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The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat(1959)

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teaser The Scapegoat (1959)

The on-screen suspense in The Scapegoat, a 1959 tale of two look-alikes who switch places, was almost upstaged by the off-screen tension between dueling stars Alec Guinness and Bette Davis. Although these two could have made movie magic had they met as equals on the right project, when Guinness brought her into a pet project of his, the clash ended up contributing to the film's box-office failure. The pity of it all is that the two were perfectly cast, he as an English schoolteacher and the French nobleman he replaces, she as the nobleman's cigar-smoking, drug-addicted mother. And the film's best scenes suggest that it easily could have beaten Davis's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) to the punch with its aura of gothic decadence.

The story started with a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, whose suspense tales had inspired such classic films as Rebecca (1940) and Frenchman's Creek (1944). From the moment she conceived the story, she felt that any screen version would have to star Guinness, who had dazzled audiences playing all the members of an upper-class British family in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). The two formed a production company, then engaged one of England's top producers, Michael Balcon, to bring the story to the screen. MGM provided much of the financing, even after Du Maurier refused their suggestion that she cast the more commercial Cary Grant in the lead.

Bridget Boland, who had previously penned the screenplay for the 1955 Guinness film, The Prisoner, was initially hired to script The Scapegoat but after three unsuccessful drafts was replaced by Gore Vidal. When the young novelist/screenwriter turned in his version and Du Maurier read it, she wrote an agitated letter to Balcon stating "I was frankly appalled. And indeed, for a time, I almost wondered if the whole thing was a joke or leg-pull, just to see how the story would seem if it was played as a farce. Then I began to get angry. The whole point of the original story had gone...." (from Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography by Piers Paul Read, Simon & Schuster). Regardless of Du Maurier's reaction, however, the Vidal script was approved.

Although the role of Guinness's mother was definitely a supporting part, Davis accepted it because she wasn't being offered any better roles. Her one shot at a comeback, as the mother in the Broadway production of Look Homeward, Angel, had been dashed when she broke her back in a freak accident.

There were problems from the start on The Scapegoat set and some have suggested that she resented Guinness's success. He had recently won the Oscar® for Best Actor for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), followed by a knighthood. But others have suggested that Guinness was put off by her American brashness. In the Piers Paul Read biography of Guinness, the actor said Davis "refused all invitations to dinner etc and had no desire to chat. She despised all the British film crew...and she obviously considered me a nonentity - with which I wouldn't quarrel greatly. But she was not the artist I had expected. She entirely missed the character of the old countess, which could have been theatrically effective, and only wanted to be extravagantly over-dressed and surrounded, quite ridiculously, by flowers. She knew her lines - and spat them forth in her familiar way - and was always on time. What is called professional. A strong and aggressive personality. After the film was shown (a failure) she let it be known that she considered that I had ruined her performance and had had it cut to a minimum."

One major problem for Davis was a lack of faith in director Robert Hamer. Although she had been excited about working with the man who had directed Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, when she met him she realized he was an alcoholic. Although he had sworn to Balcon that he would give up drinking for the chance to work with Guinness and Davis, it was clear from his tremors and distraction on the set that his problems had taken a serious toll, which in turn made it hard for her to relax.

There also were problems with her costumes and makeup. Davis insisted on wearing a heavy white makeup with her eyes strongly outlined in black. Although some accused her of trying to draw attention to herself, and cinematographer Paul Beeson had serious problems lighting her, she felt it was the type of makeup the character would have worn. For the only scene in which the character leaves her bedroom, Davis insisted on wearing a duplicate of one of her costumes from The Little Foxes (1941), complete with a veiled hat with a bird perched on top.

The one thing Davis truly enjoyed about playing the role was the chance to do most of her scenes in bed. She even shocked the British crew, which had expected her to demand star treatment, by foregoing the use of a stand-in. She preferred to lie in the bed between scenes while the crew lit her. This caused one problem, however, when her chain smoking almost set the bed on fire.

Davis put a lot of work into her performance, but somewhere between filming and release, most of that work was cut, which gave The Scapegoat a choppy and unbalanced continuity. Davis always contended that Guinness had had her scenes (and some of the other actresses') cut to keep himself in the spotlight. She also joked that he had probably wanted to play her role as well as his own. Guinness was more circumspect in discussing their relationship, expressing disappointment that they didn't really get to know each other. But other sources suggested they had been forced to cut her scenes because she had overplayed them to a ridiculous extent. Du Maurier wasn't happy with either performer. She claimed Davis hadn't given the performance enough "zest," which doesn't quite jibe with claims that the star had overacted. Du Maurier also blamed Guinness for the film's box-office failure. None of them ever worked together again.

Producer: Michael Balcon
Director: Robert Hamer
Screenplay: Robert Hamer and Gore Vidal
Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier
Cinematography: Paul Beeson
Art Direction: Elliot Scott
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Principal Cast: Alec Guinness (Jacques De Gue/John Barrett), Bette Davis (The Countess), Nicole Maurey (Bella), Irene Worth (Francoise De Gue), Pamela Brown (Blanche), Peter Bull (Aristide).
BW-93m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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