Bette Davis stars as a frumpy old-maid type, possibly in the midst of a nervous break down because her domineering mother has orchestrated every moment of her paltry life up until now, and has created a culture where the whole family feels entitled to pick on her. One day her sister brings home a renowned psychologist who believes that if only Charlotte could escape her mother’s clutches, she could regain her sanity through independence. He convinces her to come be treated at his sanitorium and when she eventually leaves there, she is suddenly the more sophisticated image of Bette Davis we all know and love. She embarks on a cruise where she has a brief love affair with a married man, Jerry (played by Paul Henreid).
When she finally returns home, the mother is horrified by Charlotte’s assuredness and immediately starts to break it down. They argue, and the mother dies of a heart attack. Charlotte’s grief and guilt send her fleeing back to the sanitorium, but a fellow patient whom she takes under her wing keeps her from yet another breakdown.
A weird movie filled with “mommy issues” but gives real insight into not just the Vale family but the world in which this wealthy family lives, the kind of repression and sheltering done to a certain kind of woman, the ugly fate of those unmarried, and the strange salvation that only a nervous breakdown can bring. It really highlights the importance of a mother’s nurturing to her child’s self-worth. The iciness between these two is legendary and the mother-daughter melodrama is juicy AND neurotic. So classic.
Although the movie hints at adultery, it does not reward the behaviour. Everyone must ultimately stay in his or her miserable marriage, and this kind of self-sacrifice is deemed heroic, even romantic. No wonder nervous breakdowns were so popular! Defining line: “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Slay me.
And can we take a moment to discuss the beautiful woman disguised as an ugly duckling later revealed to be – gasp! – a beautiful woman all along! Why does this continue to happen in movies all the time? It’s ridiculous, and insulting, and degrading. Bette Davis is given thicker eyebrows, glasses, and a less defined waist and is called an ugly spinster. But was there a single moment she stopped being Bette Goddamned Davis? Of course not! This reminds me of so many nerd makeover movies where all you need to do is remove the glasses to discover she was a hottie all along. It’s gross. Anne Hathaway gets contact lenses and a hair straightener in the Princess Diaries. Olivia Newton-John gets some leather and spike heels in Grease. Sandra Bullock only needed some shorter hemlines in Miss Congeniality. Brittany Murphy just needed to spend money on designer swag in Clueless. All of these women clearly gorgeous in the before and the after, inducing agonizing eye-rolling and discrediting the movie’s intentions. But Bette Davis? Bette Goddamned Davis? There’s no unibrow in the world that can unmake such a goddess.