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 emigr√©¬†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.

“Aibgagaghfllrgh!”

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.

“You again!”

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.

“Ggnnnnnn!”

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.

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9 Responses to “Miriam Hopkins, Witchfinder General”

  1. Anyone who gives a performance as enjoyable as the Hopkins one in “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde” has my immediate sympathy, no matter what excesses came later. Makes me want to see her in King Vidor’s “The Stranger’s Return,” among other pictures.

    I do have fondness, though, for her teethmarks-on-the-furniture turn in Penn’s “The Chase,” a picture not otherwise known for understatement. Good memories, too, of an “Outer Limits” episode called “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” (directed by Gerd Oswald, written by Joseph Stefano). The latter’s a pastiche, sorta kinda, of “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte,” only with Hopkins in the lead role.

    And, of course, Hopkins’ work with Lubitsch is every biot as good as you’d want it to be.

  2. I was going to mention The Chase. It’s her last hurrah and she makes the most of it in a cast chock-a-block with scenery-chewers (Brando, Janice Rule, Paul Williams)

    It was easy for Vincent Sherman to take Bette’s side during Old Acquaintance in that this talented but very naughty man was having an affair with her at the time. I’ve no doubt knowledge of this spurred Miriam on in her borderline-Artaud heights of “temperament.”

    Cukor’s remake, Rich and Famous with Jackie Bissett and Candice Bergen is much more becalmed in that the ladies greatly admired one another off-screen and Cukor wanted to make it all much more modern and light. Rather nice as swan song for Mr. Cukor this didn’t exactly set audiences pulses racing. But I’ve a feeling it deserves another look-see today.

  3. I have a copy of Rich and Famous in my to-watch pile, so look for it here sometime soon-ish. I remember seeing is a kid and parts of it did stay with me. It’s perhaps Cukor’s most “out” film, with the female duo at its centre standing in for gay men in an almost Sex and the City kind of a way. I think the very first line of dialogue has to do with coming out of a closet (it’s a literal closet).

  4. Pauline Kael made much of that. But Jackie Bissett (who produced as well as co-starred) disagrees. True there’s a great shot of Matt Lattanzi’s ass, but Steve Forrest was far more Mr. Cukor’s “type.”

  5. Lindsay Anderson seems to have had a thing for Steve Brodie, and also, as I will soon be demonstrating — Robert Urich.

  6. Oh, THAT’S miriam Hopkins. I only knew her from Jeckyll and Hyde (Mamoulian’s is far in a way the most terrifying account, as Jeckyll specifically uses Hyde as an alias, without any fugue) I think she’s phenomenal in that, and in a way that makes the whole film phenomenal. Sorry to read that she was normally rubbish. Maybe she needed to be saddled with a duff accent to drain off all the excess ham. Or maybe what she does only makes sense if there’s a monster somewhere.
    Hugely enjoyed the Anderson tapes post. That is beautiful.

  7. Oh no, she’s normally excellent. She has a tendency to over-explicitness that goes nuts occasionally, but her terrific work in Jekyll and Hyde is matched in These Three and numerous others. Great at comedy too.

    Her batty aunt/mother schtick in later movies is often terrific, taking advantage of her unsubtlety. See The Mating Season and The Children’s Hour. It’s been years since I saw The Chase, but I expect that’s similar — fruity but effective.

  8. Perhaps this counts as “fruity but effective” …

    The drag element is, in any case, front-and-center.

  9. Good Lord (choke)!
    There’s an unintentionally funny Robert Aldrich interview where he says that casting aging female stars as grotesque monsters was “kind of cruel, if you think about it.” Or even if you DON’T think about it! And it took Aldrich how many movies of this kind to figure that out?
    Anyway, Miriam is certainly giving them what they asked for here.

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