THE BETTE DAVIS COLLECTION, VOL. 2 (1937-1962). The greatest actress that the American cinema has ever been privileged to serve returns in another collection of her notable Warner Bros. hits. While many performers are only able to prove their prowess when handed colorful or villainous roles, Davis excelled in that she was able to bring life to practically any character, no matter how potentially drab or featureless -- she was that rare artist who was equally skilled at playing good or bad, big or small, extrovert or introvert.
Marked Woman (1937), for example, finds her playing a prostitute working under the thumb of a sleazy crime lord (Eduardo Ciannelli). A lesser actress might fade away in such a part, but Davis brings her usual steely conviction to the role, earning our respect as she reluctantly sides with a sympathetic D.A. (Humphrey Bogart) to protect herself and other abused women.
Jezebel (1938) gives us the other Davis, the shrewd, manipulative scrapper who's as likely to kill a man as kiss him. Davis won the second of her two Oscars for her outstanding turn as a Southern belle whose game-playing threatens to cost her the man (Henry Fonda) she loves. Jezebel is Bette's Gone With the Wind, and she makes the most of it.
Davis essays one of her most ingratiating characters in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), though despite top-billing, she's clearly playing second fiddle to Monty Woolley. Reprising his Broadway role, Woolley is hilarious as a curmudgeonly author who finds himself stranded in an Ohio family's modest home over the Christmas holidays; Davis (as his secretary) and Richard Travis provide the romantic sparks. Just when it seems that this can't get any funnier, along comes Jimmy Durante to up the ante.
Old Acquaintance (1943) is a pleasant surprise, since what sounds like a creaky melodrama turns out to be an affecting drama laced with generous dollops of humor. It's the story of two women whose lifelong friendship is frequently tested by arguments, disagreements and perceived betrayals. Bette plays the sensible friend, an author of critically acclaimed books that don't sell, while Miriam Hopkins portrays the high-maintenance pal, a writer of trashy bestsellers.
By 1962, longtime nemeses Davis and Joan Crawford were both considered has-beens, which meant that the socko box office performance of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) positioned it as the year's top sleeper. Davis earned her 10th and final Best Actress Oscar nomination for her demented turn as Baby Jane Hudson, a former child star now living with -- and perpetually torturing -- her wheelchair-bound sister Blanche (Crawford). From Davis' hideous makeup to Victor Buono's supporting stint as a creepy momma's boy -- and let's not forget the rat-on-a-platter scene! -- this offers an endless stream of macabre moments directed with ghoulish glee by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen).
In addition to the five flicks, this collection also includes a DVD of Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, the feature-length documentary that recently premiered on Turner Classic Movies. The extras included with the movies are what we've pretty much come to expect from the excellent Warner home division outfit: audio commentaries, new and vintage featurettes, vintage comedy shorts and classic cartoons. The two-disc Baby Jane set contains the most bonuses, including the 1994 documentary All About Bette (hosted by Jodie Foster) and an excerpt of Bette singing on The Andy Williams Show.
Marked Woman: ***
The Man Who Came to Dinner: ***1/2
Old Acquaintance: ***1/2
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: ***1/2
DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993). Writer-director Richard Linklater (The School of Rock) offers an infectious ode to wasted youth (in both senses of the term) in 1976 Middle America, following a group of high schoolers around as they kick off their summer vacation by getting drunk, getting high and trying to get laid. The film is virtually plotless, yet by nailing the look, the music and the dialogue of the era, Linklater generates a you-are-there vibe as he examines a period when indulging in vices was viewed as a coming-of-age rite of passage rather than a life-threatening act of immorality. The cast includes such up-and-comers as Ben Affleck and Parker Posey, and that's Matthew McConaughey who delivers the film's most famous line as jailbait-dating Wooderson: "That's what I love about these high school girls; I get older, they stay the same age." Dazed and Confused has already been released (more than once) on DVD, but here it receives the full-blown Criterion treatment. Extras include audio commentary by Linklater, deleted scenes, a 50-minute making-of documentary, audition footage, a 72-page booklet and a mini-poster.
MOMMIE DEAREST (1981). Although this biopic of screen star Joan Crawford was critically hammered upon its initial release, what's been largely forgotten is that the scribes were divided on the merits of Faye Dunaway's central performance, with many (including Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin) praising her deliriously over-the-top work while others mercilessly panned it. Over time, the film's enduring status as a camp classic (an angle that Paramount Pictures itself shrewdly exploited to capitalize on the blistering reviews) has completely carried Dunaway along on its skirt -- her performance is now considered as rancid as the movie. But honestly, Joan Crawford was viewed as a larger-than-life diva, so why should Dunaway play the part any other way? The problem with the performance is that it becomes increasingly tiresome, less the fault of Dunaway than of the director (the usually dependable Frank Perry) and team of scripters. Based on Christina Crawford's highly disputed bestseller, the movie details how Joan was rarely less than monstrous toward her adopted daughter over the course of several decades. Given its shallow exploration of Hollywood, the wooden acting by most of the players (Diana Scarwid is especially terrible as the grown Christina) and its plethora of memorably bad quotes (starting with "No wire hangers ... ever!" and "Don't FUCK with me, fellas!"), it's hardly a surprise that this briefly joined the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead on the midnight movie circuit. Billed as the "Hollywood Royalty Edition," the Mommie Dearest DVD includes audio commentary by John Waters, three featurettes (totaling 45 minutes) covering both the film and Joan Crawford, and a photo gallery.