Mental Health Awareness Month Retrospective: Now, Voyager

Year: 1942

Runtime: 117 minutes

Director: Irving Rapper

Writers: Casey Robinson (screenplay), Olive Higgins Prouty (original novel)

Actors: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Mary Wickes, Bonita Granville

By Joan Amenn

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we are looking back at a film that was shockingly ahead of its time in how it depicted trauma and parental abuse. “Now, Voyager” (1942) was based on a novel that was one of a series depicting a wealthy Boston family by Olive Higgins Prouty. The heart of the story is a troubled relationship between an icy, demanding, controlling old woman and her only daughter who never seems to measure up to her standards.

Bette Davis was of course, anything but an unattractive, insecure, and shy woman by any stretch of the imagination. Her depiction of Charlotte Vale is all the more a triumph of her acting prowess in how against type the character is, at least at first. It is easy to see why Davis fought so hard to win this role since it has an affirming message for women at a time when society and to an extent, the medical community saw them as weak and susceptible to “hysteria”. This is a film about women and their relationships with other women, particularly female family members who would traditionally form a supportive base for each other to depend on. In Charlotte’s case, the lack of this base causes trauma and anxiety so extreme she suffers from a number of mental health issues that her mother (Gladys Cooper) refuses to acknowledge.

Cooper deserves her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as a privileged, abusive woman who hides her terror of being abandoned in her old age under the smug superiority she lords over her family, especially Charlotte. She only admits her fear as an attempt to manipulate her daughter to stay with her through guilt and when that fails, blatantly threatens to cut her off financially. The role of gender in the Vale family is obliquely referenced when Charlotte asks why her older brothers received trust funds when their father passed away, but she did not. It is implied that Charlotte was being groomed as a kind of emotional repository for all of her mother’s neuroses when she was very young while the men of the family escaped their mother’s clutches to start families of their own. Even her young niece June (Bonita Granville) seems to delight in casually belittling her with no repercussions from the family, perhaps because the matriarch has established verbal abuse as acceptable behavior as long as it is all directed at a specific target.

These ugly family dynamics would certainly be devastating to anyone but to see them depicted in a 1950’s film where women were often shown as having a camaraderie unless they were competing for the attentions of the same man is shocking. There are other moments of surprising candor in “Now, Voyager” that somehow made it past the Hays Code. There are several references made to children being “unwanted” by their mothers which certainly flew in the face of the Code’s standards of depicting “normal” family lifestyles. One minor character even suggests that a doctor was consulted about ending a pregnancy. While the word “abortion” is not spoken, even that hint finding its way into the screenplay is astonishing.

The repressions and expectations placed on women in the 1950’s clearly are as harsh on Charlotte as any of her mother’s vicious attacks. The fact that she overcomes them so gracefully makes “Now, Voyager” as powerful now as it was decades ago. Certainly, it is one of Davis’ greatest performances. She deftly shows the evolution of Charlotte’s personal growth with humor and indominable strength. But a great deal of that evolution has to do with her relationship with her therapist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains).

Rains could never give a bad performance but here all the subtlety of his raised eyebrows or small, one-sided smile tell volumes about the character he plays. He can also be devastatingly fierce as he calmly confronts Mrs. Vale about her affect on Charlotte even while his eyes flash with anger. Supportive, warm, kind, quietly hilarious, he is the perfect man to mentor a fundamentally strong and intelligent woman. So much of the success of the film hinges on the rapport that Davis and Rains had together, it’s no surprise they were friends in real life.

“Now Voyager” was ahead of its time in depicting those with mental health struggles as not deserving to be shoved away in an attic room and never spoken about in polite society. Quite the opposite, Charlotte Vale is proof of overcoming one’s personal demons and finding happiness on one’s own terms. Mental health is a journey and as Dr. Jaquith says sometimes a person needs help in reading the signposts about which way to go. It’s a lovely imagery and goes far in destigmatizing asking for help when one feels lost. “Now, Voyager” is a treasure for making those who know some of Charlotte’s struggles personally feel seen and understood.

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