, chalk, is all wrong for those particular flowers and mentions what sort of soil she would need. On a whim, and because she has been unable to keep any other governess around for long, Mrs. St. Maugham hires Miss Madrigal.

Laurel is no ordinary problem child. The reason she is living with her grandmother is that several years previously her mother Olivia, (Elizabeth Sellars) had had an affair, divorced her father and remarried. The entire series of events set off something in Laurel, who became convinced that her mother did not love her and is obsessed with the notion of her mother living in sin, a notion reinforced by her grandmother. She feels abandoned and rejected. She is also obsessed with arson, murder, crime and is a chronic liar who likes to make outrageous statements to get a reaction from people. She speaks of having a desire to burn the house down, a desire channeled by her grandmother into simply burning large bonfires. Her grandmother comments wryly to Miss Madrigal that little by little they are making it smaller. “Laurel hasn’t noticed yet. One day it won’t be there.”

Laurel is attempting to scare away the governess while Miss Madrigal, on the right, is unmoved

Laurel is attempting to scare away the governess while Miss Madrigal, on the right, is unmoved

But Miss Madrigal sees something in Laurel. She sees something of herself when she was that age (it is amusing to try to imagine Deborah Kerr, young and wild and screaming). She sees herself as a liar, unable to appreciate that she is loved, filled with rage at the world and other people and she longs to to help Laurel.

The key, as she sees it, is to get Laurel away from her grandmother and back to her mother. It’s not that Mrs. St. Maugham is evil, but she “does not have a green thumb,” either for children or flowers, as Miss Madrigal tells her. Besides, she suspects that Mrs. St. Maugham is using Laurel to hurt Laurel’s mother, whether consciously or not.

Like Laurel, or perhaps Laurel feels this way because of her, Mrs. St. Maugham feels betrayed by her daughter. She and Olivia have a fraught relationship and the man Olivia left was the man Mrs. St. Maugham had chosen for her to marry. But Olivia desperately wants to take Laurel back with her.

But meanwhile, Miss Madrigal has to deal with Laurel, who specializes in investigating her governesses, snooping in their possessions (she can pick locks), finding out their secrets, or inventing secrets, and generally exposing them and sending them packing. Miss Madrigal is an especially interesting subject. She arrives with all new clothes, still in their wrappings, still with the tags on them. She paces the room at night. And she definitely has a secret, something definite in her past. What occurs is a kind of game of cat and mouse between Laurel and Miss Madrigal, though Miss Madrigal does not put up with half the nonsense that her grandmother does.

Edna Evans. John Mills, Haley Mills, Deborah Kerr

Edith Evans. John Mills, Haley Mills, Deborah Kerr

It partially makes me think of an English Country House murder mystery. Mostly because of the setting in a English home by the sea, the eccentric people (Mrs. St. Maugham and the butler, Maitland, who has rare privileges and feels free to make cheeky comments), and also the game of wits played out between Laurel and Miss Madrigal. Laurel is trying to find out who she really is, while Miss Madrigal deflects her inquiries and is trying to reach past Laurel’s lying and outrageous exterior to the wounded child within. Also, Maitland has a great, though healthy, interest in crime and detective stories. Ironically enough, a crime is discovered in somebody’s past, but it is not an indictment of that person and does not come as a huge surprise the the viewer, either.

Deborah Kerr does a marvelous job. She plays it both humorously – at moments she is enjoying this game of wits – but also deeply passionate, initially hidden behind her blank exterior. Ironically, she is hiding something, but must lose her secret and expose her heart to win Laurel. Hayley Mills also does a great job in a role quite different from anything she did at Disney. Underneath, there is a very vulnerable child playing games, until she realizes that she’s stumbled on something that is not a game at all.

HayleyMillsandDeborahKerrinTheChalkGarden-1The Chalk Garden is an adaptation of a play by Enid Bagnold and Edith Evans played Mrs. St. Maugham in the play as well as in the movie. She’s quite an interesting character, because she is not a villain, nor does she play her like a selfish harpy. She strikes me as one of those ladies who was probably a flapper in her day, witty and, as we learn, with a host of admiring men in her past, some of who she still knows (like the judge played by Felix Aylmer, who she wants to help her keep Laurel from Olivia). But she obviously does not have it in her to raise children. She is kind to Maitland, however, who has sad story in his past.

This trailer makes the film look quite melodramatic, which it is in a way, but not quite as hysterical as all that! I really enjoyed it. There is warmth and real feeling, learning to open up the heart to accept love, wry wit. Maitland, especially, has some good dialogue (he and Miss Madrigal are talking in the library when he notices that Laurel is spying on them and he closes the door, commenting “Laurel is not at her best through mahogany”), though he is not the comic relief. He is almost the heart of the film, though he does not seem to do much. He is the solid, kind presence that balances them all.

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Drama

 

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