Monday, August 10, 2009

Bette Davis, Dick Cavett, and Character Actors

During her appearance on the “Dick Cavett Show” November 18, 1971, Bette Davis reflected on the great loss to the world of theatre and film with the death only the previous evening of Gladys Cooper. The remarkable Gladys Cooper had played Davis’ mother in “Now, Voyager” (1944).

Perhaps some of you saw the rerun of this, one of Cavett’s iconic interviews, over the weekend on TCM. Miss Davis also mourned as a great loss to films Walter Huston, who had died some twenty years previously. She made the observation, as so many of old movie buffs have since, that the character actors were a mainstay of the industry, and that with their loss films would never be the same. She got that right.

It’s interesting that she made this remark nearly 40 years ago, when the studio system was still a fresh memory if no longer an influence in the 1970s film industry, and when the greats of the golden age were retiring, grasping at TV show guest spots and regional dinner theatre, or dying in stages. These days film blogs note with alarming frequency the deaths of celebrities of decades past, but when Bette Davis perched herself on the set of Dick Cavett’s talk show with her cigarettes, the era between then and now was only just being delineated. Most of them weren’t dead yet, but they sure weren’t fighting off film offers. Yet in the 1930s and 1940s, elderly actors were seen in many films. They were character actors. They had spent a lifetime moving from the role of Juliet to the role of Juliet’s nurse, and the earned every penny and end credit, if the accolades were few.

Miss Davis also made the intriguing remark that Huston’s death was a big loss in part because filmmakers would no longer create parts for someone like Huston because Huston was gone. There would be no more (paraphrasing here) “write me a Walter Huston type, or get me a Walter Huston type”, because future generations who have no idea who Walter Huston was, or what his type was supposed to be, or why it might be a great addition to a film.

Is the dearth of character parts and favorite character actors in this movie era of blockbuster stardom, where the only character parts seem to be voiceover roles in animated features, a reflection of the death of Walter Huston, and Reginald Gardiner, and Mary Wickes (who acted right up until the end of her life, bless her and bless the people who hired her)?

Which came first, the character actor, or the character actor roles? Which died first? What are your thoughts?


Lolita said...

Like Christopher Plummer's voiceover in Rock-a-doodle...
I have no idea, but it's true that they are gone. Maybe they come back? When Johnny Depp is an old man?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"When Johnny Depp is an old man?" You make me laugh. But maybe you're right. He'd probably like to do character parts, his starring roles trend that way.

Matthew Coniam said...

Johnny Depp IS an old man.

Actually, wasn't it all a result of that dreaded demographic shift, when the average film audience stopped being families and became the 18-30's? Late sixties or so?
When all the old stars went into tv movies, because the old movie audience no longer wanted to leave their homes. And for Easy Rider, who can blame them.

On a related matter - I got given a Dick Cavett box set recently, Comedy Legends or something; complete unedited shows with Groucho, Benny, Hope, Woody Allen and tons of others, and amazing time-capsule-worthy other guests like Rex Reed and those two ninnies from Zabriskie Point. TOTALLY recommended!

I'm really enjoying this blog, by the way!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Johnny Depp IS an old man." (More chuckles.)

Matthew, you make an excellent observation about the shift in the demographic of the audience from families to young adults.

And we still have the chicken-and-the- egg scenario: do movies reflect societal changes, or do societal changes reflect the movies?

Your Cavett box set sounds great. I can remember seeing bits of Groucho's interview.

Thanks so much for commenting. I'm a big fan of your blog "Movietone News".

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