Actress Files: Miriam Hopkins
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1935 Best Actress Oscar to Bette Davis for Dangerous)
Why I Waited: Futile hopes of getting around to reading Vanity Fair first. I started once, but you meet "Black Sambo" within the first few pages, and I just wasn't ready.
The Performance: Hopkins in Becky Sharp constitutes that rare thing, a Best Actress nominee in a film of milestone historical importance. Though color films existed before Becky Sharp, to include Michael Curtiz's ghoulish Mystery of the Wax Museum, which I enjoyed last month at the Film Forum, Rouben Mamoulian's bumptious compression of Thackeray's Vanity Fair was the first full-length feature rendered in the full "three-strip" technicolor process, so that it has a richer, bolder palette of primary hues compared to the pale pinkish cast of the Curtiz film. The grass is always greener, of course: first-time audiences complained that by contrast to the arresting visuals, the dialogue was scratchy and indiscernible, which indeed remains something of a problem in surviving prints, even after RKO ordered up a new "high fidelity" soundtrack from RCA. And sure, the livid tones of Becky Sharp's mise-en-scène seem a little primitive even three or four years down the line, compared to Errol Flynn's emerald forest and Scarlett O'Hara's city on fire. But Becky Sharp impresses mightily as a first-time achievement, and Mamoulian has directed the material with an overripe, almost slapstick acceleration and exaggeration, such that, whether or not out of conscious intent, the narrative and the acting feel wholly of a piece with the heightened visual tones of the film.
Indeed, one sometimes has the sense that Becky Sharp isn't enacting Vanity Fair so much as blasting some madcap distillation of it in the general direction of the audience, with the pace and force of one of those mechanical pitching machines at a batting cage. Hopkins's Becky even has a literal habit of hurling books, once in the prologue when she receives a begrudging gift of a dictionary from a schoolmistress who's only too glad to see her go, only to have Becky toss Dr. Johnson's volume back at her on the way out the door. The second instance arises in the final scene as Becky shows some pious relatives just what they can do with their compendium of Christian homilies. But books are the least of what Hopkins tosses at the audience, with no evident loss in her own energy, though she exhausted me by the end of ten minutes. Calling liberally upon that carnivorous, self-loving grin familiar from other Hopkins performances, her Becky is the very picture of amoral schoolgirl hedonism, twisting about in a yellow-polka dot frock against a purple divan and treating the whole world as a gloriously color-dyed playground for her own flamboyant cunning. Hopkins suggests that Becky is simultaneously a creature of shallow intellect and a savvy manipulator of people and situations, selling proto-Wildean insights like "I'm not very good at giving answers, I so seldom listen to the questions" as a testimony of empty-headedness and also a wily means of throwing skeptics off her trail, so that she can really pull the rug out from under them when she eventually springs for what she wants. Becky is just tickled to death by her own cynical play-acting, concocting hokey romantic plots about meeting in hackney coaches after midnight, and inwardly guffawing that so many men are boobs enough to follow along. They apparently detect a heart or at least a human spirit where there's nothing, really, except a calculator in a frock.
To her peril, though, Hopkins's hammy relish at playing such a merry deceiver and insistent center of attention sometimes translates as a rude refusal to discipline the performance in even the slightest way. Being the indefatigable if inexplicable object of at least a half-dozen men's affections proves repeatedly insufficient at quelling Becky's need to push the envelope of selfishness even further, to induce even more mayhem into everybody's lives. Equally, though, Hopkins never seems satisfied with being the frenetic focal point of virtually every scene, exhibiting the most outrageous behaviors and pulling close-up after close-up. In one scene, penniless Becky ingratiates herself with yet another rich family with a whopper about her own background, challenging even her own confidence about how much deception she can get away with. Hopkins is drolly go-for-broke, selling this audience on the tear-stained saga of her late mother being some kind of counterrevolutionary dancer, doomed to death. We get plenty of sense of how Becky amps herself up for set-pieces like these, even amid their very performance, by constantly taking the temperature of her audiences and emitting a smug shine of the eye when they prove as credulous as she has banked on them being. Hopkins is never subtle, then, but the success and even more the point of the performance rest in how she connives her way into her goals, not by being a silken prevaricator but by conjuring such relentless gales of hubris and energy that she seizes other people's belief and complicity, the way a hurricane sucks moisture from the ocean; it's never a question of the ocean's will. But if we already see all that in the vigor of Hopkins's hard-driving slapstick, why on earth do we need scenes like the one that follows, where Hopkins not only listens through a drawing-room door to the pathetically gullible people she's just deceived, but does so with the huge, horsey grin of an animated character, then literally winks at the audience, then chomps on a peppermint stick like Scrooge making love to his money, then poses for the incipient fade-to-black with a frozen grin of pure hedonism, the character's and the actress's?
Hopkins pulls so many faces at the ends of her scenes, it's like she, not Mamoulian, is saying "cut." Again, given that Becky Sharp isn't Vanity Fair so much as a stripped-down and sped-up 100-yard dash through Vanity Fair, the film probably gains from Hopkins being such a colossal, overbearing twit, shoving Becky Sharp into the realm of high-end burlesque rather than suggesting the film "meant" in some way to be subtler or fuller. Then again, maybe her own swagger and momentum, as one of Hollywood's most notorious and least-liked scene-stealers, backed Mamoulian into a corner of having to shape Becky Sharp around the bull he invited into his own china shop. A longstanding cinephile's gripe against Becky Sharp is that it has so little of the camera movement that was a frequent Mamoulian trademark, intensifying the overall impression of elegant fluidity that, for many people, is part of his authorial signature. There's no question that technical factors in this rudimentary stage of "three-strip" filming discourage a lot of movement, since there's already a problem of blurring and bleeding when anyone in the frame moves too quickly. It's worth asking again, though, whether Hopkins's pantomiming style made for a smart casting choice or whether her approach to the character, reliant on close-ups to the point where it would barely be legible in any other way, goads the film's makers into the uncharacteristic and disappointing stolidity of Becky Sharp's style.
The clearest casualty of Hopkins's performance is any sense of pathos related to the character. Even granting that she is a rapacious and infantile beast, I cannot imagine that Thackeray denied us some portals into her own point of view, or that the film benefits from seeing her as such an impenetrable engine of her own remorseless will. In scenes like the one where Rawdon Crawley, man of her dreams, is summoned off to the Battle of Waterloo, any sense that Becky sincerely frets about the likely prospect of his death either is badly played by an actress losing her grip on sincerity or is hopelessly overwhelmed by all of the surrounding scenes where she obliterates any shot at giving Becky a sustained human dimension. I wouldn't honestly know how to tell the difference, even by the standards of the other performances in the movie; nearly all of them operate at a shrill farcical pitch, though Becky Sharp is such a rapid, proudly cartoonish picaresque that the line between directorial slant and directorial error just evaporates. And the Technicolor breakthrough, marking a huge leap forward and yet received even by critics of the time as an instantly dated lurch toward greater achievements on the horizon, imposes its own layer of confusion on how we should take the film and the performance. Are they admirably seamless fusions of the antique and the modern, or do they furnish slapdash proof of the filmmakers' refusing to choose either path?
"How terrible!" Frances Dee's pale, sainted Amelia intones when she and Becky hear about Napoleon's escape from Elba and the certainty of resumed warfare. "How amusing," Hopkins's Becky gushes just a half-second later, in response to the same news. Becky Sharp and Hopkins's lead performance are terrible and amusingthough not, to the disappointment of camp connoisseurs, amusingly terrible, or terribly amusing. They are coherent achievements that I still wish had been approached very differently. One has to allow some room for the limits of still-nascent technology in the film's case, but it's tougher to extend full benefit of the doubt to Hopkins, given the limits of agility, compassion, and nuance that she betrayed in so many of her performances, especially from this time forward. But, by the same token, for all that irritates me about Hopkins's forming of the character, Becky Sharp would be a completely inert novelty without this cyclone in the middle of it, for which the actress sets the breathless pace. Becky might need to be played as caustic and tiring but hard to ignoreeven the teensiest bit charming, in tremendous spite of how deplorable she is. This, Hopkins accomplishes. Is that achievement something for which we should extend her credit? Or is it a major, face-saving accident that she opts to be so insufferable and self-infatuated in a rare part that doesn't die on the vine if it's planted in that kind of soil? I couldn't decide while watching Becky Sharp and feel even further from deciding now. A return visit might nudge me into hating the performance, or liking it more than I do; loving it, anyway, seems well out of the question. But a return visit to Becky Sharp, when I could be checking back in on Hopkins's marvelous turn in Trouble in Paradise, or taking my first gander at one of her feudy pairings with Bette Davis, in The Old Maid or Old Acquaintance? Not bloody likely. If the performance is ultimately so wearing that, whether or not it's the "right" approach for Hopkins to have taken, I'd never want to withstand it againand I say this as someone who's seen Coquette three timesthen surely that's got to mean something.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 20 to Go