Anniversary, The (1968)

“You’ve gone too far this time, mum!”

Synopsis:
A vicious and controlling mother (Bette Davis) gathers her three grown sons and their mates to celebrate her wedding anniversary.

Genres:

Review:
60-year-old Bette Davis is in rare form here as the hideous matriarch of Bill MacIlwraith’s darkly comedic play. With her color-coordinated eye patches, relentless demands, and constant stream of vitriolic put-downs, she emerges as one of cinema’s true villains. The words coming out of this anti-mother’s mouth are almost beyond belief — to her daughter-in-law (Sheila Hancock) she says matter-of-factly, “I don’t think you are a good mother — but it’s not my place to say so”, and “Natural good manners told me when to put the plug in.” To her middle son (Christian Roberts) she states, “I promise you I’ll have your skin for rags, and wipe the faces of your children with them!”

McIlwraith’s play is clearly a black comedy, but one which unfortunately doesn’t offer quite enough relief to redeem its overriding negativity. The narrative trajectory is relentless — while Mama Taggart’s children try their best to stand up to her, she’s constantly one-upping them, and the effect is disheartening. There are many moments of shocking, laugh-out-loud humor, but ultimately this movie is more unpleasant than enjoyable, and one keeps watching simply to see what ghastly action or statement the incomparable Davis will come up with next…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis in a role seemingly tailor-made for her
    Bette Davis
  • Cross-dressing Henry discussing lingerie with Shirley
    Lingerie
  • Good supporting performances — especially by Sheila Hancock and James Cossins
    Karen Taggart
  • Plenty of zingy — albeit terribly cruel — one-liners by Davis: “My dear, would you mind sitting somewhere else? Body odor offends me.”

Must See?
Yes, for Davis’s powerhouse performance.

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2 Responses to “Anniversary, The (1968)”

  1. A once-must, at least, but you may find yourself “returning to the scene of the crime’. “The Anniversary’ is ‘snuggled’ in with British films of the late 60s – early 70s having their source in a theater of cruelty (Joe Orton’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloane’, Frank Marcus’ “The Killing of Sister George’, Peter Barnes’ “The Ruling Class’, etc.). American film doesn’t appear to have an exact counterpart, although a similar virulent tone permeates “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’; as well, Davis’ character is an extension of Katherine Hepburn’s in “Suddenly, Last Summer’, and “The Anniversary’ itself is a more perverse “Long Day’s Journey Into Night’. Decidedly unpleasant, “The Anniversary’ is nevertheless compelling from the get-go. In a way it’s as modern as — and more polished than — certain examples of reality tv shows.

    It’s difficult seeing the part of Mother Taggart as originated onstage by Mona Washbourne — who usually appeared in placid film roles. It’s actually difficult seeing anyone playing the part of Mother onstage: what would the audience do during the curtain call — applaud or open fire? Mother is a steamroller role and Davis — in a master class performance — is “enjoying’ every macabre Machiavellian moment (“Tell mummy — she’ll understand.”) in a way that evokes a lioness gnawing on fresh, raw meat. (In a review online, she is amusingly referred to as “anti-Mame’.) One can view “The Anniversary’ as “Whatever Happened to Margo Channing?’: washed-up in American theater, Margo tries to maintain a career in England; washed-up there, she marries someone who finds her amusing, at least, and “Without [a husband], you’re not a woman.” becomes “Without sons…”

    The supporting cast is uniformly good, Sheila Hancock (esp. hilarious when she and her brother-in-law envision accidents: “Where’s mum, Tom…where’s mum?”), Jack Hedley and James Cossins being particularly memorable.

    One of the reasons I enjoy re-visiting this is the way it’s filmed. DOP Harry Waxman (also behind the only other Hammer film Davis made, “The Nanny’, as well as 1973’s “The Wicker Man’) captured a stage-bound script in a way that makes it fluid. Thanks there must also go to underrated director Baker (“Don’t Bother to Knock’, “A Night to Remember’ and the influential “The Vampire Lovers’).

  2. Learning about Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” helped me to place this film contextually (thank you!), and to understand a bit better the motivations of the playwright. It reminded me, as well, of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — it’s an even more vitriolic version of that already devastating story. Even though I found the trajectory of “Anniversary” hard to stomach, I will admit I was fascinated throughout, and can’t imagine film fanatics not being curious enough to check it out at least once.

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