Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Thing About Jezebel (The Movie, Not The Website... Or he Person)

As a child, my love of Bette Davis sometimes verged on the histrionic and obsessive. I'm probably the only kid who grew up in the 80's who partially took up smoking in order to be more like her. I suppose there are worse people an 8 year old could aspire to be like, like Miley Cyrus or whatever -- Bette was tough, she was glamorous, and she was fearless.

One of the first Bette Davis movies I ever saw was Jezebel, for which she won an Academy Award in 1938. I assumed, upon seeing it, that I would understand it better as an adult, because at the time- though I was thrilled by it, as I was by anything Bette Davis did- I did not so much get what the hell was going on. As it turns out, I was wrong.

(Spoiler Alert! But again, probably for something you'll never get around to seeing.)

So, in the movie, Bette -- every bit as much a Yankee as I am -- plays a Southern Belle named Julie, and she's got this boyfriend, Henry Fonda, who is being kind of a douche to her. In order to get him back for said douchey-ness, she wears a red dress to a dance.

Antebellum Southerners must just have had some weird red-dress-phobia or something, because I think she looks lovely. The same thing happened in Gone With The Wind when Scarlett made out with Ashley in the basement and Rhett made her go to a party in a red dress so everyone would see her for the giant awful whore that she was... or something. I didn't actually get that either. I should probably state that I also don't quite understand the Bible thing where they hate Jezebel because she wears make-up. To this day, there are religious women going around with full-faces of makeup and men who are married to them, being all "Yeah, that one Bible lady was definitely the worst for having worn make-up! It is very bad that she did that!" People are weird.

So anyway, Bette Davis shows up at the dance with Henry Fonda and, predictably, everyone freaks the fuck out. But seriously -- these are people in the freaking antebellum South- do they really have room to talk? Or to be offended by anything? I mean, these are people who owned human beings as slaves. It's like Jefferey Dahmer walking off in a huff because someone used the wrong fork.

At the dance, Henry Fonda continues to be a douche and despite the fact that Bette is all "Oh shit, maybe this was a bad idea, maybe I'll just go home and change," he decides to teach her a lesson and make her parade around in the red dress and dance and such, because red-dress-wearing harlots must be appropriately humiliated. Ew. Henry Fonda is pretty much the worst boyfriend ever.

Afterwards, the whole town shuns Bette Davis for the red dress incident and Henry Fonda dumps her and moves to NY. She pines for him the whole time, and at no point does the film indicate that he might be overreacting just a little bit, or that he might be a little bit of a jerk. In fact, he's sort of portrayed as a stand-up guy, which I totally don't get. The old South was basically Opposite Land.

Then one day he comes back, and Bette Davis is all "Oh my god, I am so unbelievably sorry for having worn the wrong dress! I've changed my ways! I'm sorry!"- which makes me feel embarrassed for her, because really, how can wearing the wrong dress to a stupid party be that big of an offense for anyone that they should have to beg for forgiveness? But Henry Fonda is like, "Oh, sorry Bette Davis, too little, too late. I have a new wife and she isn't a red dress wearing hussy like you are." He introduces the girl and she's pretty lame and uninteresting. No big surprise, really.

At some point Bette gets all "Well, screw you, Henry Fonda" and asks one of her suitors to challenge him to a duel, and somehow he ends up fighting Henry Fonda's brother instead, and then the suitor dies in the duel. Then people really hate Bette Davis, because she used her magical red dress wearing lady bewitchin' magic to make him do it. And yeah, that part was pretty shitty, but I think people had duels pretty much all the time back then, and it's not like she held a gun to anyone's head or anything.

Then there's an outbreak of yellow fever, even though that was actually a thing that happened way later than when this movie was taking place, and Henry Fonda gets it, and he has to go to the special island for people with yellow fever. For whatever reason-- even though at no point do we ever see Henry Fonda being anything but a jerk to her-- Bette Davis is still insanely in love with him. I guess we're supposed to assume that he was actually amazingly great before the red dress incident? Because she loves him so much, she volunteers to go out to the special camp and take care of him, as a means of atoning for her red-dress-wearing, duel-forcing ways. His wife tries to act for a second like she wants to go, but you know she doesn't, because she's kind of a wimp, really, and is afraid of all the scary poor people that will be over there on Yellow Fever Island. That is pretty much the end, and it is probably safe to assume they both die.

The moral of the story is that people in the Old South were way the hell fucked up, and that Bette Davis was punk rock. I think.