Women in Film Feature #2 – Now, Voyager (1942)

now-voyager-05-poster-e1446403178223Now, Voyager (1942)
Directed by: Irving Rapper
Written by: Casey Robinson (Based on Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty)
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Janis Wilson

Bette Davis made a legendary career out of subverting the expectations of actresses in a time where beauty and bust meant a great deal more than raw talent ever did.  Her piercing dark eyes, dark blonde hair, and often serious demeanor won the hearts and minds of millions during the golden age of Hollywood.  While Davis had a unique beauty of her own, it certainly wasn’t comparable to contemporaries like the Ingrid Bergman’s, Joan Fontaine’s, and Olivia de Havilland’s of the film industry – but that’s exactly what set her apart and made her such an anomaly in an industry of beautiful people.  The winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actress, Bette Davis is now looked back upon as one of the most influential presences in early Hollywood history.  Her incredible range made her a believable star in a wide range of genres, including period piece dramas, romantic films, and over-the-top thrillers and mysteries.  Known for consistently playing strong female leads and intelligent modern women, Davis was a trailblazer for women young and old during her six decades of critically acclaimed performances.  Bette Davis is perhaps best remembered for her late career appearances in films like All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Dead Ringer, as well as highly acclaimed early performances in the Oscar-winning Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Letter, and The Little Foxes.   Her ten career Academy Award nominations (including two wins) has only been rivalled by two other actresses – Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep.  Her incredible legacy lives on to this day, and her acclaimed performances are still being studied and talked about long after the late actress has passed on.

Now, Voyager comes more than ten years into the career of Bette Davis, one which had already seen five Oscar nominations and two wins.  Davis was very much cemented as one of the best actresses in the world, and seemed as if she could do no wrong.  The film’s director, Irving Rapper, was a relatively close friend to Davis when he broke out as a filmmaker in 1941.  She would star in four of his early films, with Now, Voyager without a doubt being the best received film of the bunch.  Rapper would earn an early Best Picture nomination for his film One Foot in Heaven, and is perhaps best known today for 1956’s The Brave One, written by the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.  History has not been very kind to Irving Rapper, as he is very rarely mentioned in conversations when talking of great American directors of the golden age.  The film was adapted from a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, most notable for penning the highly acclaimed Stella Dallas, which was also adapted to the big screen to a great critical reception.  Prouty’s Now, Voyager is noted for its progressive attitudes towards the use of psychotherapy and towards mental illness in general.  Bette Davis was originally uninterested in the part, and had to be talked into starring in the film under the notion that it would give the women in American something to look forward to, and distract them from the ongoing war the country had just stepped into.  Mostly uninterested in participating in so-called “women’s pictures”, Davis’ performance would soon be regarded as one of the strongest of her early career.  Davis picked up a nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, serving as her sixth in total.  Now, Voyager also saw Gladys Cooper nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and even took home a statue for Best Score.  Today, the film is remembered for its terrific performances, and the highly melodramatic nature of its complicated love story.  In 2007, the film was honored with preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

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Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper) in Now, Voyager.

Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager begins by introducing us to a young Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), an unattractive spinster who is constantly under the supervision of her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper).  Charlotte is the fourth child in the family, and is seen as something of an accident to her aging mother.  Fearing for the mental state of young Charlotte, her sister-in-law hires a psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), who recommends the young woman have a brief stay in a sanitorium.  Away from the control of her mother, Charlotte transforms into a beautiful, confident, and powerful woman.  Instead of go straight home back to the clutches of her mother, the newly blossomed Vale woman opts for a long voyage at sea.  On her trip she meets Jeremiah (Jerry) Durrance (Paul Henreid), a handsome married man travelling with his friends.  Charlotte and Jeremiah quickly fall into a forbidden and doomed romance.  Jeremiah feels he cannot leave his strict and uncaring wife because of their young daughter.  The two decide it best to never meet again, and say farewell after a few days in Rio de Janeiro.  When she finally arrives back home, Charlotte’s family is shocked to see what has become of the once fragile and neurotic girl.  Her mother disapproves of these improvements, and sees to destroying the newly won confidence of her youngest child.  Eventually, Charlotte becomes engaged to a wealthy man named Elliot Livingston (John Loder).  Despite the engagement, she cannot seem to shake the feelings she holds for Jerry.  His sudden reemergence into her life complicates her relationship with Elliot, so the engagement is called off and Charlotte’s entire life is flipped upside down.  Can the blossoming Charlotte overcome her spiteful mother and score the man she loves, or will the pressure and outside influences be too much for her?  Find out in 1942’s Academy Award nominated Now, Voyager.

The great Bette Davis is a performer who I’ve always admired, and whose most famous performances I’ve never been able to shake.  Her turn in All About Eve is perhaps one of the best performances in film history, and I’m still having nightmares about the terrifying Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  Davis’ performance in Now, Voyager will undoubtedly sit among the actresses most memorable performances in my book, as it’s easily the most memorable thing about Irving Rapper’s film.  What starts as Davis playing a meek, scared, and uninteresting young woman turns into the strong, independent, highly-intelligent Charlotte Vale we come to love by the film’s climax.  Davis’ performance is fragile at times, and incredibly strong in other moments.  Charlotte’s overcoming of her mother’s influence over her is incredible to watch unfold, proving to the old hag that she’s no mistake.  Davis is restrained and deathly serious in these interactions, and perfectly melodramatic in every scene shared with Paul Henreid’s smooth as butter Jerry Durrance.  While over dramatic romance may not have been Bette Davis’ cup of tea, the delightfully hammy actress was just so damn good in them when the material was as strong as her acting chops were.  Starring alongside Davis is Gladys Cooper in an Oscar-nominated performance as Charlotte’s harsh mother.  Cooper is equally as impressive in the role, and by the end of her arc makes the audience hope for the worst for Charlotte’s bitter mother.  Now, Voyager may be a touch too much for some, but I found it to be completely watchable for its entire two-hour runtime.  I found myself rooting for Charlotte to overcome her mother, to blossom fully into this beautiful, smart woman, and to marry the man of her dreams and rescue him from the misery he himself is faced with.  The setup of Charlotte overcoming her mother and Jerry overcoming his wife’s harsh grip is interesting and feels completely natural in the way it unfolds.  While I wasn’t sure about the involvement of Jerry’s young daughter, the last act of the movie ended up being one of the absolute best things about the film.  It’s infectiously hopeful and optimistic, and allows Davis’ Charlotte to finally bloom.

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Bette Davis and Janis Wilson in Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager.

While it may feel dated and hackneyed to today’s standards, Now, Voyager is a delightfully watchable romantic drama feature a stellar performance from one of America’s all-time greatest screen performers.  The picture features a great supporting cast held up by veteran Gladys Cooper in a tremendously hateable role.  The film’s tremendous award-winning score makes the many romantic and triumphant moments feel truly special, and the iconic ending of Now, Voyager will make even the most hardened moviegoers swoon.  While it may not be high art by any degree, this is a film I could watch over and over again and never get bored with.  Now, Voyager is highly recommended.

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