The definition of “jezebel” per dictionary.com is: a wicked, shameless, scheming woman. I didn’t know that going in, which made the movie of the same name starring Bette Davis all the more alluring. Had I’d known, my experience would have lacked.
In 1938, Davis won her second and (amazingly) last Academy award for her role as tempestuous schemer from the south, Julie Marsden in “Jezebel.” (She would have 8 other Oscar nominations in her career.) The film was based off of a play and was written with Davis in mind, and after watching it, I know why.
Davis in many ways paralled her character in that they both aimed to challenge authority and tradition. The film is set in 1856, where unmarried women were expected to always wear white. (I imagine to symbolize their virginity.) Davis’ character creates a scandal when she orders a brazen scarlet gown to wear to the Olympus Ball. You can guess where it goes from there.
“Jezebel” was released in 1938, and two years earlier, Davis was involved in a lawsuit brought on by the big wigs at Warner Bros. Back then, actors were signed to 7-year contracts, which meant exclusivity with that studio and suspension if they declined roles. Davis felt accepting mediocre parts was damaging her career. She was one of the first female actresses to fight to choose which parts to play. The lawsuit didn’t end in her favor, but it paved the way for the 1940’s, where Olivia de Havilland (her co-star in “Hush … Hush, sweet Charlotte) fought and won. It was a major breakthrough for Hollywood.
During the lawsuit, Davis was portrayed by the media as ungrateful and greedy; she underwent much scrutiny but stuck to her guns — just like her character in “Jezebel.” At one moment, Julie Marsden is plotting catastrophe, the next, she is remorseful and yearning for redemption. Davis portrayed this with such acute grace and skill.
(Spoiler alert:) In “Jezebel,” Davis’ character martyrs herself as a way to atone for her indiscretions (i.e. manipulating a man to his death, attempting to seduce another married man). She uses her will to fight as fuel to seal her fate on an island overrun with lepers and an epidemic of yellow fever. As she’s driven away on a carriage of those nearly dead, she seems to finally be at peace — confident and comforted by her decision. (Eerie.)
With all that Bette Davis and Julie Marsden share in common, it was as if, Davis harbored her own regrets, and it was only through her craft of acting that she could or would allow herself to let them float to the surface.
Pride in self-sacrifice. Never in life for Bette Davis, but she had the will and skill to knock it outta the park in the realm which she ruled: acting. If you want to see one of Hollywood’s greatest in one of her most acclaimed roles, “Jezebel” is well-worth your time.
Click here to watch the trailer.