Mother Monster: Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager

If there was one mother-daughter television date my busy mum was always willing to down tools for, it was a Bette Davis movie. Her favorite—and mine, for the preteen period when I gave the thumbs-up to anything my mother loved—was Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager, in which Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a middle-aged frump stranded in submissive fealty to a domineering mother. Not the most well-fitting role for an edgy glamour-puss like Davis. But under the protective wing of a broad-minded psychiatrist played by Claude Rains, Charlotte soon flowers into an independent dame with upswept hair, power shoulders, and an out-of-wedlock romantic arrangement that made the film something of a pioneering feminist moment for the 1940s maternal melodrama.

Based on a 1941 novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager is a fascinating creature of its time, not least for its formidable ambivalence toward motherhood and its pitting of women against one another. Davis was rather too cool and aloof a cat to entirely persuade as a woman who ends up wanting self-sacrificing motherhood even more than she desires a passionate liaison with unhappily married Paul Henreid.

Now, Voyager’s real badass mom, and not in a good way, is her mother, a snobby Boston Brahmin played with quietly rabid conviction by British actress Gladys Cooper. Mrs. Henry Vale is a prime example of how melodrama of the period rendered the horrid mothers in classic fairy tales—the witch, the wicked stepmother, the predatory crone. The prototype pops up not infrequently down the subsequent years—in Mary Tyler Moore’s ice-cold mother in such films as Ordinary People (1980) and as recently as 2005 in Jane Fonda’s over-the-top interferer in Monster-in-Law. Escalating into an efficiently chilling cruise missile while barely moving a muscle, Cooper fully commits to a role few women of her generation could be expected to read as misogynist. 

One of the biggest hits of the maternal melodramas that churned off the Hollywood assembly line during World War II, Now, Voyager offered Charlotte Vale as a versatile role model to wartime women, some of them already widows raising children alone, some falling into affairs with married men in the absence of their own partners, many savoring newfound independence as, however briefly, they took on the work of men. Yet even during this heyday for forward-looking, strong women, mothers tended to fare poorly at the movies, where they languished somewhere along the Madonna-Whore-Monster continuum. (Davis plays her own piece-of-work mater in The Little Foxes and a credulous mother surrogate in All About Eve.)

That is surely due in part to the fact that most of these movies were directed by men, but also to the popularity of an Americanized dilution of Freudian psychoanalysis (Prouty was an early fan of psychotherapy), which all too often laid the blame for a daughter’s troubles at the feet of her mother. Contrast this with the forgiving generosity shown to difficult mothers today as women begin to write and direct movies in greater numbers. Consider the overwhelmed young widow unraveling in Jennifer Kent’s horror movie The Babadook; Kristen Wiig’s heedless hippie mom in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl; and Laurie Metcalf’s wonderfully sharp-tongued, demanding—and loving—parent in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

No such nuance humanizes Cooper’s Mrs. Henry Vale, a regally spectral presence as she descends a grand staircase in the opening scene of Now, Voyager, barking orders at everyone in her orbit, from her beleaguered butler, to a parade of soon-to-be-fired nurses she doesn’t need, to the good-hearted daughter-in-law who tries to shield Charlotte from her mother’s sharp tongue. But she reserves her most scathing put-downs for her daughter, the unwanted runt of an otherwise all-male litter born when Mrs. Vale was forty. Charlotte, we are to understand, is as she is because her father died young, leaving her without a buffer against her mother’s controlling ways and running barbs. Filling in on the paternal front is Dr. Jaquith (Rains), a dry-witted, empathic shrink and the maestro of Charlotte’s growing independence even after she scrubs up beautifully in stylish threads, and falls for Henreid’s dashing Jerry Durrance.

A putative love story, Now, Voyager puts its most vigorous energies  into maternal imagery that ranges from the baleful to the benign with few points in between. There’s nothing in-between about Cooper’s Mrs. Henry Vale, who has trapped her daughter into what threatens to be eternal spinsterhood in their coldly grand ancestral home. The film offers us no sense of what mutilated Mrs. Vale’s own life or shaped her into such a gorgon. Significantly, she never gets a first name of her own.   

A chorus-girl beauty in her youth who sang and danced her way into the lead in Peter Pan onstage in London, Cooper bloomed into a prominent leading lady in Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward plays. Transitioning to Hollywood, Cooper played all sorts, from the kindly sister opposite Laurence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (1940), to her Academy Award–nominated role in Now, Voyager, to a punishing nun in The Song of Bernadette (1943). She shone in an ancillary role as Henry Higgins’s astute mother in My Fair Lady (1964). By any yardstick this is a pretty versatile repertoire for an actress often criticized for being too stiff. And perhaps Cooper mined a streak of severity she occasionally displayed offscreen. Of Jesus Christ Superstar Cooper wrote in a strong letter to Time magazine, “The theater having sunk in to the depths of filth and obscenity both in sound and sight, is the church to do likewise? Is there no Christianity left, no morals, no standards, no faith?”

Either way Cooper laid the groundwork for Mrs. Vale when she played a forbidding socialite mother in Kitty Foyle (1940) and followed up later as Laurence Olivier’s spurned wife in That Hamilton Woman (1941) and a bullying mother to Deborah Kerr in Delbert Mann’s 1958 Separate Tables. In Now, Voyager, Cooper puts her craggily handsome features to terrifying use as Mother Vale, an implacable termagant and self-pitying martyr who, in the most charitable reading, channels her own miseries into bullying her daughter, confusing and belittling her with references to “my little girl” and “my ugly duckling.” 

In the scene below, Charlotte returns to Boston from a transformative cruise, a vision in basic black, with furs, a confident runway stride, and bags of assured moxie. Once home, though, she hesitates at the door to her mother’s bedroom before entering, fortifying herself with memories of Dr. Jaquith’s advice to stand her ground without buckling or returning fire. Seated in a chair at the far corner of a long shot, resplendent in sparkling jewels at her throat, Cooper fixes Davis with a gimlet glare that would make Maggie Smith’s hard stare look like a long-suffering smile from Greer Garson. The dowager’s nostrils flare; her BBC diction grows more menacingly crisp; but otherwise Cooper is in full control of this manipulative creature’s emotions. Taking mental notes on her daughter’s reconstruction into a style icon, Mrs. Vale issues orders for a full unraveling of her daughter’s newfound poise while warning that her own perfectly sound heart may fail in the absence of full filial compliance.

Cannily, Cooper never overplays her hand, even when Rapper underlines her evil with two shots of her impatiently drumming her fingers. They’re unnecessary: the actress renders this habitual bully with icy restraint to which, almost imperceptibly, she adds a disciplined note of rising hysteria as Mrs. Vale meets her match in a cheerfully resistant Charlotte. Let’s just say she’s not done yet.

Doubtless we could scour the real-life maternal ground and find a few horrors like Mrs. Vale. But as a representation Charlotte’s mother is a vicious creation who, for narrative emphasis, is mirrored in Jerry’s offscreen wife, a combination madwoman-in-the-attic and indifferent mother to their insecure young daughter, Tina. Tina reminds Charlotte of her own unwanted youth and turns her into the antidote mom to Mrs. Vale. Cooper never flinches: even Mrs. Vale’s death is timed to induce maximum guilt and possible relapse in her daughter. My own beloved mother and I tuned in to Now, Voyager every time it came around. And every time, as we witnessed Mrs. Vale’s final bid for mastery fail for good, we turned to one another and exhaled in satisfied unison. Today I’d want to know who mistreated the monster.