Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager

Gladys Cooper received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Mrs. Windle Vale in Irving Rapper's Now, Voyager. If you were teaching a class on Classic Hollywood melodramas, Now, Voyager would be a great film to show on the first day because it's an excellent example of rich highs that a melodrama can achieve when done correctly. It's the story of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), a repressed spinster who lives under the thumb of her overbearing mother (Cooper) and is the verge of a mental breakdown. Charlotte's sister-in-law recognizes the intense unhappiness in Charlotte and gets her psychiatric help. After she finally gets the help she needs and gets better, Charlotte falls into a series of romantic entanglements with a man she met on a pleasure cruise (Paul Henreid), and struggles to assert her individuality under the thumb of her domineering mother. Anchored by Bette Davis' subtle and beautifully shaded performance, this is a melodrama with a lot to admire and is purely watchable. It's also taken a place in film history with one of the most famous last lines in movie history, even if the line feels a little out of place in context.

Gladys Cooper plays one of Oscar's favorite roles in this category---the overbearing, "monster" mother (other famous examples include Angela Lansbury and Mo'Nique). Unfortunately for Cooper, Mrs. Vale is on paper about as bland and one dimensional as "monster" mothers come: she's an upper class, haughty, and high-minded woman who is concerned with maintaining dominance over those around her by barking orders and insisting on deference from each and every one of them. In some aspects Cooper succeeds beyond what the part demands, but in other ways the script traps her in a shrewish part with very little depth or really any explanation. The bottom line is Gladys Cooper can never escape from that one sentence description of her part despite her best attempts.

This performance is all about control in a lot of ways, and among the biggest additions that Cooper contributes to the film is her overall presence, one that demands control on an almost fanatical level. This is evident from the very first scene, in which a doctor visits her house in an attempt to evaluate Charlotte's mental state. Almost immediately we can see how threatened and contemptuous she is towards the doctor, childishly undermining his plans, fearful of what his help might mean to her relationship with her daughter. Cooper is so efficient and effective at conveying Mrs. Vale's simultaneous concern for her daughter's health and her concern over losing control over her life. In this one introductory scene Cooper sets up the ways in which her utterly forceful domineering has left such a huge impact on her daughter. This sense of control over Charlotte's life--especially in a psychologically damaging way--are key to the rest of the film.

That sense of presence in Charlotte's life is arguably Cooper's biggest contribution to the film, and that is because that presence is felt all throughout the film, even when she is not on screen. The pure terror and psychological damage that this woman has inflicted on her daughter is present in every single moment of Bette Davis' performance. There is a long period of time in which we do not see her onscreen, but in the way that Davis acts her part we see the conflict brewing in her head, almost as if her mother's voice serves as a judgmental conscience for the poor girl. There is also another important scene that demonstrates the presence the Cooper's character exudes, in which Charlotte greets her family at a dinner party as her mother is upstairs and we watch every family member in the room react in confusion at the huge changes made in Charlotte's life. Every single character stops for a brief second and knows that Mrs. Vale would not approve of these changes and feels conflicted, almost as if they can feel her judgment lording over them. It's a subtle moment, and one in which I cannot credit Cooper fully (she's not on screen) but it's also a testament to how deep her character has planted herself as an authority, and the impact of those first briefs scenes of her performance.

There's certainly a lot to like in this performance, but at the same time there reaches a point in the film in which you realize that Cooper's part is ultimately not all that great of one and is essentially one dimensional. As the film progresses, Mrs. Vale becomes an even more thankless part as she spends her time delivering rude tirades and ultimatums to her daughter only for Charlotte to simply ignore her. She watches her daughter blossom into an independent woman and struggles to make sense of it. Cooper unfortunately has to play it like a petulant child, resorting to tricks and pouting to get her way and it reaches a point where you become tired with how much of a simple plot device Mrs. Vale is rather than fully fleshed out character. This is a stock part that all of a hundred actresses could play adequately with little effort. Through it all, however, Gladys Cooper tries valiantly to find a real character underneath all the "monster" mother cliches. She manages to have little moments, both comedic (with her nurse) and dramatic (that final scene) towards the end that show hints of what could have been, but this is an actress fighting valiantly to elevate a stock part and failing, albeit often beautifully. 3/5 Thelmas.

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