When a young socialite (Bette Davis) is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, she needs to come to terms with her early death, with the support of a sexy neurosurgeon (George Brent).
Widely regarded as one of Davis’s finest performances, Dark Victory was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, but had the misfortune to find itself up against Gone With the Wind. That’s a shame because in addition to Davis’s stellar performance there are welcome appearances from Humphrey Bogart as Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and a young Ronald Reagan.
But while it may benefit from the quality of its performances there’s a very strange relationship at its core which could only be the product of Hollywood screenwriting. Judith, in her early twenties, encounters a neurosurgeon many years her senior who agrees to examine her. He operates, but chooses to keep from her that the operation was not successful and her condition remains terminal. He then tries to marry her, while keeping this secret, in what must surely be the worst way to deal with a terminally ill person possible. She then finds out and is understandably angry at him – but she ends up apologising for her rage and they make up. It’s at best implausible and at worst downright creepy.
To be a film about a person making the most of their final months it needs to go further. Granted, the terminally ill Judith rides in the Grand National. But she doesn’t go crazy and do all the things she’s always dreamed of, as many of us would if we knew we had a short time to live. But it doesn’t really work as a film about someone coming to terms with grief either. For the first half of the film she doesn’t know she’s ill, and in the second she chooses to ignore it, so very little of the film is about her accepting her fate.
As a result there’s something unconvincing about this drama which, while well made, probably deserved to lose to Scarlet O’Hara.