From Extraordinary to Ordinary:
The Puritanical Plight of a Southern Jezebel
When I’m hanging out with some of my more cinematically-inclined friends, there’s a part of me that always feels…well, inadequate. While they recite Joan Crawford’s lines from Mildred Pierce or quote Rosalind Russel from The Women, I just sit there scratching my head like a Cro-Magnon trying to figure out fire. I’ve been told countless times that my golden-age-of-Hollywood benightedness is grounds for revoking my ‘gay card.’ What’s worse: I end up agreeing with them, feeling a sense of shame and embarrassment—or what I refer to as ‘diva envy’—because I haven’t latched onto some silver-screen actress like they have. My brushes with Dietrich or Crawford or Davis have been minimal, at best, and certainly not to the point of creating a shoebox shrine hidden away behind old winter clothes at the back of my closet. Regardless, the day after my rendezvous for libations with friends, those feelings of shame from the previous night will fade with my hangover, then I’ll absent-mindedly forget to add Shanghai Express or Dead Ringer to my Netflix queue; ultimately, leading to me tucking away those feelings of ‘diva envy’ until next outing. However, after watching Bette Davis in Jezebel, I felt that ‘diva envy’ unexpectedly (and prematurely) re-emerge once again.
There’s little denying that Bette’s portrayal of Julie Marsden is a tempestuous tour de force with all of the haughty bravado that her bustle will permit. Jezebel only fortifies the actress’ apotheosis from celestial status to Hollywood deity. From her opening scene, Davis’ equestrian entrance onto the film’s field of view diegetically asserts to that Miss Julie Marsden owns this show; in fact, it’s hard to tell if Bette was even acting at all. This inability to distinguish actress in period clothes from character in a period piece recalls Susan Hayward’s definition of a ‘star’ in her book Cinema Studies: “The audience has certain expectations of the star. The star is the point of synthesis between representation and identification…Hollywood tends to prefer the personifying star in the belief that audiences choose films in relation to stars and a knowledge, more or less, of what to expect…for example…the Bette Davis flouncing bitchiness” (p.383). And in Jezebel, there’s ‘flouncing bitchiness’ aplenty. Bette’s brassy flare for devil-may-care deviltry let’s you know that her role as Julie Marsden—who is pretty much Davis’ Southern, pre-Civil War era equivalent—will remain in control of the camera lens for the next 103 minutes. As Julie suavely sweeps up the folds of her riding skirt with the hook of her riding cane and sashays her unpunctual derreire into her own engagement party, she embodies the elite chic of every illustration that ever graced a 19th century fashion plate. Marsden’s commanding gestures and savoir-faire air signify that this New Orleans is very much hers—and hers alone; all others stand in her shadow or navigate by her star, but offer no competition. Her speedy meet’n’greet and hard-nosed joie de vivre as she thanks her guests, displays her magnetic superiority as monarch of the Southern social butterflies and, in turn, further secures Bette Davis a marble likeness amongst the statuary of Hollywood goddesses.
Davis’ commanding performance as the socially domineering Marsden serves as a matroschka of territorial authority beyond the confines of Jezebel’s mise-en-scene, stepping out of the silver screen and into the subconscious minds of the moviegoers. Marsden is every bit the embodiment of what Molly Haskell refers to in her piece “The Woman’s Film” as one of “the ‘extraordinary’ woman. Haskell further elucidates that female characters in women’s films (or weepies…whichever you prefer) can be broken down into three categories: ‘ordinary’, ‘extraordinary’, and ‘ordinary into extraordinary’. Positing Davis/Marsden into the ‘extraordinary’ grouping, Haskell observes, “There are ‘extraordinary’ women—actresses like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, and characters like Scarlett O’Hara and Jezebel—who are the exceptions to the rule, the aristocrats of their sex. Their point of view is singular, and in calling the shots they transcend the limitations of their sexual identities” (p. 431).
Unfortunately, in Jezebel, this extraordinariness doesn’t last the entirety of the movie, and, if anything, calls for an additional category to be added to Haskell’s list: ‘extraordinary to ordinary’. In the final scenes of the film, Julie pleads with Amy—the wife of her old flame, Preston Dillard, and, until this point in the film, Marsden’s competition for Preston’s affections—to assist her in her reformation from manipulative temptress into self-sacrificing saint: “I ask for the chance to prove I can be brave and strong and unselfish. Help me, Amy. Help me make myself clean again as you’re clean.” I find these last few scenes disconcerting and, quite frankly, unnecessary. Instead of maintaining her extraordinary status, Marsden willingly forces herself into a lesser rank, which is the antithetical opposite of Haskell’s third and final category for female roles in women’s films: ordinary to extraordinary. Marsden isn’t freeing herself “of puritanical thinking into enlightened self-interest” (Haskell, p. 432), but, rather, consciously choosing to diminish her freedoms and “adhere to a morality which demands that she stifle her own ‘illicit’ creative or sexual urges in support of a social code” (Haskell, p.430).
Furthermore, Jezebel’s final scenes also appear to fly in the face of Hayward’s assertion that “retribution for [the female protagonist’s] excess can wait until the last frames” (p.248) of the women’s films. In its place, Julie enthusiastically embraces her sainthood as she joins her yellow-fever-ridden, former fiancé, Preston, and virtuously looks onward as the two are carted off to meet their fates. Marsden’s about-face is not only out of character for the Southern debutante but also undermines the sheer magnitude of her filmic effectiveness; who wants to watch a queen bitch abdicate her throne because some whim of Victorian virtue has rushed over her in the last few minutes of the film? Not I. In turn, such an on-screen abdication diminishes Bette’s notorious ‘flouncing bitchiness’ and, ultimately, my feelings of ‘diva envy.’ ...phew! I feel saved from embarrassment already.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema studies the key concepts. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Jezebel (Restored and Remastered Edition). Dir. William Wyler. Perf. Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent. Warner Home Video, 2000. DVD.
Lopate, Phillip. American movie critics: an anthology from the silents until now. New York: Library of America, 2006. Print.