When you have a force like Bette Davis at the center of your film, the movie itself doesn’t have to try so hard. She’ll more than carry the dramatic weight.
Now, Voyager, directed by Irving Rapper from a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, could stand to back off a bit. The movie centers on Charlotte Vale (Davis), a dowdy, single, Boston society woman who lives under the oppressive thumb of her repressed mother (Gladys Cooper). After a psychologist (Claude Rains) suggests Charlotte spend time in a Vermont sanatorium and then take a voyage to South America, she blossoms into a glamorous, independent woman.
It’s the sort of part that’s just right for Davis, which makes it odd that the movie feels the need to double down on every gesture and do so much of the work for her. Charlotte isn’t just demure at the start; Davis is given a wiry wig and caterpillar eyebrows that render her almost unrecognizable. Throughout, screenwriter Casey Robinson relies on talky exposition to describe characters and speechifying declaratives to let us know how they feel. Meanwhile Rapper, who directed Davis a handful of times, favors close-ups of wringing hands and camera pushes to emphasize dramatic moments.
Davis never needed a camera push. Her face delivered all the drama necessary. Similarly, the more obvious the dialogue got in her films—as in a climactic speech she delivers about “independence”—the more likely she would drift into the arena of camp. But when given something shaded to say and the cinematic space to say it, her fierceness felt in perfect balance. That happens in some of her more conflicted scenes with Paul Henreid (Casablanca) as Jerry, an architect Charlotte meets on the cruise who encourages her self-determination. The possibility of romance is ripe, but Jerry has his own domineering wife at home; his and Charlotte’s unrequited relationship provides a more nuanced frisson to the second half of the film.
As a narrative, Now, Voyager jarringly jumps from one dramatic stage in Charlotte’s life to the next. Far more sophisticated is the way the movie traces her transformations through costume design, overseen by Orry-Kelly. When we first meet her—described by another character as a “fat lady with the brows and all the hair”—she’s wearing a matronly print dress chosen by her mother. On the cruise, Charlotte’s cabin has been given to her by a woman we never meet, Renee. Renee has also left her wardrobe for Charlotte to wear. This consists of flashy, ostentatious gowns that are a far cry from her matronly look, but have still been chosen by someone else. (At one point Jerry notices a note from Renee still pinned to Charlotte’s shoulder.)
It isn’t until Charlotte returns to her mother that she finds her own style. Announcing, to the older woman’s horror, “You must give me complete freedom,” Charlotte enters the room in a new black dress she has purchased on her own. A plunging V-neck runs down the front, punctuated by a burst of camellias—sent to her, discreetly, by Jerry.
It’s Davis who ultimately makes the costume changes work, of course; she knows how to move a bit differently in each one to communicate a nuance of character. (She glides with a sense of absolute power in that black dress.) Now, Voyager may not have the fine balance of some of Davis’ best films—Jezebel is probably the place to go for that—but it’s still, in its stronger moments, a fine showcase for an iconic actress.