She was difficult in the same way that I was difficult. She wanted the best.--William Wyler at the American Film Institute tribute to Bette Davis
It was 1931. Bette Davis was 23 and still new on the Universal lot, scrambling for parts like the other starlets. William Wyler was 29, "not a very good director" by his own admission and struggling to prove he deserved his break despite the (justified) perception that he owed his job to being Carl Laemmle's relative. Davis was auditioning for a part in A House Divided and had hurriedly put on the only size 8 dress she could find. The dress was cut low, and when Davis walked by, Wyler remarked in a voice that carried to every corner of the crowded soundstage, "What do you think of these dames who show their tits and think they can get jobs?" The humiliated actress didn't get the role, which went instead to future flameout Helen Chandler.
So when Wyler, now contracted to Samuel Goldwyn and on his first loan-out to Warner Brothers, showed up to film Jezebel, Davis reminded him of his taunt--and the irony, now plain, that he had made the remark about an actress more willing than any in Hollywood to forego sex appeal when the character required it. Wyler searched his memory for the incident and drew a nice tidy blank, but he apologized to Davis and said he had been having a hard time in those days.
As filming began Davis must have known about Wyler's reputation for repeating takes until the actor was a nervous wreck. Henry Fonda was warned by Humphrey Bogart, who'd made Dead End with Wyler the year before, "Jesus, don't touch it. Don't go in there." But Wyler also had a string of excellent movies under his belt, having guided fine performances from a hopeless alcoholic (John Barrymore in Counsellor at Law), an actress in the twilight of her career (Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth) and even an actress whose chief qualifications at the time were dazzling beauty and a bed shared with a prominent producer (Merle Oberon in These Three). Davis knew her own self-discipline and fine talent, and she made her bet on Wyler.
Besides, the attraction between actress and director was already evident.
Although Jezebel is often described as a sop to appease Davis after she didn't get Scarlett O'Hara, the Siren's research indicates this isn't the case. The play (produced in 1933, three years before Margaret Mitchell's novel was published) was purchased for Bette Davis by Warner Brothers in 1937, while David O. Selznick was still actively searching for a Scarlett and no decision had been made as to casting. Selznick saw Jezebel , no doubt accurately, as the Warners' way of cashing in on the anticipation surrounding Gone with the Wind and was furious. So in fact, according to GWTW historian William Pratt, Jezebel (which was released in March 1938, eight months before Selznick ever met Vivien Leigh) was the factor that put a period to any chance Davis had at the part. Davis herself always denied the "consolation prize" idea, but in her sunset years she loved to intimate she had come close to Scarlett. Alas, that isn't true either--she was never very high in the running. As early as 1937, when Selznick was working out distribution deals, he rejected an offer from Warner Brothers that was contingent on casting Errol Flynn and Bette Davis and told friends that he would cast Katharine Hepburn as Scarlett before he would consider Davis.
Despite its being forever linked with GWTW, Jezebel is its own animal, a movie just as concerned with the fate of a strong-willed woman in a rigid society, but more harshly realistic about the ways society revenges itself. As a girl the Siren much preferred Scarlett to Jezebel's Julie Marsden. She hated the way Julie is humiliated, not merely in the excruciating ball sequence, but also when she is coldly rejected in favor of the vacuous Margaret Lindsay (a perfectly cast actress whom Davis couldn't stand in real life). Ashley makes his sexual attraction to Scarlett quite clear, but once Henry Fonda rejects Julie, it as though he never loved her at all. Later in life the Siren came to see that Jezebel--while it cannot compare with GWTW's vast historical canvas, indelible characters and peerless production values--is the more biting social commentary.
That may seem impossible, given that Wyler's pictures generally affirm rather than challenge social convention, helping to explain the appeal to Oscar voters as well as the films' rejection by those who prefer "termite art." You can read Jezebel as a straightforward women's tale of the comeuppance of a first-rate scheming bitch, and no doubt that is the tale Wyler and Davis thought they were filming. The movie approves of her treatment, audiences then approved of it and audiences today usually do as well. Witness the reviews that refer to the character as "Jezebel," instead of her name, and speak of her "deserved" humiliation at the Olympus Ball. But director and actress, through their careful attention to Julie's character, create something more complicated. Together Wyler and Davis show us an intelligent and headstrong woman who can exert her will only in petty, useless acts of rebellion. Then they show Julie stripped of her autonomy, first in part and then completely.
True to its stage roots the movie has three acts, well-summarized by Nick Davis as The Dress, The Duel and The Disease. Julie Marsden is engaged to Preston Dillard (Fonda) and happily stamping her size-five riding boots all over him. She loves Pres but, with few other outlets for her restless energy, she amuses herself by constantly testing his love. Infuriated by his refusal to leave a board meeting to attend a ballgown fitting with her, Julie rejects her regulation white dress in favor of a vivid red one that is being prepared for the town's most notorious courtesan. (As the town in question is New Orleans, we must be talking about one hell of a whore.) This is a beautifully set-up scene, Julie on a dais and surrounded on three sides by mirrors. Aunt Belle (Faye Bainter, showing why Stinky Lulu has anointed Wyler the Patron Saint of Best Supporting Actresses) and the dressmaker form a Greek chorus of warning and disapproval. (The Siren pauses to ask why, in the 1930s, dresses symbolizing wanton behavior always had some sort of swaying fringe to them. Was it hearkening back to the more sexually liberated 20s?) At first Pres refuses to take his scarlet-clad woman to the ball, then, stung by Julie's suggestion that he is afraid to defend her, he escorts her and sees to it that she is shamed in front of everyone she knows.
According to Davis, Jezebel's script gave the Olympus Ball short shrift and the production manager allotted a half-day to shoot it. Wyler took five days and turned it into the best scene in the film. It is, in effect, a drawn-out death scene, in which you watch the death of Fonda's love for Davis, the death of the old, confident Julie who is certain of her man's love, and the death of Julie's place in society. It is stunningly filmed but wrenching to watch, as they join a full dance floor only to have the other couples leave it, until gradually they are the only ones dancing. The formation is as old as time--the woman in the center, those condemning her forming an unbreakable circle, and the man Julie loves dragging her into the middle to extend her agonies just that much longer. As brilliant as the camerawork is, the Siren finds the scene just about unbearable. Not until MASH, as Sally Kellerman hit the ground in a vain attempt to cover herself, would the Siren encounter a scene that showed such soul-deep humiliation of a woman.
Pres leaves for the north and Julie shuts herself away on her plantation, Halcyon, only emerging to ride her thoroughbred horse in a way that risks breaking her neck each time. Comes word that Pres has returned. Julie, seeing her chance at last, dons the white dress she had rejected a year before and greets Pres, sure of her welcome. "I'm kneelin' to ya, Pres," she croons, sinking to the floor in an unmistakable evocation of a bridal dress being removed on a wedding night. And the Siren always wants to scream, "Get up! get up! don't DO that!" It's almost as lacerating as the ball, because the audience knows what Julie does not--Pres has come back with a Yankee bride. Before Pres can tell her, in comes Amy (Lindsay), Aunt Belle in tow. And here you can see Wyler's hand, because the Davis of Of Human Bondage or Dangerous might have flung her emotions all over the set. Instead, she keeps her eyes focused on Fonda and speaks two words without much emphasis, yet they snap out like her riding crop: "Your wife?" And then you see her denial turn to coiled, deliberate fury, directed at Amy with the politeness Southern women always muster best for those whom they truly hate.
Julie, desperate to win back Pres, begins to manipulate her old beau Buck (an unusually animated George Brent) into provoking Amy at every turn. Pres's brother, Ted, staying at the plantation for plot reasons that remain murky to the Siren, gets more and more hot under the collar until finally he challenges Buck to a duel, which Buck does not survive. Despite the fact that a belatedly remorseful Julie tried to stop the duel, she is blamed by everyone, including the loving Aunt Belle, who delivers the title line in unforgettable fashion: "I'm thinkin' of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God." Act two is over.
Before everyone can leave Halcyon in the same manner Julie once cleared out the Olympus Ball, Act Three is upon us--yellow fever results in quarantine. Julie responds in classic Southern-hostess fashion, telling the guests who now hate her guts, "Ladies and gentlemen, my home is yours, as always." Just in case we didn't realize that yellow fever was serious business in antebellum New Orleans, we get a series of intertitles screaming, "YELLOW JACK!" Ah, how the Siren loves intertitles. Pres hears of his brother's duel and for once it is the nominal hero who swoons dead away. But of course, the leading man can't just faint like a sissy so we learn Pres has come down with the dreaded yellow fever. Julie, suddenly (and, to the Siren, suspiciously) fired with noble purpose, persuades Amy to let her go with Pres to the island where yellow fever victims are being warehoused. The movie ends with Julie cradling Pres's head in her lap, as a simple wagon takes them down to the wharf and an uncertain fate. The swelling music and noble expressions want us to think Julie is choosing redemption through almost certain death. The Siren would much rather think Julie has no plans to die--she believes she's going to nurse Pres through his illness, and she's angling for another chance to hold her man.
So, let's talk about "90-take Willie" and how he directed his actors. The standard image of Wyler is of a director shooting take after take, and when the frustrated actor shrieks "what do you want from me?" he responds with something along the lines of "I want you to do it better." But the image of a rather inarticulate, ESL director doesn't quite play. From an early point Wyler chose his own subjects and his own writers, and he always chose adult stories, frequently from well-known literary sources, and scripts by the best writers in Hollywood. That doesn't suggest a man incapable of telling an actor precisely what he wanted. Wyler reportedly believed that repeating a scene broke down an actor's defenses and unlocked new approaches, but that doesn't mean he never had meaningful discourse with his actors. This fine tribute, by director Josh Becker, repeats a story about Henry Fonda enduring 40 takes of a scene on Jezebel. But Fonda himself recalled it somewhat differently, in an interview in Mike Steen's Hollywood Speaks:
I guess it's rather well known that there are actors who didn't like Wyler, just like there are actors who didn't like Ford or Fritz Lang, etc., because Wyler was known to want to shoot a lot of takes. You know, fifty takes and that kind of thing...I had a very good experience. Wyler and I got along famously. We're still friends. He never took fifty takes, though he might have taken thirty! But it was never without a reason. I've worked with John Stahl [on Immortal Sergeant] who was a director who would take it over and over again without telling you why. It was as though he was saying "If they're going to give me actors like this, what are you going to do?" You know? But with Wyler, every time he did it again he gave you something to think about. He'd say, "This time in the middle the scene react to a mosquito bite." These inventions would just come to him. He was rehearsing with film really! And that wasn't bad because I like rehearsals. So it was a good experience with Wyler, and I liked it very much.
Bette Davis later said that the moment when she began to trust Wyler's direction completely came when he forced her to watch dailies of a scene in Jezebel where she was coming down a staircase. He had shot the scene some thirty times, annoying the living daylights out of her. But when she saw the rushes, she realized that one take had "captured a fleeting, devil-may-care expression" on her face that was perfect for Julie. After that, she endured the takes. And like Fonda, she claimed that Wyler did make suggestions: "He'd remain silent, take after take after take, then when I was exhausted, he'd give a suggestion that would turn the whole scene around and make it live." She also said he "never asked you to make a move that wasn't logical. If you told you to go to a window, there was a reason for it."
With the auteur theory has come the persistent critical notion that directing actors is somehow a minor talent--that it is better to be Fritz Lang, insisting that everyone hit those chalk marks, driving people to near-breakdowns and consequently seldom having the same leading actor twice, than to be William Wyler, with your name attached to many great performances but (allegedly) not to any one overarching vision of film. The Siren says it's a fine thing to be either one.
There is a book to be written about William Wyler and Bette Davis. The story has the arc of a perfect women's picture. There's that inauspicious first meeting. There's the new meeting years later, on the set of the movie that would win Davis her second Oscar (and the first she truly deserved). Move through the director and star having a torrid extra-marital affair, carried on in the days of studio "morals clauses," when adultery came with the very real risk of ruined careers. Then Davis having an abortion during the filming of the even greater The Letter, and never telling Wyler. Continue with Davis' tale of how her single, highhanded act destroyed their chance for marriage. Then the last film together, where conflict reaches a level than ensures they never work together again. Finally, a meeting on Wyler's set much later in life, where Davis claimed, "I still saw that old gleam in his eye..."
Yes, a good story. But not as good as the movies they made together.
(Material on Davis and Wyler's personal relationship comes primarily from I'd Love to Kiss You: Conversations with Bette Davis, by Whitney Stine. Other sources include A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn and David O. Selznick's Hollywood by Ronald Haver.)