Actress Files: Jeanne Eagels
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1928-29 Best Actress Oscar to Mary Pickford for Coquette)
Why I Waited: For a long while, I had no choice, but thank God for eBay. By the time that transaction came through, I'd become a big fan of The Letter in its later incarnation, and Eagels's tawdry but glorious reputation had excitingly preceded her. Plus, the rest of her category had really struggled to yield a front-runner, even after my recent viewings of Betty Compson and Corinne Griffith, so my hopes were somewhat nervously pinned here.
The Performance: For the 1940 version of The Letter, Bette Davis gets one of the best entrances in movies, striding out of her Malaysian rubber-plantation bungalow in chic blouse and long skirt and emptying a pistol into the back of a doomed, staggering man. As a first impression, it would intimidate anyone, possibly excluding Chicago's Velma Kelly, who'd make a great cellmate for Leslie Crosbie, the cartridge-emptying diva and manipulative plaintiff-adulteress of W. Somerset Maugham's renowned story. Indeed, Davis's entrance is so instantly galvanizing that some viewers may be surprised by the deliberate, psychologically nuanced route that she and William Wyler pursue into the material. It's a very tense and engaging film, but defined more by the parsing of criminal perversity, by moral quandary, and by threatening characters slowly skulking around the sidelines than by electric action. By contrast, 11 years earlier, when Jean de Limur directed and co-adapted the previous screen version of The Letter, he in some ways reversed this relation between first impressions and follow-up. At 61 minutes, de Limur's version is exceedingly brisk even by the economical standards of late-20s Hollywood, mounted as the cinematic equivalent of a short story, tracing a clear arc of beginning, middle, and end. The staging is not particularly varied or inspired, and certainly attempts none of the surgical dissection of Leslie's mental state that Davis, Wyler, and cinematographer Tony Gaudio achieve. De Limur intends to move us through a juicy narrative at a steady, unembellished clip, notwithstanding his few cuts and static frames. Yet, for all this, the film starts slowly, cutting and tracking through three minutes of quiet establishing shots of Singapore Harbor and the inland community before finding the Crosbies at home together. Jeanne Eagels's Leslie is settled into a rattan chair, sewing some lace.
Not until 15 minutes into this hour-long film does Eagels's Leslie even get around to Davis's opening gambit, grabbing her handgun and firing her six shots. Eagels does this with a slow, heavier cadence, and with an almost pugilistic fury to contrast Davis's murderous sangfroid. Eagels, her loose and damaged blonde hair waving in frazzled tufts around her face, thrusts her arm forward with each separate shot, as if she's sawing a log, or as if she's trying to propel each bullet even more lethally into Geoffrey Hammond's body. The actress transfixingly overwhelms the left side of the frame, admittedly looking more like what she wasa notorious drug addict barely hanging on at the end of New York's roaring 20sthan she does like a voluptuary stewing in the tropical swelter. As such, though, she nonetheless cuts the kind of disturbing figure that The Letter needs, particularly since de Limur's prosaic use of the medium requires that Leslie unsettle us in fairly outward ways, not through the kinds of subtle, affective insinuations on which Davis & Co. thrive. Frankly, it could hardly be more obvious that de Limur has shaped The Letter as a vehicle for Eagels more than as an inquiry into Leslie. He and Eagels come across as bigger fans of flashy transformation than of gradual evolution and enigmatic tensions. They evidently enjoy taking Leslie from a calm-looking housewife with a secret to a shamelessly cynical courtroom witness to a repulsed and absurd target of blackmail to a woman who seems beaten at her own game, until she finally lets loose with a howl of erotic satiation and wifely contempt that literally brings things to a halt.
Eagels has an appetite for capital-A Acting, then, in ways that align her performance closely with t hat of fellow nominee Ruth Chatterton in Madame X, equally intent on leaving us breathless with her slideshow of the penitent, the zombie, the harlot, the lioness, the mother, the screamer, the martyr. If you're looking for subtlety, shop somewhere else. Beyond her proudly high-pitched approach to Leslie Crosbie and her desires, Eagels is manifestly caught in that collective Hollywood moment of learning to calibrate a performance register appropriate to the talking screen. She plows ahead with a haughty but unplaceable accent, bobbing somewhere in the sea between British upper-class snobbery, New England nouveau riche, Midwestern bitchiness (Eagels was born in Kansas), and pure Broadway affectation, rooted in no zip code or line of longitude I could pinpoint on this planet. Her name is bigger than that of the film in the opening title card, and she appears to have scaled her performance with that sense of proportion very much in mind. Just as the shrill vocal mannerisms belong indistinguishably to the actress and the characterthe generous assessment would affix Eagels as an inspiring forebear for Davis's later, much-admired ethos of being as ugly or unpleasant as a role demandedit's impossible to draw a line between Leslie's disingenuous prevarications on the witness stand and Eagels's insolent tests of the audience, plying us with see-through layers of actorly self-indulgence. She dares us to question her shameless chutzpah as anything but a perfectly apropos character choice, though it's plain as day how she enjoys sailing over the top of her own role.
I was happy to let her have her day in court, and happy to clear her of all charges, even where I knew she was guilty. The courtroom encompasses just too delicious a scene of who-me? self-theatricalization, for Eagels as for Leslie. I was frankly in her grip even when the performance was more obviously flawed, as in her fidgety, awkward physical carriage during her scene of furtive negotiation with Lady Tsen Mei, playing Geoffrey's Asian mistress. Even if it's a blight on de Limur's gifts as a filmmaker, it's worth underscoring how many of Eagels's scenes she plays in long, uncut master shots, during many of which she is allowed no more mobility than the camera. In noteworthy contrast to the heavy reliance on close-ups we see in the performances of her fellow nominees, in line with the relative aptitudes or at least the relative attempts of their movies to generate feeling through editing, Eagels is the show for the bulk of The Letter. Her lust, her bigoted disgust, her lack of compunction, notwithstanding her pretenses of being saturated with compunction, her boredom with the tropics, her sense of having triumphed, her dawning recognition that punishment has not been avoided, and has only just begun: they all feed and swim off of Eagels's body, her significant poses, her unpredictable rhythms, her weird energy. Even her aura of working hard in some scenes and of somewhat lazily coasting by in a few others, which should baldly hamper the work, actually articulates something credible, even entertaining, about Leslie's own blended propensities toward trying to get away with murder while nonetheless seeming to flaunt the artificiality of her own good-wife façade.
Chatterton, Swanson, Crawford, Bankhead: who knows how many of their opportunities they might have lost to Eagels, had she not manifested such a chronic unreliability in life, and then taken herself out of the game with her final, possibly suicidal overdosean event that interceded between the wrapping of The Letter and her reaping of this unofficial Oscar nomination. Anyone who can hold the screen this vibrantly would have been a major force in Hollywood, especially as she got better at scaling her voice and her other effects. Look how arrogant but also weirdly poignant she is, blatantly culpable but newly vulnerable, as she explores with her lawyer the dangers posed by the titular, incriminating letter. She may resort a bit too often to the tic of gagging, momentarily, on an admission or an utterance for which she feels revulsion, but I appreciated her refusal to disguise Leslie's racism ("some sort of scandal with a ...half-caste Chinese woman!"). I relished even more how she chokes on the phrase "planter's wives," as though belonging to or even being associated with such a soul-killing species gives her physical and spiritual acid reflux.
And, showboater though she clearly is, Eagels does not always opt for the brashest possible gesture. One of the quietest scenes in the performance could easily have been one of the loudest, as she puts down her lace and heads to her writing desk in that first long sequence, penning the missive that will eventually cause her such trouble. At the end, she dispatches it to Herbert Marshall's Geoffrey via one of her errand boys, and then settles back in her favorite chair. The vamping possibilities seem endless hereshe might easily have slunk around her suddenly-empty bungalow, writing the letter in a furious pantomime of lurid passion, simmering with a gustatory smugness in her own treachery, her wantonness, her power, after sending off such a carnal plea for attention and relying on an unpaid servant to deliver it. But Eagels stays quiet, glum, and restrained in this scene, as though Leslie really despairs of losing Geoffrey. She cuts off any assumption that the character enjoys betrayal for its own sake or that she can't get enough of her own amorality.
It's a canny snapshot of vulnerability to plant near the outset of such a tough and daringly embroidered performance, and it allows more meaning in her final, famous, high-pitched indictments. "With all my heart and soul, I still love the man I killed," she repeats. The first time she says it, she is obviously firing a crossbow of withering, undisguised faithlessness right into the heart of her husband. The second time, though, because Eagels has earlier revealed a woman who really did love this bored and rebarbative rake, she seems only to be lacerating herself. Once more, with subtly different feeling: "With all my heart and soul, I still love the man I killed!" Who knows how long that despondent, raging thought will echo in Leslie Crosbie's mind? Since this version of The Letter ends right there, who knows who long it will echo in mine, too?
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 5 to Go