Gay Icons: Bette Davis (Part 2) inThe Letter
Yesterday, Mike McCrann showed some of Bette Davis’ iconic charm in the movie Marked Woman. Today he tackles another favorite Davis film, The Letter.
The Letter (1940)
In 1940 Bette Davis was at the height of her fame. She had won her second Oscar for Jezebel in 1938 and had made her greatest personal success to date – Dark Victory - in 1939. Only Vivien Leigh's brilliant Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind prevented Davis from a third Oscar as she was the favorite to win until the December 1939 release of that southern epic.
The Letter was based on W. Somerset Maugham’s short story and play of the same name and was previously filmed as a silent movie with Jeanne Eagles. The Letter re-teamed Davis with her Jezebel director, William Wyler, and delivered one of her best (if not greatest) roles. Playing the repressed wife of a Malayan rubber plantation owner who kills her lover, Davis gives a truly amazing performance.
William Wyler was probably the greatest director to ever work with Davis. In three brilliant films, Jezebel, The Letter, and The Little Foxes, he coaxed or bullied performances from her that allowed her to show great strength but also curtailed a number of her mannerisms that would hurt later films. Wyler and Davis were also romantically involved, which probably helped make these films so wonderful.
The Letter was filmed entirely on a Warner Bros. set and combines exceptional music by Max Steiner and gorgeous cinematography by Tony Gaudio, with fantastic performances under Wyler's inspired direction. Davis' Leslie Crosbie opens the film by firing six bullets into her lover on the veranda of a rubber plantation. As the story unfolds, Leslie claims self defense for protecting her honor. She follows this with lie after lie until the letter of the movie’s title appears, in which it is revealed that she invited the man to his eventual doom. Wearing glasses and her hair in a quasi bun, Davis is the picture of repressed sexuality.
SPOILER - After being acquitted of her lover's murder, Davis utters one of the great lines in cinema history. As they had to buy the letter to suppress it, both her lawyer and husband (played by Herbert Marshall) know the truth. At the party celebrating her freedom, Marshall asks Davis, "Tell me now, Leslie, do you love me?"
Davis replies, "Yes I do…” and then, "No I can't, I can't, I can't!"
Marshall then asks, "Leslie what is it?"
To which she replies, "With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!"
Wyler and Davis fought over this line. She thought no wife could ever look at her husband and say this line, but Wyler made her look at Marshall and utter the devastating truth. Years later, at Wyler's AFI tribute, Davis told him and the audience that her way would have been better! (Though I think he was correct.)
The Letter is a great film. Aided by the brilliant Oscar nominated performance of James Stephenson as Davis’ lawyer and Gale Sondergaard as her lover's Eurasian wife (and the possessor of the letter), Davis gave her greatest performance. She received another Best Actress Oscar nomination (Davis was nominated 5 straight years from 1938 to1942) but sadly lost to Ginger Rogers!
Read Mike's tribute to Joan Crawford.