My summer cultural highlight? An old film where I got lost in Bette Davis’s eyes | Rachel Cooke
Out in the world again, I’ve seen a lot of new exhibitions and a bit of new theatre, the heart going out to those actors who, in spite of great reviews, are still taking curtain calls to the sound of too few hands clapping. But in the end, the cultural highlight of my summer had nothing at all to do with novelty. At a BFI cinema on London’s South Bank, I saw Old Acquaintance, a melodrama of 1943 starring Bette Davis, and thought, not for the first time, of a line by the film critic, E Arnot Robertson, who wrote in Picture Post: “I think Bette Davis would have been burned at the stake as a witch if she had lived three or four hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet.”
The BFI’s Bette Davis season, now sadly over, was bliss: an embarrassment of riches to be enjoyed in the velvety dark, preferably with a surreptitious hip flask of something strong (the bars are still closed). But what to choose? Old Acquaintance, which is about the love-hate relationship between two women who’ve been friends since childhood (Miriam Hopkins co-stars) is a pretty awful movie, the high-tide mark of the “woman’s picture” of the 1940s. But I love it for two reasons. The first is that, in Davis’s character, a writer called Kit Marlowe, we have one of the most sympathetic portraits Hollywood ever drew of the single woman. The second is for Davis herself, who turns in a performance so extravagantly good, she might be in a different film altogether. The patrician voice. The oyster eyes. The sheer command of every emotion from yearning to ambition. On the way home, my jaw ached: the effect of having spent almost two hours with it wide open in amazement.
Taste of yesterday
I felt wistful reading an obituary of Janet Kennedy, the designer of Clothkits sew-it-yourself patterns, who died last month, aged 87. As clear as day, they appeared before me: an aubergine pinafore of my sister’s, which somehow brought to mind both William Morris and Felicity Kendal as Barbara Good, and a satchel I loved inordinately for its shoulder strap that looked like a tape measure. But doesn’t life run in circles? The same piece revealed that Kennedy was taught by the artist Peggy Angus, whose Sussex home, Furlongs, is celebrated in a famous picture by Eric Ravilious and whose work I came to like when I was writing a book about the 1950s. Taste is formed in roundabout ways as well as obvious ones and with this in mind, I’m about to order several retro birthday presents from Clothkits – it still exists! – for nieces and nephews. Instagram is not the only way to be an influencer.
I’m enjoying The Chair on Netflix, a satire on US campus politics that feels powerfully welcome, even if I do find it a touch on the soft side (raised on David Lodge and some deep insider knowledge thanks to my lineage, I have high standards when it comes to badly behaved dons). But it does seem to me to be incredibly ageist. It’s the older professors who are the butt of its lamest jokes, which have to do not only with their failure to understand critical race theory, but with colonoscopies, incontinence and a total inability to use the English department’s photocopier. In liberal circles, age is now the last acceptable prejudice. Poke gently at the young woke if you must, but save your real disdain for anyone over 50.