bette davis

As Julie Marsden in Jezebel, 1938 – 2010, 7″ x 9″ spray paint on panel.

A great film that won Bette an Oscar for best female actress. The film takes place in the antebellum South just prior to the first great American struggle between modernity and tradition, the civil war. From this perspective, the film narrative is developed through the Davis character and her engagement to a young banker Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda). Julie and her family are slave holding plantation owners steeped in the traditional old honor society ways, while Preston is familiar with and sympathetic to the modernist anti-slavery North. The highlight encounter between the two takes place when Julie begs Preston to go out with her to buy a dress for the big “Olympus Ball” where all the young debutantes must wear white dresses, but, he refuses because he’s too busy with business. Julie, in a rage goes out and in a fit of martyrdom chooses to purchase a red dress as a misguided attempt to impress Preston with her independence (or her modernity in the face of tradition). Preston tries in vain to convince Julie to change dresses before the big event and when she refuses, decides to take her there anyway. When they arrive, they of course, create a big spectacle and Julie, now aware of her mistake begs Preston to take her home. Preston refuses, and in response to her obstinacy, forces Julie to dance with him on a dance floor that soon empties out and even the band stops playing. Soon after, with the engagement off, Preston travels north on business, and  returns a year later with a Dr Livingston, and his new  northern bride Amy. Preston brings news foreshadowing the differences between the tradition bound south and the dynamic industrialized north that bodes ill for the south. Julie in another attempt to manipulate Preston into her favor incites a confrontation between Preston and her other hometown suitor Buck, that soon goes bad with Preston’s brother assuming the honor role of his brother in a duel with Buck. Unexpectedly, the brother wins the duel and Julie’s other, secondary love interest is killed. In the meantime, Preston has traveled to nearby New Orleans with Dr Livingston to help deal with a massive yellow fever outbreak sweeping the city. Soon after arriving, Preston himself is stricken with the fever and both Julie and Amy travel to be at Preston’s bedside. In the dramatic conclusion of the film, Julie, in an impassioned martyr’s plea (to recoup her honor) convinces the more rational (liberal) Amy that she can better tend to to Preston’s needs. And the film ends with Julie and Preston being carted off, with the other sick and dying to a quarantine island, and an almost certain death.


It’s interesting to note that Julie’s personification of traditional southern honor culture is primarily dependent on two courses of action; manipulation and display of commitment. Throughout the film Julie tries to stage events in order to facilitate sympathy to her desires. From the red dress sequence, to gathering up their slaves to sing songs together (to dispel the notion that they were there against their will), or to orchestrating the threat of a duel of honor between her love interests, she is ultimately insecure about  whether to leave other people the freedom to assess the situation and decide  things on their own merits. She then backs up the manipulation with her own honor code  commitment to, if necessary,  escalate the threat of violence right on up to the ultimate degree of self sacrifice and martyrdom. It’s this final act of fanatical commitment that eventually defeats her liberal rival Amy, who  in the end looks weak,  indecisive, and unreliable.

If any of that seems not so unfamiliar to our current ideological debates, it’s because these ideological differences have not passed, and are still actively at work today.

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