Other Noteworthy Performances: Joan Crawford (A Woman’s Face), Greta Garbo (Two-Faced Woman), Olivia de Haviland (Hold Back the Dawn), Olivia de Haviland (The Strawberry Blonde), Irene Dunne (Penny Serenade), Joan Fontaine (Suspicion), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), Wendy Hiller (Major Barbara), Deborah Kerr (Love on the Dole), Vivien Leigh (That Hamilton Woman), Margaret Lockwood (Quiet Wedding), Ida Lupino (High Sierra), Ida Lupino (Ladies in Retirement), Michèle Morgan (Remorques), Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire), Barbara Stanwyck (The Lady Eve), Margaret Sullavan (Back Street), Diana Wynyard (Kipps)
Bette Davis made a career out of playing women not only discontent with traditional female roles, but actively contemptuous of them, shredding them to pieces with only a withering glance. Her characters were often strong (though not always – Now, Voyager and The Old Maid come to mind) and sometimes vicious. Few of the parts she played, however, were as vicious as Regina Hubbard Giddens, the icy schemer in The Little Foxes. Sure Mildred in Of Human Bondage was nasty, but she isn’t nearly as smart, not remotely capable of thinking through the long term consequences of her misdeeds the way Regina is. Mildred hurt men for petty and immediate gain; Regina would sacrifice her family for long term riches.
Director William Wyler wanted Davis to interpret the role differently from Tallulah Bankhead who originated it on stage, so he had her, against her will, watch Bankhead play the part. Bankhead’s Regina isn’t the master manipulator, but a victim of her brothers’ contempt. She is a fighter because she’s been treated so rotten that she can’t get anything any other way. In her autobiography Davis claims that Bankhead delivered the definitive interpretation of Regina Giddens. In fact, according to Davis, Lillian Hellman clearly contoured Regina as a victim in her play and there was no other way to do it. But Wyler insisted. There had to be another way.
Davis managed to discard Bankhead’s definitive interpretation and craft a new definitive interpretation. Her Regina is no victim; she’s a primal force of avarice. She has had less opportunity to enter into business shenanigans than her brothers, but that doesn’t stop her from grabbing what she wants, even if it means stabbing a family member (or several family members) in the back. Davis’ Regina could never be a victim; she just has more obstacles to overcome because of her sex, but she doesn’t let social restrictions limit her made grab for money. If her dopey brothers can succeed in the con games that they pretend is legitimate business, so can she. She’s smarter, brasher, more determined. She has everything anyone would need to succeed – except a penis and she isn’t about to let that stop her.
But she isn’t a total monster. I love how she plays the scene where her husband, who is standing in the way of entering into a lucrative deal, has a heart attack. All she has to do is get his medicine and he will be fine, but she freezes, letting the weak man struggle his way to the stairs. The tension on her face is amazing. She can kill him by doing nothing, but she is terrified as well. You could read it as being terrified of being caught – after all he could recover and rat her out – but I prefer to interpret it as the terror of realizing she is crossing a moral line that she has not crossed yet. There would be no going back once she lets her husband for whom, not incidentally, she does have some affection die. It’s an expertly played scene. Watch it below. I love her reaction to his dropping and breaking his medicine bottle. She immediately sees her opportunity:
I hesitated with this choice since this is the third time I have chosen Davis for best actress (Of Human Bondage in 1934 and Jezebel in 1938). After all, shouldn’t someone else be honored with my imaginary, meaningless, and as of yet nameless awards? Barbara Stanwyck tears it up in Ball of Fire. Greta Garbo charms in the otherwise terrible Two-Faced Woman. And Wendy Hiller is superb as a woman’s whose faith is shaken in Major Barbara. But I had to relent to my first instinct. I always hate when awards are given because it’s someone’s turn, or given to honor their entire body of work (unless, it should go without saying, it’s a lifetime achievement award). This is supposed to be about the best performance, regardless of what came before and what came after. I can’t pick someone just because they haven’t been chosen before and aren’t going to have a chance again like Garbo. It has to be about who gave my favorite performance of the year.
I’m picking Davis both for what she did on the screen in The Little Foxes and the challenge of working against what was written on the page to mold a strong, smart, and devious woman. What she pulled off is like asking someone to play Scarlet O’Hara, but come up with something completely different from the text and, more importantly, Vivien Leigh’s iconic performance. I can’t even think of an example of how to pull that off, but to do so would be revolutionary. The challenge of Regina Giddens illustrates that Bette Davis didn’t just have iconic eyes or a trademarkable voice, but serious acting skills.