“Old Acquaintance” (Warner Bros., 1943) is an uneven picture that stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Half of it is civilized, well-bred comedy; half of it is a combination of kitsch, trash and camp. Davis is the civilized half; Hopkins is the other. At no point does Bette Davis lower herself for a cheap laugh; at no point does Hopkins rise to play an honest emotion.
The action of the play takes place in November and December of 1940; for the movie version of John Van Druten’s hit play, director Vincent Sherman ordered new scenes (Van Druten did the screenplay with Lenore Coffee) to show how the two starring characters’ friendship played out over the course of some twenty years. From the looks of it, the picture must have been shot more or less in chronological order: in the early scenes (i.e., those cooked up for the picture), the staging is imaginative and there’s a lot of action. But halfway through, when the original material takes over, Sherman seems to lose interest. He stages entire scenes as alternating close-ups. Compare similar confrontations between Davis and de Havilland in John Huston’s “In This Our Life”: he contrives to have both stars in the same shot as often as possible, but Vincent Sherman alternates close-ups with the precision of a blackjack dealer shuffling a deck of cards. It’s a shame, because the antagonism of the two acting styles — the histrionic pantomime of Hopkins against the heightened realism of Davis — makes for really interesting chemistry when the two ladies are in the same room at the same time. In all those close-up shots, one can’t tell if Davis is responding to the lousy performance of her co-star, or simply making the best of the cues fed to her by an off-camera stand-in. Davis and Hopkins were not friends, and the rivalry between them in their professional lives closely resembled what we see in the picture. That adds to the camp element of the picture — it’s the sort of thing that Charles Busch sends up so knowingly — but there’s something really nice that gets lost in the camp: it’s Bette Davis’ performance, which is amazing in its virtuosity. She steals the picture by being the sensible one. It’s telling that the director, Vincent Sherman, went to his grave believing that Hopkins stole the picture.
Hopkins’ performance looks ludicrous today. What Davis does in the picture still looks great.
Take a look at the clip below, in which Davis tries to persuade Hopkins’ husband (John Loder) to give the marriage another shot. But he’s in love with Davis and tries to persuade her to marry him after the divorce is final. He’s not bad, but she’s terrific.
She’s not entirely real — that’s not her purpose. She’s giving one of her Great Lady performances: refined, noble, dignified and heightened. It’s an idealized portrait of how a nice woman behaves. Davis does this throughout the picture, and she alters her behavior according to the age of the character. Earlier in the picture, she’s pragmatic and honest but without glamour or gravitas; as her character ages, she becomes more elegant and gains poise and authority. She really seems to age twenty years. Miriam Hopkins stays the same throughout.
The clip below offers a perfect example of the difference between Davis’ style of acting (and it is a style; that is, it is purposefully artificial in a theatrical way, while remaining credible: you believe her as a human being, albeit a stylized version of one) and the utterly phony histrionics that Miriam Hopkins goes through. She doesn’t mean a word she says and you can tell she doesn’t. She’s not playing a selfish, high-strung woman: she’s merely a grotesque, with no recognizably human qualities. It’s odd enough that Vincent Sherman let her behave so foolishly, but nearly fantastic that he believes she steals the picture by carrying on so idiotically. It’s true that she pulls focus, but that doesn’t mean she’s interesting.
Finally, here’s a scene where the two styles come into a head-on collision. It’s camp, all right, but only because Hopkins is such a drag queen cartoon. Franz Waxman’s musical punctuation adds to the vulgarity. Davis’ restraint and timing are remarkable.
In the context of the picture, the scene is more than camp: it offers catharsis. Miriam Hopkins’ frenetic antics are exasperating; her self-love is sickening. When Bette Davis gives her a good shaking, you realize it’s what you’ve wanted to do to Hopkins since the beginning of the picture.