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25 August 2021

Why Bette Davis is the best person to teach us how to live now

Now, Voyager tells the story of a woman emerging from a kind of imprisonment and taking her place in the outside world.

By Tracey Thorn

Ben and I went to the cinema the other day for the first time in 18 months or so. The film we chose for this adventurous expedition – and it did feel adventurous – was a glossy new print of Now, Voyager, the Bette Davis picture from 1942, on the big screen at the BFI Southbank.

It was a suitable film in many ways, as it tells the story of a woman emerging from a kind of imprisonment and taking her place in the outside world. Davis plays middle-aged spinster Charlotte Vale, the unwanted daughter of a cruelly oppressive mother. The family is rich and aristocratic, but when we first glimpse Charlotte we see only her feet coming down a staircase – thick stockings, sensible black lace-up shoes, a skirt that falls sensibly to mid-calf.

Davis has been made up to look as aged and frumpy as possible, with grey hair, glasses, and two furry caterpillars for eyebrows, but more than anything else she looks terrified: a cornered, wounded animal, braced and defensive, and obviously in pain.

She proceeds to have, in the terminology of the time, a nervous breakdown, and is whisked off to a clinic by Claude Rains, whose therapy seems to consist of gentle encouragement plus a little light weaving. And when she is cured, she sets off on a luxury cruise.

Our first glimpse of her on-board ship is again from the feet up – but what a transformation. This time the shoes are elegant and high-heeled, the stockings are sheer. She clutches a purse in a white gloved hand and a tailored suit jacket is nipped in at her narrow waist. Her face is semi-concealed behind the swoop of a wide hat brim, but her mouth is boldly lipsticked and defiant, although slightly turned down at the corners. Perhaps, you think, she is still afraid, still wounded.

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When, later on, she appears in a cloak embellished with appliqué butterflies, we get the point – her metamorphosis may appear complete, but there is still work to be done. She has emerged from her chrysalis, but is not yet fully formed.

[see also: Bridget Jones and the Blair years]

She meets Paul Henreid and falls in love, and he lights two cigarettes in his mouth before passing her one, and yes, it still feels loaded with sexual tension, perhaps even more so post-Covid. That cigarette has been between his lips! And is now between hers! The hint of danger takes on a new energy.

And although the romance is important, it doesn’t feel like the central story of the film, which is really all about her. Charlotte Vale is regularly hidden behind a hat-brim, or a veil, and most of all she is hidden from herself, trying to discover who she is and what she wants.

The film famously ends with her realisation that the love affair cannot be everything, cannot be perfect. “Don’t let’s ask for the moon,” she says. “We have the stars.” I felt that the whole audience could have shouted those words out loud. I’m sure we were all silently mouthing them behind our masks, and possibly weeping into our face coverings.

I’m so nostalgic about films of this kind, having watched them all as a child with my mother. She adored Davis, and as a young woman slightly resembled her, with huge expressive eyes and hair swept up off her forehead. Together, we watched All About Eve and Mr Skeffington and Dark Victory. Mum acted out for me the scene from The Little Foxes, where Davis refuses her dying husband his heart medicine, and we revelled in the delicious drama of it all. The wickedness! The glamour!

I rewatched them in my twenties, when the Everyman Hampstead was still a repertory cinema and you could turn up and sit with three other people at two in the afternoon watching The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, The Blue Angel and Pandora’s Box, Gilda and Laura, In a Lonely Place and Notorious.

I loved Now, Voyager as much as I ever had. It felt symbolically perfect: the story of someone who has been locked indoors and is now trying to step into the light, gradually at first, and with her face half-covered. A woman flirting with the very idea of physical contact; finally, gazing out of an open window, and accepting the limitations of love, of life. This, Davis tells us, what we have now, is good, is enough. It has to be. 

[see also: How Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends influenced a generation of film-makers]

This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat