In formal probability theory, mathematicians and armchair enthusiasts sometimes describe a technique called “coupling.”
This technique allows for seemingly random variables, x and y, to interact with one another in otherwise random way. Suppose x walks that way and y this – how can we measure how likely it is that they meet? Or that they never will? Probablists introduce a measure of their own creation to force an interaction, then measure success or failure. This technique allows for the creation of path dependence and bias determination that otherwise could not have been measured.
This is a phenomenal approach to a problem of no consequence. Sure, we care what should happen, but we really only measure what does happen and try to predict, with some accuracy what could happen, given x, y, and the medium. Sometimes, with enough certainty, our best guess is correct, and we begin to understand the difference between a graphite prediction and a graphic realization. The Little Foxes, whose production brought Bette Davis and William Wyler together again in 1941, is a film-proximate take on coupling.
The actress and the director make magic; theorists can couple together as much evidence as they want, but there is no measurement for spark and collaborative creativity that can outperform expected results. The Little Foxes proved this in the early 1940s. By way of a proud story, the film pairs together an actress at the height of her career with a director at the height of his. The story had been scene-tested on stage and was destined for imprint on film, with interpretive authority to be canonized as one of the five best of the year. Given this footstool of facts, mathematics aside, a critic from a reel away could have predicted this film’s success from the onset.
And it was almost derailed.
Davis wanted to play her character, Regina Hubbard Giddens, less demure and more cutting, a break from the stage interpretation, and for all intents and purposes the written character. Wyler, famed director with titles like Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Roman Holiday, on his resume, preferred the more surreptitious take. But Davis insisted, doubled-down and forced her vision on The Little Foxes, and made her Giddens a wild miser. Because history is path dependent, we will never know what a more demure Davis would have played. We can guess – given another set of variables and the same movie – that Davis/Wyler’s falling out after only three movies would have played out slightly differently for everyone involved, if only for the random walk. Was it the movie that did it or was the eventual nature of how relationships end. Bette Davis had to play her character; that coupling proved more important.
In the great information age, and as studio contracts hardly exist for lack of organizational need, truly transcendent bedfellows are fewer and farther between. The ones that subsist do so because there exists a non-random bond and choice theory has overtaken coupling as the way Hollywood has paired a director and his muse or an actor and a benevolent marionette. Recently: Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman/Michael Madsen; Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio/Robert De Niro; Paul Thomas Anderson and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Slightly further back: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton/Mia Farrow; John Hughes and Molly Ringwald; John Ford and John Wayne; Akira Kurasawa and Toshiro Mifune; John Waters and Divine. There are others and there will always be others; they come and go, connected by random chance. But when they work it feels as though the team has always been together, on the same path, going to the same place.
Nineteen forty-one’s winner, How Green Was My Valley, was typical for its time: pro-war effort, quasi-propaganda to quell fears about World War II. Citizen Kane was also released this year and, not for lack of trying, is still applauded as the best film ever made, so debate away. Notwithstanding and despite Bette Davis’ magnificent performance, The Little Foxes remains below the surface for 1941, and for all of history.