Bette Davis, COVID-19 and the book of Job

James Tomek, Ph.D

Guest column
By James Tomek, Ph.D.
Is God punishing us with the coronavirus plague? Pope Francis named the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time “Word of God Sunday,” promoting Scripture study, prompting me to reflect on Mr. Skeffington, a Bette Davis movie whose title character’s first name is Job. Can we arrive at a better view of the biblical Job by reading it alongside of Job in the Bette Davis movie? Are there any connections to the biblical hero? The biblical book is about divine justice with Job questioning the morality of the Deuteronomic principle where being faithful to the covenant is rewarded while disobedience is punished. The main characters in the film seem morally motivated by a superficial view of beauty. I will compare the morality in the two works, connecting the concept of beauty to them, while trying to make a beatific conclusion.
The Biblical book can be seen in three acts. After surviving a bet between God and an adversary, where Job does not blaspheme God when he loses his family and possessions (Act I), Job is forced to confront three to four friends who interpret Job’s misfortunes as a sign of covenant disobedience. The central part (Act II) is a poetic dialog between Job and the friends where Job laments his existence, believing his punishment way out of line with his actions. He calls on God to respond (Act III). Upon God’s response, Job remains quiet, not blaspheming God or himself, realizing that he has not enough knowledge to continue his complaint. In the beauty of his humble lament, God restores Job while disapproving the friends’ moral stance.
Mr. Skeffington has three acts. In 1914 New York (Act I), Fanny Trelleis (Bette Davis) is a beauty courted by three to four silly suitors. She is superficial and only loves her brother Trippy whom she saves by marrying Job Skeffington, a stockbroker that her brother embezzled from and who ends up being seduced by Fanny’s beauty. In Act II, the war years and the 1920s, Fanny continues flirting with her suitors while Job is content to patiently wait for her attention. The portrait that he has painted of Fanny becomes a substitute for her love. Upon Trippy’s death their marriage dissolves. In Act III, diphtheria attacks Fanny’s beauty. She comes to her senses when she sees that one suitor wants to marry her for her money and she eventually reconciles with Job who had lost his ill gotten money, made upon advanced news of World War I breaking out, and who comes home blind, but still in love with her. The film ends with the conclusion that a woman is only beautiful when she is loved.
The biblical Job refutes the Deuteronomic principle of God rewarding the just and punishing the unjust. This morality is based on sanctions. Rewards or punishments for actions is no morality at all. Job risks his life by not accepting easy answers (idols). The beauty of his humble lament becomes a beatitude moving God to pardon his questioning. The 1944 film is about the real nature of beauty. The notion, “a woman is only beautiful when loved” needs a different point of view. Simone Weil, in her essay Waiting for God, contends that waiting is a key for religious action. Her waiting is from the French attente, which is a “paying attention” wait, or search for God, the source of love and truth – or beauty. There is a purity or beauty in real love when it is not concerned with rewards or being useful. Weil mistrusts eating as a vulgar wish to consume, with consumption being an idolatrous activity. With the “host” at Mass, we are not consuming it physically as much as showing a desire to be food for others.
The beauty in Mr. Skeffington is more of the “idol” type. Fanny is a superficial socialite who lives off the flattery of her voracious suiters who only want to be seen with her. Job Skeffington is a ruthless stockbroker taking advantage of the outbreak of world war. The only way he can preserve Fanny’s love is by having a portrait made of her that he can idolize. In the third act, reality hits hard as Fanny realizes that she is not loved and that she has thrown away her potential chances as mother and wife. A woman is only beautiful when she is loved is the conclusion.
The biblical Job writer blows apart the Deuteronomic principle of virtue rewarded and vice punished. This interpretation places us with Job’s friends. Real virtue is not accomplished by utility. Actions done with the wish of a reward become idols and are not much different than actions done in evil. The real action in this story is that Job calls God into conversation. He risks everything by questioning the Deuteronomic principle and is rewarded by starting a dialog about the nature of truth and goodness. His lament is beautiful. Mr. Skeffington goes from silly melodrama to a morality play when we question what real beauty is. A woman is beautiful only when loved should be read as a woman is truly only beautiful when she loves. Purity is achieved when we leave our egos, seeing that real beauty is doing the right thing for and in itself. This beauty becomes a beatitude or state of blessedness, seen at Mass, especially when we sing the lament psalms, asking God for help. Is God punishing us with the coronavirus or calling on us to do the right thing? Paying attention becomes an important part of waiting.

(James Tomek is a retired language and literature professor at Delta State University who is currently a Lay Ecclesial Minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale and also active in RCIA at Our Lady of Victories in Cleveland.)