This Movie Changed Me

Angelica Jade Bastién

Now, Voyager

Last Updated

September 4, 2018


Original Air Date

September 4, 2018

Complex portrayals of women with mental illness are rare. But that’s what Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién saw in the Bette Davis feature Now, Voyager. Angelica says the movie saved her life, giving her hope and encouraging her own healing.

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Image of Angelica Jade Bastién

Angelica Jade Bastién Angelica Jade Bastién is a culture critic and staff writer at Vulture. She’s written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Village Voice, among others. She’s also a self-identified “Keanu Reeves historian.” You’ll never look at him the same after reading her essay, “The Grace of Keanu Reeves.” To keep up with her work follow her on Twitter @angelicabastien.

Transcript

Lily Percy, host: Hello, fellow movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Angelica Jade Bastién about the movie that changed her life, Now, Voyager. Chances are, you haven’t seen it, but don’t worry. We’re gonna give you all the details you’ll need to follow along. So get ready for some old school movie music and the wonder that is Bette Davis.

[music: “Now, Voyager” by Max Steiner]

“Mental illness is complex. Hope is often withheld. Empathetic treatment can sometimes feel like a fantasy. For me, Now, Voyager offered a spark of motivation and hope, the ability to imagine a future for myself when I was too poor to get therapy and too depressed to leave my bed. It was a small joy I held on to in dark times, a salve, a form of self-care. This is how a film can save your life.”

These are the words of Angelica Jade Bastién. She’s a writer, and one of my favorite film writers — someone who I deeply admire because of the way that she’s able to view her life through movies. The film Now, Voyager is one that has held a very special place for Angelica for many years because of the way that it deals with mental illness. It doesn’t gloss over it. It is hopeful, and yet really realistic, and in the darkest times for Angelica, she’s been able to turn to it for comfort as a friend.

[excerpt: Now, Voyager]

I had never seen Now, Voyager and so was thrilled that Angelica chose it because it introduced me to a movie that was far ahead of its time. It was made in 1942, and yet the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship that is at the forefront of it, is one that I deeply understand. As someone who has a difficult relationship with my mother — and Angelica can relate to this, too — seeing Bette Davis, playing Charlotte Vale, interact with her mother and trying to please her mother, and also just figure out who she wants to be as her own woman, was something that felt all too real.

[excerpt: Now, Voyager]

To make matters even more complicated, Charlotte also has this spinster label to deal with. She’s someone that is seen by her family as being ugly and lonely and nobody wants her and that only complicates matters more as she also has a mental illness. Through the relationship with her therapist, Charlotte starts to discover the true beauty that she has within herself, and there begins a transformation that at first seems to be only about her appearance. She suddenly becomes this beautiful woman in everyone’s eyes, but as we discover throughout the movie, the transformation is also going on inside.

[excerpt: Now, Voyager]

I was so surprised by how relevant Now, Voyager is over 70 years later and also how progressive it is. There aren’t many movies today that have a female character talking about her own desires, her own sexual desires, and her own need to be the full, empowered woman that she is — under the context as well of mental illness. I think that’s one of the reasons why Angelica still turns to this movie time and again.

Ms. Percy: I have been reading your work for at least a couple years and have so enjoyed your writing and your voice and your perspective. So I’m especially curious to learn a little bit about where your love of movies — which comes through in your writing — comes from.

Angelica Jade Bastién: What’s funny with me and criticism and my love of film — and television, as well — is that I did not grow up obsessed with these mediums. It was just something I definitely really enjoyed. I have very distinct memories of growing up, with my mom braiding my hair, and we’d be watching things like The X-Files or Tales from the Crypt. I was also a very big Hellraiser fan at a very young age.

Ms. Percy: Wow.

Ms. Bastién: I don’t know why my mother let me watch a movie which is basically about BDSM demons, but somehow I got really into that movie. Re-watching it as an adult, I’m like, “This explains a lot.”

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Exactly — “explains a lot of things that I’m into.” [laughs]

Ms. Bastién: I was like, “Huh, now it all makes sense.”

Ms. Percy: [laughs] So I’d like to take you back in time for a second.

Ms. Bastién: Oh, no.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, we’re gonna go on a journey together, my friend.

Ms. Bastién: Oh, lord.

Ms. Percy: Basically, to take you back to the first time that you saw Now, Voyager.

Ms. Bastién: The first time I saw Now, Voyager was probably in my late teens, the summer before I went to college. I was already getting really interested in Bette Davis, but I think I came to that film of hers a little later in my obsession, which was a very fraught time in my life, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go to college.

Ms. Percy: Hold on, did you say how old you were at the time?

Ms. Bastién: I must’ve been 17, 18.

Ms. Percy: That’s a pivotal time in your life. That’s a moment of real transition, and you saw this movie. How did it make you feel, that first time that you saw it?

Ms. Bastién: It made me feel seen. That’s the best way I can put it. I just rarely see characters onscreen that I feel reflect my emotional reality. And watching Bette Davis, specifically in that role, was a life-changing experience.

Ms. Percy: I know you’ve written that Now, Voyager saved your life. You’ve said that that is largely because it’s one of the few films that you’ve seen that centers on the interior life of a woman. In this case, it’s Charlotte, played by Bette Davis, and she’s dealing with mental illness. What I find so fascinating about the portrayal in the film is that she’s not defined by her mental illness, and that it’s very hopeful.

Ms. Bastién: It is.

Ms. Percy: This was actually my first time watching Now, Voyager, and I’m so grateful to you for picking it, because I feel like it’s this remarkable gift of a film that I just never knew existed. It’s so ahead of its time. Considering it’s made in 1942 — I think about the movies that are made today, and I don’t think we have characters like Charlotte portrayed with the complexity, humanity, and fullness that she is portrayed with.

Ms. Bastién: I agree. Obviously, I’m a huge Bette Davis fan. And this was even before I watched Now, Voyager. I actually thought that I might have been the reincarnated version of Bette Davis, because she died the year I was born, and we’re both kind of intense women with weird mother issues. [laughs] So I was like, “Oh, of course. I’m the reincarnated Bette Davis. This makes a lot of sense.” I don’t necessarily believe that now, but that would be awesome if I found that out.

She’s just — Bette — God, she’s just a goddess to me, just a beacon of light, because she played a lot of characters who, I think, in different hands would not have the fullness that she grants her characters.

[excerpt: Now, Voyager]

Ms. Percy: What was it about the character she played in Now, Voyager, the character of Charlotte, that really struck a chord for you?

Ms. Bastién: What really struck a chord for me was probably a mix of her anxiety — and just how she portrayed it was something that I really connected with and thought was really beautiful and layered and moving, without making what she was dealing with a joke or a spectacle. It was also the scenes involving her mother, Mrs. Vale, played by Gladys Cooper, if memory serves. I have a very fraught but very close relationship with my own mother, and I had never seen a mother-daughter relationship onscreen that really captured that sort of complexity of loving someone who’s also controlling you and emotionally abusing you, because it is, actually, a very emotionally abusive relationship. And it was just something that was just very startling, to sort of see myself in the last place I’d expect, which is a 1942 film with all white people, [laughs] and they’re all rich Bostonians.

Ms. Percy: One of the things you talk about, in your really beautiful piece that you wrote for Vulture about Now, Voyager, is how the character of the therapist — how do you pronounce it? Is it Dr. Jaquith?

Ms. Bastién: Jaquith?

Ms. Percy: Jaquith?

Ms. Bastién: Jaquith? [laughs]

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Exactly — one of those; one of those works — played by Claude Rains — how he treats Charlotte. You talk about how he “forgoes the usual Freudian touches,” you write, “that defined cinematic representations of such doctors at the time, focusing instead on ideas of self-acceptance.” Talk to me a little bit about why that was such an important thing, in this movie and at the time.

Ms. Bastién: I’m someone who deals with mental illness. I’m diagnosed: bipolar, type-two. I have been in therapy since I was about 13 years old. So I’ve come across a lot of different therapists, and so that means I have a certain view of how therapists and psychiatrists are portrayed onscreen. Usually, it doesn’t really capture the essence of that sort of relationship, especially a healthy version of it. And what I like about Claude Rains’s portrayal is, it’s blistering with empathy. He obviously cares about this woman and wants to see her do better and is, thankfully, free of a lot of annoying jargon.

It’s kind of funny, watching how he relates to Charlotte. Now that I’m in a different form of therapy called DBT, I can kind of see strains of it within his character, because it’s all about self-acceptance and knowing how to change your thoughts about how you speak to people and mindfulness. Charlotte becomes very mindful of the world in a very different way after dealing with his therapy, because, typically, how you are introduced to her, she’s someone who lives very much in her own world.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, isolated.

Ms. Bastién: Very isolated, hides so much of herself from the world, because she’s afraid and anxious and depressed.

So that arc is just really interesting; and it’s just interesting, placing it within that time in Hollywood, where a lot of the psychiatrists you see onscreen were very into Freudian techniques, which [laughs] aren’t always good for women. Let’s be honest, Freud had some issues.

And usually they’re not placed in a romantic drama. You don’t usually find them in romantic dramas. Where you find them is a noir or a suspense film, with something like Spellbound, which Hitchcock did. So it just places psychiatry in such a different context and within the context of a sub-genre known as “women’s pictures,” which were all about the interior lives of very thorny, sometimes very angry women who were not easy to categorize. So by just placing it in that genre, you’re gonna get kind of a different view on psychiatry, which is one that I think we don’t really get to see such beautiful portrayals of that.

Ms. Percy: Well, and I think that because of the way he treats her, which is as a human being. He’s the first person to point out to her that the way that her mother treats her is not right and that it’s not fair and that it’s largely to do with how she feels about herself and her confidence, and he helps her overcome that. You talk about, in your piece in Vulture, that it shows the possibility of overcoming traumas and not being consumed by them. I love that idea because that’s what Charlotte really shows us in the film.

Ms. Bastién: Yeah, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, lately, partially because a few days after that piece was published at Vulture, I was institutionalized after a suicide attempt. So I’ve been revisiting the film a lot, especially as I’m in recovery, and thinking about, what is the narrative I’ve written of my life, and maybe it needs some rewriting — which is something Charlotte deals with, because she has to rewrite how she’s seen the world. And with her, it’s even more so her rewriting the narratives people have handed to her and that she’s gone on to believe: specifically, how her mother has really shaped her understanding of herself, her sexuality; class dynamics are really interesting in the movie. It’s a very fascinating, richly textured, beautiful film that — I’ve seen it countless times, and I still discover something new about the performances or how it’s shot. It just always astounds me.

[excerpt: Now, Voyager]

Ms. Percy: I hope you’re enjoying this conversation with Angelica as much as I am. If you are, you might also want to check out my conversation with Dear Sugars’ Steve Almond about the 1980s Robert Redford classic, Ordinary People. Like Now, Voyager, it’s a movie that has an honest and empathetic perspective on mental health and complicated family dynamics, in addition to figuring out, how do you write the narrative of your own life? Find that episode and all our past episodes on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen.

Ms. Percy: One of the things that really struck me, seeing it for the first time, yesterday, it was just really remarkable to me — again, considering that this movie was made in 1942 — the way that love is portrayed in Charlotte’s life. It’s not just in the form of a romance between her and Jerry. It’s bigger than that. It’s about the love for herself, but it’s also about the love that she finds through caring for his daughter, Tina. And I was watching the movie; I’m like, “Oh, my God. Charlotte is Tina. Tina is Charlotte.” I had that moment. [laughs]

Ms. Bastién: [laughs] Yes, totally.

Ms. Percy: But I love the scene where we see the letter that Jerry has written to Tina. This is after he’s fallen in love with Charlotte on that cruise. And he says, “Dear Tina, I was sorry to see you in tears when I left, but Daddy understood. You were crying because you were being left alone, but today I made a discovery. All people are alone in some ways, and some people are alone in all ways. Even after someone is grown up, she can be alone.” It’s just such a beautiful, insightful observation.

Ms. Bastién: It is.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, and it’s amazing to me that this was in this movie. This movie has so many layers. And the fact that Charlotte and Jerry don’t end up together at the end was shocking to me. I totally expected it.

Ms. Bastién: Right? [laughs] You do expect it, because she’s done everything you think she needs to do to get the dude. That’s usually what you’re expecting. I think a lot of people have sort of interesting expectations about classic Hollywood films and how they portray romance, that if you start to actually go through this time period, there’s a lot of really interesting things happening, a lot of subversion that’s just absolutely fascinating. One thing Jeanine Basinger, who is a film historian who’s written a lot about women’s pictures and actresses such as Bette Davis — she observed that within this genre, it allowed women at the time to exist in ways they couldn’t in their own life, and that’s why it was so popular and it made so much money because they could place themselves into the center of a story where their desires and their complexities were acknowledged. And they could look very fabulous, or imagine yourself looking fabulous, because there’s lots of great costuming in movies like Now, Voyager.

Ms. Percy: Or having that great transformation that Charlotte has in the movie from ugly duckling to bombshell.

Ms. Bastién: She looks amazing. And when you see her first transformed, you’re like, “Damn. What? Yeah, I need to get my eyebrows done too. That’s how…? Oh, OK. Man, eyebrows really do frame your face.”

Ms. Percy: That’s the whole key, just get your eyebrows done. [laughs]

Ms. Bastién: Eyebrows, people: the frame for the face. That’s what this movie teaches. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: So seeing that transformation, even if they’re not seeing it in their own lives, was so important for women at the time, is what you’re saying.

Ms. Bastién: Yeah, and they got to vicariously fuck up and fuck around [laughs] in ways they couldn’t in real life, which is part of why the genre endures.

I think Now, Voyager is the crowning jewel of the genre, because it ends on such a note of complexity, and every character feels so well-formed. It just really understands the setting and the characters’ psychology in a way that’s very surprising. It’s also beautifully constructed. It’s a very spellbinding film.

Ms. Percy: I love that you mention the complexity because it’s so true. I feel like there’s so much depth to the writing in the film and the characters, as a result of that writing. There’s a line that I love that Charlotte says to Jerry: “To take is sometimes a way to give — the most beautiful way in the world if people love each other.” That’s when they’re talking about the fact that they can’t be together. He’s married. He has a family. He lives in another country. [laughs] There’s a lot of obstacles, but they both acknowledge that they love each other, but that that’s not gonna be enough. I wonder, what are the scenes or the lines, the moments in the movie that you love, that you always go back to?

Ms. Bastién: One of my favorite scenes is when we get that flashback to how Charlotte was, before her mother really came down on her, where she’s obviously an adolescent and still very shy about her sexuality, but curious, as anybody with any sexual desire would be. A lot of stuff seems to happen on ships in this movie.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Totally — it’s the only place that sex can happen, apparently, is on a ship.

Ms. Bastién: Apparently. And she ends up talking to a guy, and unfortunately, her mother puts a stop to that and really starts to control her, going forward. I think there’s something really beautiful about that sequence of scenes.

[excerpt: Now, Voyager]

One of my favorite scenes is actually the very beginning of the film, in which Claude Rains’s character enters the Vale home, under the pretense of getting to know Charlotte but is obviously some little diagnostic tool he’s doing, and he goes into her room, and he’s looking over her things, but she can kind of tell what he’s doing. It’s this very interesting push-and-pull.

And Claude Rains and Bette Davis getting to know each other, and this sort of push-and-pull that happens lends the film just a really interesting texture and lends it some of its best moments. I just love seeing how proud he obviously is of how far Charlotte has come, and I love that Charlotte — the ending is also amazing, because you get a really good last line: “Let’s not ask for the moon — we have the stars.”

Ms. Percy: “We have the stars.”

Ms. Bastién: It’s like “Oh, my God, that’s so beautiful.” I love it. And I love that Charlotte’s also using her immense fortune, because her mom died — thankfully — spoiler, sorry, y’all.

Ms. Percy: Oof, thank God.

Ms. Bastién: So now she has this immense fortune, and she’s actually using it for good, to help Dr. Jaquith and his whole practice.

Ms. Percy: And I love that you bring up the relationship she has with her therapist, with Dr. Jaquith — God, I can’t say this name. [laughs]

Ms. Bastién: I always mispronounce it, and I’ve seen this movie like 50 times, so.

Ms. Percy: OK, that makes me feel better. Because he treats her as an equal. He thinks that she’s just as intelligent as he is. And it’s very clear in the way that they talk to each other: they almost speak to each other as colleagues, not as therapist-patient.

Ms. Bastién: The film does it really well because it easily could’ve made it so friendly that it’s like, that makes it kind of weird; because there is some sort of differential, where he’s trying to make sure that she becomes healthy. But there is a familiarity that builds between them and makes their relationship very richly textured and just really beautiful and heartwarming. It’s a film that, even if it doesn’t end with the sort of happily-ever-after you’d expect, there is such hope and happiness to it. And I’m sure Charlotte’s gonna get plenty of dudes in the future.

Ms. Percy: Oh, yeah.

Ms. Bastién: She’s bangin’, she’s rich.

Ms. Percy: She’s never gonna get married, but she’s gonna have a lot of lovers.

Ms. Bastién: I know, and I kind of love that.

Ms. Percy: So do I.

Ms. Bastién: I want more female characters who don’t get married but have a lot of lovers, or — actually, I find spinster characters interesting, so women who just never get married but just livin’ their lives — those characters are always really fascinating to me.

[excerpt: Now, Voyager]

Ms. Percy: So you talked about how you’ve seen this movie a ton of times, and it’s kind of changed along with you, depending on where you are in your life. So I just wonder if you’d talk about that, how it’s changed as you’ve gotten older, the more you’ve watched it, and how you’ve grown together.

Ms. Bastién: Well, when I first saw it, in my late teens, I had no romantic history. [laughs] So it’s been fascinating, as I’ve gotten older, I appreciate the romance for how it ends, more than I did originally. It kind of upset me, when I first watched it, and I was like, “Wait, they don’t get together after all of this? You’ve got to be kidding me.” But now I look at it as, “That is such a healthy way to approach things.” Like, wow.

Ms. Percy: It is so healthy. I just look at both of them, and I thought, that’s so mature.

Ms. Bastién: Yeah, I was like, “Huh, wow. I would not have done that.” [laughs] Yeah, it’s so mature, because I would have still been banging Jerry. But that’s why I’m not a role model. [laughs]

So that’s one aspect that’s really changed. Another huge aspect of the film that changed for me — especially in recent months, since my last hospitalization — has been really considering: What is the story of my life? How am I writing it? What is the narrative that I am living out? And really questioning a lot of my own beliefs about who I am and what I’m going for in ways that I haven’t before, and the film has really influenced that. So that’s how it’s changed for me most dramatically, over the years.

Ms. Percy: That’s really beautiful. Is there anything else you’d like to say about Now, Voyager that I haven’t asked you or that you just want to add to?

Ms. Bastién: I just want to add a bit about Bette Davis.

Ms. Percy: Please do. [laughs]

Ms. Bastién: Because any time I get a chance to talk about Bette, my fellow Aries and badass and just — oh, God, that woman. That woman did what we need in Hollywood today. That woman cared so much about her work as an artist and the quality of the films that she worked in. She was so interested in showing different sides of womanhood that we don’t usually get to see with such humanity. She could play some nasty characters. In Now, Voyager, she’s not nasty; she’s definitely very sympathetic. But she definitely has a skill of lending humanity to whoever she played. Her acting in this film — obviously, there is a physical transformation, in terms of how she’s dressed, but it’s not just that. It’s how she moves after the transformation that I’m always struck by. Her body language is just so much more open and direct. And there’s something very inspiring about a woman who takes control of her own life. That’s the message I hope people leave with, with the film, is that that’s possible.

[excerpt: Now, Voyager]

[music: “Bette Davis Eyes” performed by Karen Souza and Jazzystics]

Ms. Percy: Angelica Jade Bastién is a staff writer at Vulture. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Village Voice. But perhaps my favorite thing about Angelica is her profound love for Keanu Reeves, which I also share. Definitely check out her Bright Wall/Dark Room piece called “The Grace of Keanu Reeves” — you’ll never look at him in the same way.

Next time we’re going to be talking about the totally charming and addictive movie, Bend It Like Beckham. Per usual, you’ve got two weeks to find it before our conversation. I recommend going on YouTube and rewatching some classic Ray Hudson football commentaries to put you in the mood.

This Movie Changed Me is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, and Marie Sambilay, and is an On Being Studios production. Subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts, and if you get a chance, leave us a review. We really read them, I promise.

I’m Lily Percy, and I’m off to get more Bette Davis in my life.

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