Miriam Hopkins, Witchfinder General
“You’re all against me!”
Warner Bros’ two films that pair Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are a remarkably symmetrical set.
Apart from the obvious similarity of title, THE OLD MAID and OLD ACQUAINTANCE both take place over several decades, and in both films Miriam is repeatedly mean to Bette until some kind of righting of wrongs is effected at the conclusion. While MAID was directed by English emigré Edmund Goulding and ACQUAINTANCE by Vincent Sherman, both are examples of the Warners’ house style in its domestic drama mode, which trumps any stylistic fingerprints of the directors (both of whom were highly talented fellows with long lists of excellent films behind and before them).
“Curse you, John Loder!”
Bette, of course, had a tendency to war with any actress cast opposite her (though an exception was made for her good friend Olivia DeHavilland), and Miriam also had a tendency to connive, so neither of these shoots could have been particularly pleasant. While both actresses are equally effective in MAID, in their second collaboration, something seems to have happened to Miriam.
Admittedly, Miriam did have a tendency to be cast as nags, scolds and neurotic bitches from hell, both before and after this movie (but check out her work for Mamoulian, Lubitsch and Wyler — she could also be sexy, funny, charming or tragic), but she reaches some kind of apogee of shrill, gesticulating ham here. My guess is, Sherman, overcome by the strain of refereeing the two divas, withdrew to Bette’s camp and left Miriam to do as she pleased. It’s certainly a flamboyant display.
The character as written is annoying enough, and intentionally so (the film’s best-known moment features Bette giving her “friend” a good shake, which still provokes cheers from audiences today, or at least it did in our audience of two), but Miriam plays the part to the hilt and beyond. The expression “give it both knees” seems a very apt one here. Miriam gives it her all, knees, heart, arms, teeth. She flails and pirouettes around the set like a palsied ballerina swatting flies. Her voice rises to a SHRIEK on EVERY other WORD. She’s hysterical when she should be restrained, possibly with a straitjacket. “Like a drag queen,” was Fiona’s assessment, although we’ve seen drag queens underplay more than this.
The film is a good old “women’s picture”, but Hopkins’ thespian malfeasance does have negative effects, enjoyable as it is. How can we feel glad when the two friends are reunited at the end (to spend their latter years “fighting over an ear trumpet,” as Bette predicts, probably correctly) if Miriam is so insanely awful? Burning her at the stake would seem a more upbeat coda.
Too much, even from behind.