Bette Davis was always at her venomous best when she had a female costar to compete with. She snapped at Anne Baxter as her protégé in All About Eve and snarled at Joan Crawford as her crippled sister in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. In A Stolen Life, Bette Davis squares off against Bette Davis. She plays identical twin sisters, one sweet, shy and lonesome, and the other a carefree, selfish and reckless. In addition to playing two roles in front of the camera, Davis was allowed to coproduce the film with Warner Brothers. It would be the first and the last film she made under her BD Productions company. The film was poorly received by the critics, but was a success at the box office. The financial windfall from the production credit would lead the US Treasury to name Davis the highest paid woman in the country.
The various camera tricks employed to bring two Bettes to the screen seem advanced for the time and are general good enough not to be distracting. And so we are able to enjoy Davis’ performance—or is it performances? We first see her as the unassuming, good sister, Kate, an aspiring artist who is unsure of her talent. She is heading to Nantucket to visit her cousin and paint some of the local color. Although she is timid, she is resourceful, and when she misses the ferry to the island, she is able to convince Bill, a young, handsome lighthouse inspector (Glenn Ford) to convey her. They become enamored with each over on the way over. She conspires to paint a portrait the irascible old lighthouse keeper as a way to be near the young man. They set up a lunch date. Now enters the extroverted sister, Pat. Bill mistakes her for Kate and takes her to lunch instead and Kate doesn’t correct the error. When Bill finally learns they are twins, he opts for the feistier one and marries her. Kate is left heartbroken, and at the wedding steps aside when the bouquet is intentionally tossed in her direction. After the wedding, she withdraws into her art, and meets a starving artist (Dane Cook) who gatecrashes her exhibition reception for the free food. He begins tutoring her and berates her and her talent at every opportunity, something she doesn’t seem to mind as she is still caught up on Bill.
From the moment Bill—and the audience—realizes they are twins, Kate is the much more interesting of the two characters. For one thing, she is more likeable, but it is also interesting to see Davis playing this type of character. She has often been seen playing Pat types, who connive to steal men away from other women and then worry about keeping them, but we rarely get to see her play a part as emotionally torn as Kate. Her side of the story is also occupied by Dane Cook, playing the firey painter who pursues her, while Glenn Ford’s character, who becomes Pat’s husband, is treated as little more than an enviable possession. Kate cannot get over Bill and so stays away from Pat until he is away on a business trip. When the sisters go sailing and Pat falls overboard, Kate reaches to save her and her wedding rings slips off into her hand. Earlier in the story, Pat mischievously allows Bill to think she is Kate and allows him to take her to lunch. Now Kate allows him—and everyone else—to think that she is Pat. But the consequences are much more severe. She takes over a life that is overshadowed by adultery and pending divorce.
The premise offers a lot of potential the plot does not fully deliver, and the dialogue could certainly be better, but watching Davis performance as Kate, and later as Kate-pretending-to-be-Pat, emoting with down-cast eyes and a nervous smile make this worthwhile.