Jezebel – 1938 – dir. William Wyler (1938)
Jezebel is back on the big screen and Hallelujah for film and Bette Davis fans!!
Though it preceded the release of Gone with the Wind by a year, Jezebel was said to be Bette Davis’ pay-off for being passed over for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in that 1939 epic. Late 1930s America was under the spell of Margaret Mitchell’s wildly bestselling phenomenon and hungered for anything ante-bellum. Davis and Jezebel more than fit the bill.
One of the first actresses to challenge the dictatorship of the rigid, Hollywood studio system, Davis (a tiny fireball of a woman, as shrewd and tempestuous a person as she was an actress) lobbied against Warner Bros. and the powerful Jack Warner for better roles for women and came to “Jezebel” on the heels of that battle. No preening, whining, self-sacrificing prigs like Olivia deHavilland or Greer Garson for the strong-willed Davis. No nervous breakdowns like those Warner Bros. inflicted on the likes of Judy Garland
or Doris Day.
Davis was a pre-cursor to the feminist movement that was not to hit its stride until thirty or more years later, and paved the way for future headstrong actresses. Without her, there would be no Meryl Streep, no Thelma and Louise, no Julia Roberts.
In Jezebel, Davis creates one of her many turbulent, conflicted characters. Her Julie Marsden, half-magnolia belle, half-shrew, comes of age in a South where social rules were the key to a woman’s success (or lack of it), where everthing from manners to mores was laid out, specified and defined, and Davis’ Julie was having none of it — no downcast, hush puppy, shrinking violet, she! She wants Pres Dillard (a sturdy Henry Fonda) and means to have him, no matter the method, however many social rules she has to break, and break them she does, her pop eyes scheming and conniving from beginning to tragic end, her jealousy so green, you can see it even in the black-and-white of William Wyler’s sumptuous, magnificently produced movie.
Imagined color plays in the spotlight in the film’s most infamous and unforgettable ballroom scene, for we are not seeing a red dress and yet we ARE seeing it and very clearly. Davis and company are MAKING us see it: the red of rebellion, the red of embarrassment, the red of rage and revenge; the art of acting so strong, it triumphs over the limitations of black-and-white print.
The film deserved and received many kudos and was among the best pictures of that year. Davis won her second Oscar for her wonderful performance. Fay Bainter won for Best Supporting Actress, and the film garnered nominations for Best Picture, Best Music and Best Cinematography. Wyler, one of the greatest directors in the history of Hollywood, took on the task of directing Jezebel at Davis’ request and did a bang-up job. He admired Davis and once said of her, “She chose strong female roles. She was a fierce spirit herself and she felt that her talents could best be used in roles that mirrored that spirit.”
You are about to see her and a marvelous cast in one of the greatest movies ever made. Long may Jezebel wave!!