Sunday, September 27, 2009
The Grand Old Dame
Ever see The Awful Truth (1937)? Remember Aunt Patsy (Ms. Cecil Cunningham) who played the sassy, undersexed confidant of Lucy (Irenne Dunne)? The same character who hands Ralph Bellamy's mama's boy his "diploma"? The same woman who steals virtually every scene she's in?
That's the kind of woman I refer to as a Grand Old Dame.
Several women with that same sort of pluck populated Hollywood during the Golden Age, and the persona they crafted existed in real life, too. In fact, the women who played tough old gals who were quick with a quip, bawdy in demeanor and behavior, and who could outdrink the men without a thought.
Some names that come to mind: Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Shelley Winters, Elizabeth Taylor, and Bea Arthur. These are women who battled their men on screen and off. Whose marriages toughened them and their dealings with studio bosses and sexist directors toughened their attitudes towards men and life. These "broads"--and I use that name in the very best sense of that usually derogatory term--were great raconteurs, who knew where all the bodies were buried and laughed about it. Ever see Bette Davis on The Dick Cavett Show from the early 1970s? Here was perhaps the greatest Grand Old Dame of them all, smoking, drinking, and swearing with aplomb. But also absolutely charming.
As a kid, I knew there was something special about these women who emerged from the studio system run by tightfisted tyrants like Jack Warner, Hal Wallis, and Daryl F. Zanuck, Gals like Davis, Garland, and Taylor had to be tough, or die meekly. Garland coped with booze and drugs and died young, but not before becoming a wonderful storyteller with a great laugh. She could hold a room spellbound with her dramatic and comedic flair. Women like Davis were so much more interesting than their shrinking violet successors of the 1950s and 1960s, where women seemed to take a step back after progressing during the 30s and World War II. They became institutions unto themselves.
Do we have anyone like that today? I don't think so. Liz Taylor is scarce in public these days, and no one who's a star today has that kind of charisma or presence to tell great tales. We communicate more and say less these days, which would no doubt disappoint Dames like Davis.
I recommend the Dick Cavett DVD set Hollywood Greats, to see Bette in action. Judy Garland did an interview on either The Jack Paar Show or The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Go scour youtube for those.