Romance February Guest Review: Now, Voyager
Now, Voyager could easily have been just another Hollywood romance, a tear-jerker for naïve idealists and chick flick fiends, a tacky guilty pleasure. Often it seems to be remembered as such, enjoyed but patronized; rarely is it mentioned in the same breath as the Golden Age’s great romances, as Casablanca or The Philadelphia Story. Pity, for it should be.
Granted, unlike the aforementioned unassailable flicks, it has its faults. Its storyline, thick with melodrama, features half a dozen soapy subplots all centered around heroine Charlotte Vale (Davis in an Academy Award-nominated role); that it all fits in two hours is a wonder. The film begins with a depiction of an insecure Charlotte who is unable to escape her overbearing mother’s grasp, her mother who still makes all of her decisions (“always the right decisions,” she claims). Under this pressure to conform, again and again, to her mother’s wish, she is driven to a nervous breakdown; a breakdown which has her institutionalized, thus providing her with the opportunity to leave home for the first time. Once her treatment completed, she embarks on a pleasure cruise where she meets handsome, married with children Jerry Durrance (the ever-underrated Henreid), and yes, a week-long romance ensues.
But this week of passion composes a fourth, maybe a fifth of Now, Voyager. Then, Charlotte catches a plane home to Boston, Jerry goes back to his family. From then on, they must love each other from a distance, with no intention of ever speaking again. Of course their lives will intertwine again in the second and third acts, but somehow their impossible dream stings even more when they are but a few feet apart.
And that’s why despite its flaws Now, Voyager rivals any of Old Hollywood’s classic romances. Because instead of merely narrating a couple’s love story, it shows what bravery love gives; how with only the notion of their love to hold onto, Charlotte manages to free herself and Jerry gives up money for the career he wants. Because it treats compromise not as an unfortunate conclusion but as an inevitability, and without shying away from their sorrow it shows two people trying as best they can to grasp onto what they do have, a memory, a strip of territory.
Because unlike most Hollywood romances it shows lovers who never have yet find solace in each other.
It’s a smartly written script, never a clumsy word, seasoned with clever quips and tender lines (what a final line!), supported by solid performances by Claude Rains as the kind-hearted psychiatrist and Oscar-nominated Gladys Cooper as Charlotte’s acid, selfish mother. But, really and undeniably, it’s a Bette Davis picture. She is pure magic. Here, she takes Charlotte through a hundred different states of mind it seems, all the way to the graceful last scene, with such ease the sheer difficulty of the role is hardly noticeable. Surely I can’t outdo actor James Woods (Once Upon a Time in America, Casino), who once described her performance in Now, Voyager, her expression of the yearning to be loved, as one that “no actor of this generation or any other will ever touch if they stand on a stepladder and try to get near it”.
Sure, it’s schmaltzy, and maybe I do get soft when Davis bawls, but there is something in the age of Nicholas Sparks about a film that inspires tears only as a byproduct of a beautiful character and story. In the end, these many twists and turns the plot takes make Now, Voyager’s impact, its purity and honest sentiment, all the more unexpected. It might forever be a runner-up as far as Valentine’s Day staples go, but I’ll keep rooting for it.
[Written by: Philippe Ostiguy (http://livinhollywood.wordpress.com/)]
Directed by Irving Rapper
Starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Gladys Cooper
5 Hearts / 5