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Right Of Way

16 Jan

Right Of Way — directed by George Schaefer. Family Drama. 96 minutes Color 1983.

The Story: Their grown daughter is called to her elderly parents’ home where she learns of their determination to commit suicide.
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They were born in 1908 and so are well into their 70s when Bette Davis and James Stewart pair up for this last hurrah.

Actors love to act, and therefore tend to go on acting. Sometimes it does not much matter the material, and the premise of this one is good, but, alas, the writing is not good.

Poorly realized dialogue leave the two actors with no glories to rise to save their delivery. Unlike the actors of our own, the actors of their era were renowned for their delivery — which is why they were easy to imitate.

In the case of Jimmy Stewart, a master of his craft, what his delivery delivered was his vulnerability, the awkward hem-and-haw of the bashful male. This stammer opened up a reality in him of a wrestling with principles threatened by his own unwillingness to harm anyone on the one side and on the other by the resolution of those principles through that struggle into temporary inner oak. His technique made him fluid, and he is so here.

He is affectionate with Davis, convincing as a husband, and, even at the pitch of anger, soft-spoken always. In shooting Two Road Together, John Ford, who preferred taciturn heroes, sat back in speechless wonder as Stewart made hay with his verbose character — and why was Ford so dumbstruck? — because James Stewart could make any line funny. That talent has no exercise here. The subject is serious as suicide.

Bette Davis’ delivery is blunt, emphatic, and authoritarian. It is her stand-in for all the parts she played from the age of forty. Her character is written exactly as difficult as Davis was in life. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She doesn’t even suffer gladly gladly. Bossy though she is, her voice is pitched high and plaintive. She sounds like a pleading child — and a nasty one at that. She flattens her lines as if to flatten the scene, the situation, and the other characters with them. Her performance is one step above amateur.

How then is it possible that she comes alive as an actor in that long conversation scene with Stewart? The film is worth seeing just for this passage. You will recognize it when it reaches you. Two actors simply playing with one another in the scene’s moment-by-moment. Natural as air. A jewel.

Neither actor expresses much physical vigor, a quality both were known for. And one wonders if this depletion were chosen or involuntary. Has age filched all their élan vital? Hard to believe. Opposite them Melinda Dillon operates on a level of vitality whose truth castes the two senior actors somewhat in the shade.

The movie is a museum piece. I enjoy museums. I always go.

 
 
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