If Life Were Only Moments

Now, Voyager (1942)

Warner Bros.

One of the sexiest moments in all of cinema begins simply. It’s a routinely chivalrous (though now largely antiquated) gesture: a man lights a woman’s cigarette. You see it all the time in classic Hollywood films. But here, the gesture is infinitely more intimate and suggestive. The man puts two cigarettes in his mouth and lights them both. He fumbles a bit as he does it; even in the movies, it’s tricky to pull this move off suavely. All the same, he knows what he’s doing. As the cigarettes catch fire, his gaze smolders and fixes intently on the woman. The effect is shockingly erotic. But as he hands her the cigarette, his expression changes. His eyes are laughing—at himself, it seems. He acknowledges the gesture as the blatant overture that it is. 

The woman pauses briefly before taking the cigarette; to accept it, she knows, is to admit that something profound is happening. This man has already kissed her during a romantic interlude in an abandoned hut; he has told her that he’s madly in love with her. Accepting this cigarette means acknowledging those things that she’s been desperately trying to suppress. It means stepping into something irreversible. Tentatively, she takes it from his outstretched hand, but she cannot meet that smoldering-laughing gaze. Instead, she looks away from the man, staring out into the sea as she inhales her first drag. 

This exchange of cigarettes is frankly carnal: fire passes—at a distance, symbolically—between mouths. It’s not sex, but it’s clearly about sex in that visceral-ethereal, old-movie way. It reaches out and grabs you, while remaining seductively out of reach.  

In Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager—as in all great Hollywood melodramas—gestures are charged with the force of things that cannot be, and desires that can barely be spoken. The woman, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis, whose veneer of cut-crystal class barely hides the roiling neuroses beneath) is a repressed Bostonian spinster, who, after a stay at a sanitarium, is trying to come out of her shell with a fabulous new wardrobe and a cruise to South America. She’s no stranger to desiring, having racked up a lot of unfulfilled longings while under the thumb of her old-fashioned, authoritarian mother. (In offering the cigarette, the man speaks to her most repressed desires: our first glimpse of Charlotte in the film is her hand hastily emptying a full ashtray so that her mother won’t know she’s been smoking.) 

But being the object of this desire, both naked and sophisticated, is inconceivable to her. She’s spooked by the intensity of the moment. And she’s right to be cautious; she knows this cigarette comes at a cost that she’s not sure she can pay. The man, Jerry Durance (Paul Henreid, mastering the art of warm, empathetic seduction), is married. He’s nobly—and attractively!—devoted to his difficult, mentally ill wife and troubled young daughter. Yet what he can offer Charlotte is not insignificant: true sympathy, a great boost to her fragile confidence, and an adoration that blazes across the screen. They can have this moment, where the dark, close evening and the intimacy of smoking creates the conditions to finally speak the truth. 

As they smoke, Charlotte and Jerry’s conversation is at first innocently philosophical. It gradually grows dangerously personal, until the unspoken things finally surface: sexual tension, impossible love. Jerry asks Charlotte if she believes in immortality; it’s one of many things she’s not sure about. He wants to believe that happiness can “be carried on somehow somewhere,” that this moment might last forever in some unknown place. Charlotte, who doesn’t want to “get burned,” acidly pronounces herself “immune to happiness.” 

The conflicting, tortured emotions this love has caused her are evident in the way she ducks her head, the barely contained tears in her darting eyes. She’s seen herself as a repressed old maid for so long that she’s decided this kind of happiness will never be hers. And acknowledging it can only lead to grief in the end.

But Jerry is having none of that: their kiss was happiness. Charlotte is still wary and skeptical. Jerry admits that kisses are “only a small part” of happiness; it’s also play (“having fun together, getting a kick out of simple little things”) and intimacy (“sharing confidences we wouldn’t share with anybody else in all the world.”) He then seizes the moment to share a dangerous confidence: if he were free, all he’d want to do is make her happy. He desperately needs reciprocity, wants Charlotte to say that she’d want the same. This makes Charlotte cry bitterly, her tears “an old maid’s gratitude for the crumbs” of affection that Jerry is offering her.

Charlotte and Jerry have different ideas of what the little moments in life mean. For Jerry, savoring them as they pass by is the secret to a full life. Moments are little in the grand scheme of things, but they’re not to be overlooked; they must be treasured and tasted, even if you can’t have very many of them. Moments are intimacy and specificity, the wonderful little secrets that distinguish one life from another. Charlotte can’t see it that way, at least not yet. For her, moments are nothing but crumbs, little snatches of life that are all a frumpy, browbeaten spinster like her can get—all that other people think she deserves. Earlier, she thanks Jerry for “helping me feel like there were a few moments when I…almost felt alive.” But she’s hoping for more. After her stay in the sanitarium where she’d been free of her mother, Charlotte is looking for the full life that she’s so long been denied—and here she is falling in love with a man who can only promise stolen moments. Can a handful of such moments, even as sexy and emotionally intimate as this one, be enough for a good life? 

Jerry stops Charlotte’s cruel self-mockery by kissing her. It’s one of those weird and glorious Old Hollywood kisses—no movement, no tongues, just mouths crushing together. Tame as it is by modern standards, there’s a devastating intimacy to their still kiss: Charlotte and Jerry’s clothes are suggestively rumpled, their faces resting against each other, so still and close, for what seems like an eternity. But eventually, the moment passes, and the film cuts to a new scene: it’s the next morning, and Jerry is giving Charlotte a bouquet of flowers.

Under the censorship of the Hays Code, which ruled Hollywood when Now, Voyager was made in 1942, sex—especially extramarital sex—was strictly taboo. Adultery could not look in the least bit attractive or pleasurable. More fool Hays. Under his strictures, blatant sexuality and desire are only barely sublimated, or suggestively condensed; they thrum in the heady atmosphere of fleeting moments full of seductive gestures. The film’s shared cigarettes and its kiss flout the Hays code with their intense innuendo, emotion, and sheer, undeniable eroticism. They’re standing in for something larger, implying the illicit sex that can never be shown. An affair has never seemed more attractive, perhaps precisely because it’s so coded and constrained.

Of course, it’s all open to interpretation. The censorship, the cutting away, offers plausible deniability. Perhaps a kiss was just a kiss, and Jerry simply gave Charlotte flowers the next morning out of the goodness of his heart. What we choose to believe is up to us. Like all good melodrama, Now, Voyager takes our feelings and tangles them into perverse knots. We want both: to believe that there was “something more” beyond the moment, but also for the moment to stand alone, in all its vibrating desire. Somehow, it’s lovelier—sexier, even—that way.

I first saw
Now, Voyager at the campus movie theater when I was a junior in college. I went with my best friends—a couple, John and Audrey. We almost always went to the movies together. I wore a brown velvet blazer I’d found in a thrift store. Over the summer, I’d lost weight (only 19 pounds, not the 25 that Charlotte loses as part of her magical makeover), and the blazer nipped in nicely at my waist. I hoped it made me seem bohemian yet sophisticated. I hoped it would cloak my own spinster-ish neuroses the way that Charlotte’s perfectly-tailored suits and chiffon gowns (almost) cover hers.

I knew John and Audrey well—too well, in some respects. I’d long sought to compensate for my social awkwardness by being a good listener and confidant. (“Be interested in everything and everybody,” Charlotte’s doctor advises her.) Now I knew too many things: what each of my dearest friends felt they weren’t getting from one another. Audrey told me that she wanted emotional declarations—nothing melodramatically grand, just feelings stated plainly. John, perhaps the most academically brilliant person I’ve ever met, wanted something else. For him, you said what you meant with the infinite signs, symbols, and references that he so brilliantly decoded in all his papers. He once asked me why we needed to make emotional declarations, to just say things, when subtext already said it all. I was caught in a web between the two of them, sharing different kinds of intimacies, different secrets and passions. Guarding these secrets passionately and guiltily, I wanted too much—many contradictory things, but mostly confusing, howling wants that I couldn’t name.

On the walk home from the theater, Audrey and I went absolutely gaga over what we had christened “the cigarette thing.” John did all the decoding. He liked melodramas ironically, but not cheaply. For him, the pleasure of “the cigarette thing” was that it was so hilariously easy, freshman-year Freudian shit: the phallic cigarettes that aren’t just cigarettes, the oral fixation. I felt caught in the middle. I loved going to the movies with Audrey, the scientist, because she never seemed to go in already thinking about what she was going to say afterwards. Her pure pleasure when she loved something was intoxicating and infectious. I was the film major; I knew that I wanted to spend college watching and writing about movies as soon as I learned it was an option. I wanted to write brilliant papers like John, crystalline in their theoretical accuracy. I wanted every detail to make sense, to be explained by some dizzyingly complex theory. I got good at writing those papers, but I always felt that I was cheating: cheating at the paper, and cheating myself. I could never make that crystalline analysis explain the incandescent magic of the movies’ greatest moments. I always left out the ineffable, the feeling you got with some swell of cinematic emotion. That night, the atmosphere in Now, Voyager—the charge of those passed cigarettes—grabbed half-formed parts of me, and left me punch-drunk on what movies could do. It could not all be reduced to theory. Audrey and I basked in that cinematic aura; we oohed and aahed and sighed over “the cigarette thing.” John trailed along behind us.

I can’t remember exactly when Audrey and I got the first pack of cigarettes—a week or so later, maybe. We must have been angry about something. Like Charlotte before her transformation, and like Jerry’s daughter, Tina, we were sullen girls; we bought cigarettes infrequently, but they were always our way of telling the world how few fucks we gave about it. From then on, whenever we smoked, we always did “the cigarette thing.” (I remember us dreaming it up together in a shared reverie, but it’s possible that it was entirely my idea.) The intimacy of what we were doing was never discussed; on some level, it was accepted as a game, a quotation. But what fun I had with it. We switched roles, and I found each side equally pleasurable. It was bliss to be attended to, to watch her long, pale fingers hand the cigarette to me. To be the seducer was also wonderful (though it really is very hard to light two cigarettes at once). The act of extending my arm, the elegant invitation that I knew would be accepted; it eased the howling wants somehow. There was something magical about it, as if through this moment, life—adult life—was really happening. 

I wish that I could recall what we talked about in our smoking sessions. We probably complained about our roommates and other students we found painfully pretentious. But, more than conversation, I recall the shape of our anger, our resistance to a world that felt both bewildering and restricting, with no spaces to fit us. We’d gone to too many parties with John’s acquaintances, at once less brilliant and more self-important than he was. We’d listened to a lot of men (boys, really) with overgrown beards and trucker hats pontificate about art and theory on fire escapes in between sips of PBR. (I mostly remember Audrey and I standing in the corner, drinking whiskey and rolling our eyes.) At that age, I never dared to get into the fray, or tell them that they were full of shit. “The cigarette thing” was part of the other world that Audrey and I had defiantly built for ourselves, where art and feelings were more than fuel for theory, and where adulthood meant style and sophistication, not intellectual preening. We sought that sense of beauty and play that Charlotte and Jerry seek. So what I remember most are flashes of the grown-up accomplishments that happened during those smoking sessions: the gin gimlets we learned how to make with my faux Art Deco cocktail shaker, the first time I made burgers on a grill, the first time I dared to wear a dress with no bra.

John was usually there with us, too, though less so as the year dragged on and he was snowed under with a senior thesis and grad school applications. He supported our wannabe sophistication, one night going out into a Midwestern winter storm to find a frozen duck for us to roast because we wanted to have a fancy dinner party. It was a sign of love that, even then, didn’t need much decoding. Our aspirational soirées always felt a little more grown-up when John and Audrey’s banter (often about movies and whether they were good or not) flew back and forth. The moments between them were sometimes so enviably intimate that I had to quickly look away, like Charlotte does whenever someone innocently mentions the happiness that she can never fully have. But “the cigarette thing” was only mine and Audrey’s; John was too allergic, and too sensible, to smoke. 

My steps into a semi-glamorous adulthood mirrored Charlotte’s journey in the rest of the film. Upon return to Boston, she starts to be open to the small things. She invites all of her Boston socialite friends to come over and roast hot dogs in the fireplace. Following the advice of Dr. Jaquith (a warm but bemusedly detached Claude Rains), she does indeed take an expansive interest in the world around her, approaching life as Jerry does, with a sense of humor, sense of beauty, sense of play. The moments that Jerry gives her on the cruise are the seeds for her happy life in Boston society. Completely transformed into a glamorous goddess, she grows used to swanning through drawing rooms and cocktail parties in devastatingly understated gowns cut-down-to-there. She’s cheerful and eager to join in bridge games, but she’s also got a dry wit that’s pure Bette Davis—all sophisticated and adult in the way that Charlotte has longed to be. She even manages to handle her domineering mother with an attitude of loving bitchiness that keeps the old woman’s drive to trample all over her daughter’s life in check. Jerry, too, grows from his moments with Charlotte; he resumes a career in architecture that he’d abandoned. He’s even more loving towards his wife and daughter.

This being a melodrama, Charlotte and Jerry are destined to meet again. They’re at a society party, pretending that they barely know each other, when Jerry does “the cigarette thing” again. In repeating the gesture, he brings them back to that first moment, summoning up the intimacy and privacy of their past encounter in the middle of a crowded room. Their conversation is the stuff that the best melodrama is made of: they fake a banal conversation in case anyone’s listening to them, all the while whispering their secrets to each other beneath it (“I didn’t know,” “You look simply glorious,” “I wanted horribly to call you up,” “I am still horribly in love”). They stare at each other in delicious torture as Charlotte holds her fiancé’s hand. She’s engaged to a square, solid man who offers her everything that she was supposed to want for herself: kindness, a family, her own home, all the trappings of real life. But after Jerry and his cigarettes return, she has to admit that she doesn’t love her fiancé the same way, and that he’s not the kind of man who can appreciate life’s moments. She tries to force it, to give him some of Jerry’s “sense of play” by suggesting a date. She asks, pleads for him to take her to “some Bohemian restaurant…where we can be very gay, have cocktails and champagne, and you could make love to me…” She trails off as she sees the look of utter bewilderment on the poor guy’s square face. This is the kind of moment that she ought to share with Jerry, and she won’t accept a pale imitation. She turns the man down.

In the end, what Charlotte gets isn’t exactly a life of stolen moments, but rather a life full of melodramatic ones where everything is overfull with hidden meanings. Charlotte and Jerry’s love is transmuted, re-channeled through his daughter, who Charlotte accidentally meets at the sanitarium. She befriends Tina, becoming like a surrogate mother to her. Tina, like her father before her, revives Charlotte’s interest in the world: Charlotte figures out how to make Tina feel happy and useful, and Charlotte joins the board of the sanitarium and sets about renovating it. Yet every moment with Tina swells with the memories of what cannot be and cannot be said. Every time that Tina talks to her father on the phone, or innocently mentions him, the camera follows Charlotte’s face to track her private emotions. Now, Voyager lives and dies on the strength of Bette Davis’ close-ups: she can make her whole face vibrate with the anxiety of repressed emotion, her eyes misty with tears as she shakes herself out of it and looks into the distance, trying her best to accept things as they are. Every moment that Charlotte lives with Tina resonates with one that she’s already lived with Tina’s father, as well as the ones that Charlotte and Jerry can never experience together. 

Eventually, Tina comes to live with Charlotte, and she thrives there. But Dr. Jaquith approves this arrangement on the condition that Charlotte and Jerry not rekindle their affair: in typical melodramatic logic, in order for Charlotte to be Tina’s mother, she can never sleep with her father. But Charlotte is content to see Tina flourish, and to sneak meaningful glances at Jerry over the girl’s small head. Jerry is unhappy about it at first, but eventually agrees when Charlotte explains that having Tina with her makes her feel like the girl is her and Jerry’s child. Jerry can visit, and they can share some fleeting bliss, if they behave themselves. “Shall we just have a cigarette on it?” he asks. He hands her the lit one, and they share a timeless moment. Charlotte delivers the film’s famous last line: “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” 

In retrospect, it’s no wonder why I latched onto Now, Voyager. The film spoke to me powerfully; like Charlotte, I had such a strong sense of myself as a dumpy New England spinster that I couldn’t imagine loving any way but from afar. If Bette Davis could do it with such style and pathos, surely I could make something out of the juvenile clusterfuck that was my emotional life. Movies so often filled in the gaps of my experience; I play-acted Now, Voyager’s most iconic moment to express all that felt unsayable. “The cigarette thing” was a grown-up, sophisticated way of suffering in silence, a melodramatic gesture that spoke not only to repressed feelings, but also to ones that shot off in different directions, that got rerouted and transformed. 

In the movie, there’s a strange kinship formed in the bonds of love that connect Charlotte, Tina, and Jerry. What seems so obvious to me now (and not so very dramatic)—that I loved both Audrey and John, in both similar and different ways that I didn’t have the language or experience to name—was a fairly constant turmoil beneath the surface of banter and hours of eating and talking and watching movies. At the time, it all felt tidally overwhelming. I felt pulled in opposite directions; melodramatic music swelled in my body. I imagined myself with Bette Davis eyes welling with tears that I covered up with bright wit. With this gesture, the movie gave me a model: it made the most awkward steps into adulthood vicariously sophisticated. It made my desires grand and sweeping, and my repression noble. With the passing of the cigarettes, I could express something romantic—seductive, even—without being truly disloyal. I was summoning that ineffable cinematic atmosphere to make the moments of my life match the intensity of my feeling. I was living out, as Jean-Pierre Léaud says in Godard’s Masculin Féminin, “that film we would have liked to make, or, more secretly, no doubt, the film we wanted to live.”

In her song “The Pharaohs,” Neko Case sings, “You kept me wanting, wanting, wanting / Like the wanting in the movies.” In Now, Voyager, that intensity of wanting, wanting, wanting is expressed through beautiful moments of repressed suffering, and through this unforgettable, sexy, and graceful detail that may or may not lead to sexual fulfillment. It’s how cinema works on us, especially when we’re young and ravenous. The glamorous gesture gives names and shapes to all the incalculable and jumbled longings—those wants, wants, wants—that we carry within us. To want like wanting in the movies is also to want the movies, and to dwell in the heady, elusive atmosphere of the cinematic moment.