Have you heard of Now, Voyager? It's a classic Bette Davis film from 1942. I learned about it for the first time at a writing seminar, which highlighted the interplay between Bette Davis' personal growth story and her romance. It took almost two years to work its way to the top of my Netflix queue, but now I've seen it and...wow. I thought it was awful. So, apologies to all who love it. And also: beware spoilers. If you want to see the movie with fresh eyes, look away and come back later.
Our protagonist is Charlotte, an adult woman who lives with her tyrannical mother. The mother constantly criticizes Charlotte, forces her to wear dowdy clothes and forbids beauty treatments that might enhance Charlotte's appearance.
We come to understand that Charlotte's mother is terrified of being alone, and that she keeps Charlotte under her thumb -- unhappy, unmarried -- to keep her close. But Charlotte is miserable, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The breakdown provokes an intervention. Charlotte is shipped off to a sanatarium, but a good sanatarium. A wonderful, caring doctor gives her just what she needs: a safe space, a room of her own, time. Charlotte blossoms. Of course, the movie communicates this via a makeover, when she loses lots of weight and trashes her spectacles in order to emerge from her cocoon a beautiful, Bette Davis butterfly.
When Charlotte's stay at the sanatarium ends, the doctor arranges for her to take a long cruise to South America. That's where she meets Jerry Durance (Paul Henreid), and where the movie starts to go wrong for me.
Jerry is a married man. That doesn't stop him from flirting with Charlotte, who's quite vulnerable. She feels like a sham, like her transformation is skin deep, and occasionally reverts to the damaged, worthless-feeling 'maiden aunt' she'd believed herself to be for so long. So...that's red flag #1. Married guy who hits on vulnerable woman? Not cool.
But Jerry is pretty sweet. He sticks by Charlotte even after she reveals that she's been at the sanatarium, and tells her about his own troubles. You see, poor Jerry is stuck with an awful shrew of a wife, whom he stands by only to be near his beloved daughter, Tina. That's red flag #2: married guy who blames all his problems on his wife, and doesn't really want to be with her, but he has no choice, see?
Then Jerry shows Charlotte a family photo, and we get our first taste of red flag #3: Tina reminds Charlotte of herself. So, yeah, #3: our hero is hitting on an adult version of his own daughter.
Eventually, alas, the cruise ends and Charlotte has to go home. She leaves total-winner Jerry and reunites with her mother, who disapproves of Charlotte's progress. Mother wants Charlotte to get back into the dowdy clothes, to let her eyebrows grow furry, to live, once again, at her mother's beck and call. Charlotte stands her ground. She settles further into her new identity while continuing to honor and care for her mother. It's wonderful.
Now, you could view Now, Voyager as a movie about Charlotte's personal growth, vis a vis her relationship with her mother. You could read her romance as secondary, proof that Charlotte is attractive but not needy, capable of forming relationships and choosing to maintain her hard-won independence.
That's probably the best way to see the movie. But not, I think, the most correct way.
We never meet Jerry's wife. But the movie reminds us, again and again, that Jerry's wife and Charlotte's mother are alike. Both are oppressive, tyrannical killjoys. Charlotte's mother stood in the way of romance for Charlotte in the past; Jerry's wife stands between Jerry and Charlotte in the present.
So all of our aggression toward Jerry's absent wife is redirected to Charlotte's mother. She's a double villain, a flesh and blood oppressor but also an effigy. And she reflects back her own qualities onto the wife we never meet: she's an old crone, no longer a sexual being. Our dislike of Charlotte's mother absolves Charlotte & Jerry of guilt.
Just when we expect Jerry's wife to die, to clear the way for a happily ever after, Charlotte's mother dies instead. That frees Charlotte, now a wealthy woman to pursue her own goals. She decides to invest in the sanatarium where she healed. She plans a visit, and soon takes a young girl under her wing -- a girl that reminds her very much of herself.
Tina. You guessed that the girl is Tina, right? Jerry's daughter? Because Jerry was so impressed by Charlotte's transformation that he sent his daughter there. Because he, too, really sees the similarities between them. And wants to enhance them.
Charlotte and Tina grow close. So close that Charlotte invites Tina to call her by a pet name. The very same pet name that Jerry chose for her, back on the cruise. Which is gross.
Somehow, Jerry isn't freaked out when he finds out that his ex-mistress has taken a very active interest in mothering his daughter. And he doesn't sue the sanatarium, which has permitted Charlotte to assume the role of a nurse without doing any of the training.
For a while, Charlotte and Jerry conduct their relationship though Tina. She passes messages between them, adorably unaware that her father & her substitute mother are in love. When Charlotte and Jerry finally reunite, Tina crosses the distance between them, radiant in her own make-over scene. Tina in her new dress, spectacles gone, echoes the scene when we first saw Charlotte fresh from her cocoon on the cruise, on the verge of meeting Jerry.
Charlotte and Jerry fight over whether or not Charlotte gets to keep Tina -- the absent wife doesn't object, allowing Tina to serve as the glue that binds Charlotte and Jerry, making them a family in fact if not in name.
So, really, it's a movie about adultery and incest. The wife/mother is evil. A post-menopausal crone stands in for both, allowing us to guiltlessly root for the adulterous couple. The daughter and the heroine are collapsed; they bloom under the care of the father/lover.
And the father/lover, Jerry, is a total creep! He's a manipulative jerk, and he pulls one douche move after another. First he hits on Charlotte when she's vulnerable. Then he gets her drunk and canoodles with her. He sends her flowers to keep his memory alive after they break up, but when he visits Boston, where she lives, he doesn't make contact for months. When she gets engaged, slipping out of his grasp, Jerry stages a dramatic exit -- making sure to tell her which train station he's calling from, for maximum disruptive potential. Plus, you know, he's married with kids.
Now, Voyager started strong but ended up not working for me at all. I hated Jerry. I found Tina's role creepy. And while I rooted for Charlotte, I wished she'd ended up anywhere else.