powered by AFI
Did you ever hear the one about the kindly old nanny who turned out to be a psychotic killer? No, it's not an urban myth but the premise of The Nanny (1965), a taut British thriller made in the wake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Bette Davis, whose career was at a standstill until her flamboyant performance in the latter film, suddenly found herself being offered work again, mainly in gothic melodramas. Despite the often exploitive nature of some of these roles, Ms. Davis made the best of her new opportunities and The Nanny features one of her most chilling performances. Based on the novel by Evelyn Piper, the film version eliminates the horrific climax of the book and substitutes a more subdued one, but the story remains disturbing. A ten-year-old boy returns from a home for disturbed children where he was sent after being accused of drowning his sister in the bathtub. He knows who was really responsible but no one will believe him. Now he is back in the care of the person he fears most - The Nanny.
Greer Garson was the original choice for the lead character but couldn't be coaxed into doing it. Ms. Davis, however, was eager for the work and won the role although director Seth Holt would soon regret the casting decision. "Davis got the flu during shooting," Holt said in a latter interview, "and sometimes she'd stay away altogether, holding up shooting while she sent in day-to-day reports on her condition. When she was on the set, still sniffling and coughing, she was drinking out of everyone's glasses and wheezing in her co-actors' faces in the best show-must-go-on manner. Oh, it was Hell! She was always telling me how to direct. When I did it her way, she was scornful. When I stood up to her, she was hysterical." Co-star Jill Bennett was also intimidated by Davis and said that when she attended a social event with the elderly actress she was instructed to walk behind her like a servant. Davis also gave Bennett some unwanted acting tips during production, particularly in the scene where Bennett is having a heart attack, Davis told her to grab the bedpost like she was "making love to the furniture" (If you see the film, you'll realize Davis' advice was taken to heart).
But not everyone had a combative relationship with Ms. Davis and producer/screenwriter Jimmy Sangster said, "I thought she was the most professional actress I ever worked with." Most film critics also applauded her performance in The Nanny and the reviewer for Time magazine wrote that the film "is her essay on the servant problem, and may be taken as antidote by those who found Mary Poppins too sweet to stomach."
Following The Nanny, Ms. Davis would go on to play a cruel, controlling mother who terrorized her family and sported a variety of colored eye patches in The Anniversary (1968). As for Seth Holt, who suffered from chronic alcoholism, he would die six years later during the filming of Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971). Despite a brief career, he turned out some beautifully crafted films, including Scream of Fear (1961) and Station Six-Sahara (1963). Jill Bennett would also die prematurely, a suicide, but she reaped her share of acclaim during her years on the London stage and in occasional movies like The Sheltering Sky (1990), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.
Director: Seth Holt
Producer: Jimmy Sangster
Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Evelyn Piper
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Editor: Tom Simpson
Production Design: Edward Carrick
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Cast: Bette Davis (The Nanny), Wendy Craig (Virgie Fane), Jill Bennett (Aunt Pen), James Villiers (Bill Fane), William Dix (Joey Fane), Pamela Franklin (Bobbie), Maurice Denham (Dr. Beamaster).
BW-94m. Letterboxed. Close captioning.
By Jeff Stafford