A wealthy young Italian man (Horst Buchholz, The Magnificent Seven) wants to be an artist, but his powerful American mother (Bette Davis) has other plans for him. All hell breaks loose when the troubled young man develops an unhealthy infatuation with an amoral model (Catherine Spaak, The Cat o’ Nine Tails)
Reaction & Thoughts:
“We’ll pretend you’re a poor man with a rich mother who lends you money.”
When you watch older movies, you must mentally transport yourself to another time period. If you can’t do that then you have no business watching older titles. It’s even more important to do this when the movie in question is the result of a trend or movement. Based on the 1960 novel La Noia by Alberto Moravia, The Empty Canvas was a product of the Italian New Wave and as such context is everything — despite the dated shooting style, the film deals with issues that are still relevant today.
According to Whitney Stine’s 1974 book Mother Goddam, producers Joseph E. Levine (The Graduate) and Carlo Ponti (Doctor Zhivago) offered Bette Davis the role of the mother after another project failed to materialize. Davis admitted to Stine that she didn’t like the script, but agreed to make the movie only after Ponti promised that “more scenes for her would be added to the script.” The producer didn’t keep his promise.
Angry and disappointed, Davis became desperate and decided to wear a blonde wig and adopt an American Southern accent in order to make her role stand out. In Italy, it was customary to post-dub the actors so her accent went unnoticed — German Horst Buchholz and Belgian Catherine Spaak were also dubbed in Italian.
Davis later admitted that she didn’t understand the script. It’s incredible that she was able to give a good performance under these circumstances. In addition, it’s fascinating to see a big Hollywood star like Davis in a haze of Italian New Wave.
Davis’s misgivings notwithstanding, The Empty Canvas is a rather interesting movie. One critic summarized the film’s plot in one sentence: “This is a study in existential momism.” It’s about a directionless young man whose self-esteem has been destroyed by his mother’s overly-protective attitude. In that regard, The Empty Canvas explores “helicopter parenting” before the phrase was coined.
The film also has a lot in common with W. Somerset Maugham’s book Of Human Bondage, which was, of course, adapted in 1934 with Davis as Mildred Rogers. Maugham’s exploration of a masochist relationship resembles some sections of the movie, specifically the artist’s bizarre love affair with an amoral libertine, played by Spaak.
Speaking of Spaak, she is responsible for the film’s most memorable image: her naked body is completely covered with Liras (Italian currency). The scene raised a few eyebrows — a terrifically naughty moment of decadence. The cast also includes Isa Miranda (A Bay of Blood) and Georges Wilson (The Longest Day) as Spaak’s parents.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Empty Canvas wasn’t the success everybody was hoping for, and decades later it has almost disappeared from movie-going consciousness. It’s really too bad because this is a good movie, and Davis, Buchholz, and Spaak make a wonderful trio. If you bump into it, give it a try, you won’t be disappointed. Color, 108 minutes, Not Rated.