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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tired Old Queen at the Movies: The Little Foxes

Steve Hayes reviews the 1941 classic, based on a Lillian Hellman play that was a hit on Broadway starring Tallulah Bankhead, followed by Bette Davis in the film version, one of her greatest roles:
Things get hot on the old plantation when Bette Davis squares off with everything and everybody to get to what she wants in William Wyler's adaptation of Lillian Hellman's drama of greed in the turn-of-the-century South, The Little Foxes. Shot in full period splendor at Samuel Goldwyn studios during one of the hottest heat waves to hit California in decades, The Little Foxes was a troubled shoot from the get-go. Bette Davis and William Wyler fought incessantly over her interpretation of Regina, the lead character, which had been immortalized on stage by Davis' rival Tallulah Bankhead. The heat, along with the frayed nerves, the heavy costumes and the long waits for Cinematographer Gregg Toland to set up intricate shots drove Davis to walk off the set, the production into delays and the tempers into high gear.

Wyler vowed he'd never work with Davis again. Yet, despite the problems, the film proved to be a spectacular achievement. Most of the Broadway cast was brought out for the production and all had lucrative film careers after the picture's release. For her part, Davis received her fifth nomination for Best Actress and should have won over eventual winner Joan Fontaine. But the troubles on the "Foxes" set combined with her resignation as president of the Academy had made her too unpopular and although the production itself received numerous nominations, it took home nothing.

Lillian Hellman's memoir, Pentimento, is one of those books that I've dipped into time and time again over the years:  having grown up in New Orleans, she has a Southerner's hypnotic power of storytelling that keeps a listener, or reader, enthralled all the while that the story is going everywhere and nowhere.  The point is not the story itself so much as the telling of it; I don't know how to explain it to you all any better than that.  One of those things you just have to take in with your mother's milk, and the drowsy heat, and the trailing Spanish moss, and the winding, sky-spanning branches of the live oak trees to really understand.

It's the difference between "Just the facts, ma'am" and "Did I ever tell you about the time . . . ?"  Which immigrants to these parts have such difficulty getting used to, it seems.  There's a reason why the Nawth is known for efficiency, and the South for charm. 

In my imagination, at least, Hellman is one of those people I could sit and listen to by the hour; quite a personality, as shown by this excerpt from her obituary in the New York Times (1984):
She was also one of the most successful motion-picture scenarists, and the three volumes of her memoirs were both critical and popular successes - and even more controversial than her plays.

Yet the Hellman line that is probably most quoted came from none of these, but from a letter she wrote in 1952 to the House Committee on Un-American Activities when it was investigating links between American leftists and the Communist Party in this country and abroad.

''I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions,'' Miss Hellman wrote.

She offered to testify about her own opinions and actions, but not about those of others, because ''to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and dishonorable.''

For this, she risked imprisonment for contempt of Congress, was blacklisted and saw her income drop from $150,000 a year to virtually nothing.

Although she had participated with Communists in many causes, she was not a Communist. ''Rebels seldom make good revolutionaries,'' she explained.

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