Davis’s Mum is telling a story about a time when her grown son was a little boy and hid from her; she searched for him for an hour. People tried to help her, and tears were streaming down her face, but when she found him, her little boy was laughing, and she could tell that he was laughing at her. “Laughing at my pain,” she emphasizes, with that special verve Davis has, as if she is wised up yet still somehow unbelieving about this moment when her son revealed his sadism.
Nitram is based on the true story of an Australian mass shooter whose killing spree occurred in 1996, therefore preceding Columbine and all the young male loners with guns of the 21st century. Davis makes clear that every moment of this woman’s life with her son (played by Caleb Landry Jones) — whom others call Nitram instead of his real name because of his strangeness — is a negotiation; every moment needs to be judged and dealt with firmly. There is no room for any vulnerability when she is interacting directly with her son.
Davis’s Mum wears a cross around her neck, and she is so guarded that only in rare moments do we see what she might really be thinking and feeling as she deals with the trouble Nitram causes. Her son’s friendship with the wealthy Helen (Essie Davis) throws Mum into a dangerous state of uncertainty: “I’ll be glad to … to see the back of you,” she tells her son as he leaves to go live with Helen, her voice faltering like an actor unsure of what dialogue needs to be delivered in a scene. After he has left, however, she returns to her terrible certainty. “He’ll be back,” she says to her husband (played by Anthony LaPaglia), in her throaty, theatrically expressive voice. “No one can live with that boy but us.”
Davis is an actor who is hyperconscious of her effects, and she has a Bette Davis–like nervous tension that can be put to many uses. The women she plays are always performing, always conscious of making scenes and striking attitudes — but there is an existential void in Davis’s style that signals her awareness that the self is a performance without a solid basis, and this awareness is partly why she is so often frantic on-screen. The character of Mum in Nitram leads her into rich and frightening areas that she has never explored before as a performer, because the dread of a parent’s worst nightmare fills that void.
The situation of the film places Davis in a context where her often exhilarating negativity stems from a specific cause, and she faces an opponent so lethal that one day his sadism will likely vanquish even her “get on with it” toughness, which is formidable in its own way but no match for sociopathy. (Davis once played a terrorist in a 1982 film called The Final Option — released as Who Dares Wins in the United Kingdom — but her character in that movie is a political revolutionary with a cause, far removed from the indiscriminate malice of modern-day mass shooters.)
Born in Australia in the mid-1950s and raised Catholic, Davis rebelled against her upbringing and ran away to sing with a band before getting into movies with Gillian Armstrong’s feminist coming-of-age tale My Brilliant Career (1979). When a journalist asked Davis what she thought of the film, she hesitated. “Now I was brought up Catholic, and I felt that pull,” Davis said recently in an interview with The Independent. “I thought … I can’t lie to her! I said, ‘I don’t think it’s very good. I think it was the script.’ You can imagine how that went down.”
Davis garnered a reputation for speaking her mind and clashed with director David Lean on the epic A Passage to India (1984), where she was asked to dramatize sexual repression. Back in Australia, she had a more personal and rewarding reunion with Armstrong on High Tide (1987), where she plays a singer at loose ends who starts to think about taking on the responsibility of raising the young daughter she once abandoned.
But it was in the 1990s that Davis really came into her own as an artist. In 1991 alone, she played the writer George Sand in Impromptu, French Resistance fighter Mary Lindell in One Against the Wind on TV, and a mentally ill mother in Antonio Tibaldi’s very personal On My Own. Davis’s bohemian Sand treats her children as equals, while her Lindell serves tough love to her children as she fights the Nazis: “Don’t be a fool, you look a fool,” she says curtly but lovingly to her son, letting him know just how strong one must be to fight evil and get through life honorably.
Davis’s character in On My Own is so ill that she can barely take care of herself; meeting briefly with her son, she is helplessly inappropriate with him. But Davis’s Mother tries her best to give her son advice that he can hold onto before she leaves him. “Life’s better than school, you know?” she tells him. “I mean, it gets better once you get out.” Davis says this in a way that touches anyone who remembers what being young was like, and it is all the more poignant because it springs from Davis’s own rebelliousness, her own tough-love tenderness, which she shows us so sparingly on screen.
In my book The Art of American Screen Acting: 1960 to Today, the chapter on Davis was designed to be the centerpiece because she is the best modern and postmodern example of the self-consciousness of screen acting after the defining work of Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, two actors who also wrestle with the idea that there is no self, only the performance of self. At a book signing at the Museum of the Moving Image, after we screened On My Own, I interviewed Tibaldi onstage about working with Davis. “She’s very tense,” Tibaldi said. “She’s not going to be your best buddy.” Like Streep, Davis does not like to rehearse or do a lot of takes. When Davis asked Tibaldi which takes he thought were best, he knew she was testing him. “This was not late in her career,” Tibaldi said, “and she would talk about ‘the nonsense of acting’ and how ‘this nonsense of acting has to end at some point’ … She was half-joking and half-not.”
It seems clear that Davis regards acting as an unserious pursuit, but, paradoxically, this is the basis for the distinctive seriousness and moral grandeur of her work. She felt that her character in On My Own hugged her son too many times in Tibaldi’s script. “I don’t think we want this to be sentimental,” she warned him. Easy or unearned sentimentality shrivels up and disappears with just one judgmental glare from Davis.
Davis made her most indelible impression in the early 1990s as the scathing Sally in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992), a film that defined her image as a neurotic who dismisses and categorizes everything — from very different men and women to schools of architecture — as a distraction from fear of abandonment and fear of death. Davis is a key figure in Allen’s filmography (she has made five movies with him in total), and she goes so far with the idea of a destructive intelligence in Husbands and Wives that it finally reaches some realm beyond the comic; her rage and acting out is so exciting that it becomes cathartic.
Davis played a furiously antisocial left-wing political radical who has Stalin’s son in Children of the Revolution (1996), but most of her best work was on television, where she played Lillian Hellman, Judy Garland, and Nancy Reagan with such unsparing specificity and judgmental glee that she illuminated many different areas of these disparate women’s characters. Her performance as Garland in particular had the heft and detail you might get from reading a great biography of a major artist. She makes herself look like Garland with brown contact lenses and makeup, and she captures her soft, stammering speech patterns, her mocking humor, and the self-indulgence that destroyed her, which Davis views sternly but with love.
It was also on TV that Davis played a far shabbier real person and took her biggest risk as the sociopathic con artist and killer Sante Kimes in A Little Thing Called Murder (2006), a clownish woman with larger-than-life charisma so vivid and laughable that you barely notice at first that she is holding a hammer and is about to club you over the head with it. Davis’s Kimes is her only outright evil mother role, a woman who manipulates and destroys her own son because she needs an accomplice, and Davis’s over-the-top performance here has an underlying harshness that is difficult to shake off.
Davis still makes her home in Australia, so in recent years her career has been more limited to projects shooting in that country. She has never been comfortable or adept at promoting herself, and her reputation for outspokenness, consequences be damned, has also likely restricted her opportunities. Inevitably, she was offered projects by Ryan Murphy, and she played the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for him in Feud: Bette and Joan (2017) with concentrated venom just beneath the camp posturing. But Davis is capable of far more than that: for her, Nitram represents a return to form.
The best or greatest acting today often comes from performers who are over age 60, for these actors have a generational authority and very clear point of view on life that is in short supply to those born after 1960 or so. In the final scene of The Father (2020), Anthony Hopkins descended to a level of such abject childish terror that he won an automatic and awed Academy Award, even though that prize has gone to some poor work in recent years. Alfre Woodard received little attention from awards bodies for her career-best performance as a jailhouse warden in Clemency (2019), partly because so few people saw that movie, and even those who tried it likely turned it off during the first 15 minutes, which detail a botched execution.
Davis recently won an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) best actress award for Nitram and revealed herself as the anti-Streep when she shut down enthusiastic applause with a gruff, “That’s enough.” But her dislike of such fawning does not mean a performance of this caliber should be overlooked, by either questionable awards bodies or by viewers who might be turned off by the difficult subject matter of Nitram. A great actor like Davis, Woodard, or Hopkins does not make anything easy for you. You have to go through and endure hard things with them, and you will or should be changed in some way by that process.
No one who sees Nitram will forget the way Davis’s defensive face and posture finally dissolve into a rare kind of tender bewilderment and love that has been so beaten down so many times but still somehow exists. In real life, the woman she is playing in Nitram has retreated into denial, because there comes a point for any human being when pressure becomes so intense that it can no longer be endured. In the last shot of Mum, she sits stiffly outside her home, cigarette in hand, her face unreadable in profile but likely doing minute calculations underneath.
Woodard’s warden in Clemency finally runs out of the execution room in her jail not in some triumphant way, but like a prisoner herself who can no longer accept what has gone on under her watch. If some of us are haunted by Hopkins calling for his mother at the end of The Father, Davis’s Mum in Nitram is the obverse of that plea, a woman struggling to find a way to absolve the worst of sins who finally decides that the sin must not have happened.
The grueling performance of self that Davis’s Mum was used to is now at an end, and a new performance will need to somehow take its place. For those who have followed Davis’s career closely, this is a key moment at which her insecure performance of self that is hovering above a personal void reaches a creative closure that could not have been anticipated: a protective kind of madness and total dissolution, the collapse of self that we all know is coming in some form for all of us.
Dan Callahan is the writer of Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman and Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, as well as the novel That Was Something.