Dark Victory: Review
Without a doubt Dark Victory is a stellar example of the exceptional films produced in 1939. More notably, this prime example of a “woman’s” picture is above anything else a Bette Davis movie. One in which the great actress proudly displays her dramatic prowess for all to admire, and I believe wrongfully lost the Oscar to a young starlet in Gone with the Wind.
Davis is undeniably one of the most iconic actresses from the glamorous days of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and for good reason. Throughout her long career (more than 50 years), Davis possessed a style all her own, one that, more often than not, championed the spirit of the headstrong American woman. Regardless of the era or her age, she was always a force to be reckoned with. But the 1930’s offered the eleven-time Academy Award nominee her greatest roles and greatest achievements, with her winning Oscars for Best Actress in 1935 and 1938 (beginning a 5 year streak of nominations!).
Although Davis’s roles in Dangerous and Jezebel captured Oscar gold, it is her work in Dark Victory that I think really best represents the true scope of her substantial talent. Perhaps not as showy as The Letter or achingly romantic as Now, Voyager, Davis’s performance in Dark Victory offers a more balanced example of her skills at their mellow dramatic best as she plays an heiress with an inoperable brain tumor. And showcases the powerhouse diva’s ability to perform with rarely seen subtle nuance as she struggles between the world of empty escapist folly and a life of purpose, regardless of brevity.
The story is somewhat typical of the so-called “women’s” picture of the day. As the hardened debutant Davis wears a party girl façade in order to carry on the shallow lifestyle she shares with a young Ronald Reagan. But this is only a vehicle used to escape the reality of her illness (what I call the “oh-whoa-is-me-but-I’ll-show-them” factor). It is only through the help of a handsome doctor (George Brent) that Davis’s Judith learns to accept her illness, ultimately embracing the opportunity to be vulnerable in order to love and live her short life to the fullest, basically achieving true happiness through the love of a good and understanding man (the prince charming element).
A lesser actress would still be digesting the scenery. But Davis (with the help of a fine supporting cast that includes Humphrey Bogart) maintains Judith’s integrity as a fully realized woman with all the complex contradictions that that reality entails, full of ego and frailty, passion and insecurity. It’s something you just don’t see any more on the big screen, either for lack of writing or the inability of today’s actresses to portray such a true to life role (Meryl Streep, of course, is a rare exception). Fortunately, there are many outstanding Bette Davis films to fill that gap, and Dark Victory is one of the most satisfying representations of all her achievements, Oscar winner or not.