Joan Bennett, Artist: ‘They’ll be masterpieces’

By: Megan McGurk

Whenever an article talks about a New York ‘It’ girl, I automatically figure they must mean Joan Bennett. She did not match her sister Constance’s fame or salary, but because she flew a bit lower on the radar, she earned a cooler status than Constance could reach. Something in Joan’s wry manner—aloof but keen, a tell-tale squint that indicated missing glasses and bookish habits, along with an imperviousness toward Cary Grant’s mugging in Big Brown Eyes and Wedding Present (both from 1936), suggest a woman who knew her onions and could navigate any encounter with surefooted nonchalance. Joan Bennett, with her boarding school education and theatre denizen bona fides from a family tradition on the stage dating back to the mid-19th century, seems like the type who has read books you don’t know, owns records you don’t have, and hangs with people who would never invite you for cocktails.

By strange coincidence, Joan Bennett boasts more credits featuring plots about artists than any other women of the silver screen, probably since she manifests a bohemian sensibility that naturalises close circles with the brush and palette set. Cast next to characters who paint, she looks a dab hand to assume an artist role, and even appears more convincing in the creative role.

Despite the misleading title of Artists and Models Abroad (1938) which applies a loose definition of ‘artist’ to connote the stage rather than garret studio, if the film had concerned painters, viewers would assign the role to Bennett rather than her co-star, Jack Benny. Fans of woman’s pictures discern an equanimity Bennett possesses as the hallmark of an artistic temperament. Benny doesn’t look like he could be quiet or stand still long enough in front of an easel to finish anything. And how many socialites ran off to Paris to study art over the years? It would have been a plausible script for a plot that flounders except for a stunning makeover sequence.

In Lang’s The Woman in the Window, Edward G. Robinson becomes obsessed with a painting of Joan Bennett. I always hope the surprise ending will resolve itself by revealing that it was a self-portrait, rather than ‘it was all a dream’ tagged on. She’s no trussed up, run-of-the-mill noir dame; she’s an artist. Sometimes viewers of woman’s pictures revise a weak ending when it’s tacked on to appease studio cigar-chompers or finger wagging moralists.

Edward G. Robinson manages to convince Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street (1945) that’s he’s the real thing, a man who sells paintings for $50,000, yet he fails to impress his wife, lone friend, or art curators that he’s a born artist. His weekly sessions with a canvas remain confined to the bathroom by order of his wife, Adele (Rosalind Ivan), as though Robinson’s Chris Cross indulges in feminine habits such as beauty treatments and playing with cosmetics. Cross hides his talent like a guilty secret. The moment Kitty March splashes across the papers, Adele levels the charge of plagiarism against her husband, that he’s just a cheap imitation of the genuine article.

When Kitty’s chancing her arm with the man from the art gallery and parrots the description Chris gave of his creative process, how ‘every painting, if it’s any good, is like a love affair’, she sounds more authentic than Chris did, and delivers the speech with the conviction of a woman who has held brushes all her life. Her poise and smooth manner bring the snobby art critics to heel. She looks every inch a chic artist in the Village. Male artists on the sidewalk resort to hawking their wares as though they were knockoff handbags or flowers for the table, while Kitty sits in her spacious loft that lends credibility to her con game having Chris sign her name to the paintings. Little wonder the art critics swoon over their new discovery.

During a spat with her spoilt daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks), in The Reckless Moment (1949), Bennett’s character Lucia reminds the teenager that she had supported the girl’s choice for art school over university, which hints about her own probable devotion to art, once deferred for a safe marriage. From what viewers can see of Bea’s work, it’s doubtful her mother would have produced such puerile compositions depicting thinly disguised sexual angst in fairy tale scenarios. Lucia quickly susses out that Darby collects jailbait more than anything stretched on canvas. Lucia’s experience with meeting an endless list of demands from her family deflates romantic fantasies of youth, one reason perhaps why she tosses Bea a mink coat, an adolescent soother, while she negotiates with blackmailers.

In The Woman on the Beach (1947) Bennett projects another strong artistic persona when she isn’t playing one, based on an impenetrable exterior that men fail to understand or control. As Peggy, she first appears on the beach in front of a shipwreck that mirrors the reason for Robert Ryan’s sweat-soaked nights. On horseback, he’s unable to make a dashing entrance as a ‘beach cowboy’; she barely registers his presence and smokes without so much as turning her head. Bennett’s noir siren sheds the genre cliché of allure through satin gown or other femme fatale signatures such as opera gloves, a turban, or lavish fur. Instead, she wears a wool topper, cuffed trousers, and lace up shoes which lend greater mystery than the usual seductive gear. She looks every bit a preoccupied artist who’s taking a break to figure out how to untangle the image in her head. What draws Ryan’s Scott to Bennett seems to be her utter self-possession, how detached and at ease she looks. Bennett sits smoking in menswear, casting a boyish silhouette against the hull buried in sand. Their first meeting passes in silence and viewers might doubt if she noticed him at all.

Bennett embodies an artist’s point of view through a knack for peeling back the surface exterior of an important man in uniform, and applying an angle of vision that recognises a man wracked by fear and ghosts. Under his gruff exterior, when they meet for the second time on the beach, and he attempts to bully her over the smashed pieces of the shipwreck’s wood she collected, she sees his trauma writ large between clenched shoulders and stricken expression. Scott’s short-fused anger issues sharp responses which reek of insecurity. He’s on dry land yet he’s still flailing like a man lost at sea. Upon approach, Ryan’s skin looks so shiny, he’s so close shaven, like he climbed out of a barber’s chair a moment before and you can smell the aftershave. His face reflects so much light that he looks boyish, raw and defenceless. Robert Ryan has never looked more vulnerable on film.

Peggy doesn’t simply guess that his ship was torpedoed—she reads it plain as day, as though it were inked on his forehead. She’s crouched with a pile of wood in the crook of her arm while she reads his past. She may as well add the wood to a fire under a cauldron as she identifies the ghosts that haunt him, witchy and second-sighted. Peggy’s soothsaying hooks Scott, who for the first time feels someone else understands.

While Peggy’s husband Tod (Charles Bickford) enjoys a reputation as a great painter, he had lost his gift when she blinded him in a reaction to one of his brutal episodes. Peggy’s dictatorial husband hides his paintings in a cubby hole, haphazardly stacked like kindling, a jealously guarded vestige from the past. Chest-puffed, he tries to pass himself off as still an expert, telling Scott a painting’s like a woman – she either thrills you or she doesn’t. Tod’s reader-response method of art appreciation slips into the void when Scott points out that he holds a picture of roses and a newspaper, not his wife in the nude. Men like Tod may prefer that women were as malleable as cotton or linen stretched over a wooden frame, but Joan Bennett’s character would revise the line: a woman’s like a painter–she has her own vision which either thrills you or doesn’t. When Peggy claims her own portrait, the best work Tod’s ever done as her own property, he strikes out savagely, bearing evidence of persistent violence in their relationship. Peggy, in turn, can’t rest on her physical advantage; she must be cagey to paint her way out of a nasty corner.

A white blouse proves a standout for Bennett in both Scarlet Street and The Woman on the Beach. I’d hesitate to single them out as a blank canvas that an artist feels compelled to fill, or even a shorter version of an artist’s smock. Instead, the unadorned crisp shirts provide Bennett with a cloaking device. For Robinson and Ryan, those button downs resist simple categorisation. Chris Cross prefers to believe that she’s an actress with limited experience with men. Scott needs to have it spelled out for him, that she’s a ‘tramp’, a label that she uses as an insult for how easy he was to dupe and manipulate.  Standing in the middle of a bland domestic setting, Peggy gloats while an impish score plays in the background, emphasising her mischievousness and his naiveté. Men see what they want to see; women, by contrast, have to be more resourceful, more insightful and develop a better perspective if they hope to flourish. When Joan Bennett’s onscreen, she imagines prospects outside the rough sketch of what men see or think about her.