Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis

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9780805088632: Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis

The legendary Hollywood star blazes a fiery trail in this enthralling portrait of a brilliant actress and the movies her talent elevated to greatness

In Dark Victory, noted film critic and biographer Ed Sikov paints the most detailed picture ever delivered of Bette Davis, the intelligent, opinionated, and unusual woman who was―in the words of a close friend―"one of the major events of the twentieth century." Drawing on new interviews with friends, directors, and admirers, as well as archival research and a fresh look at the films, this stylish, intimate biography depicts Davis's personal as well as professional life in a way that is both revealing and sympathetic.

With his wise and well-informed take on the production and accomplishments of such movie milestones as Jezebel, All About Eve, and Now, Voyager, as well as the turbulent life and complicated personality of the actress who made them, Sikov's Dark Victory brings to life the two-time Academy Award–winning actress's unmistakable screen style, and shows the reader how Davis's art was her own dark victory.

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About the Author:

Film critic Ed Sikov is the author of the critically acclaimed On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder and Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers. He has taught at Columbia University, Haverford College, and Colorado College, and lives in New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

EARLY SKIRMISHES

She was a lifelong saver of things: clippings, thank-you notes, family snapshots, daybooks, opening-night telegrams, marketing lists, studio stills, scripts. Here is her baby book, carefully archived, the earliest private record of a most public life:

An angular father holds a baby swathed in an immense, .owing blanket; Ruth Elizabeth Davis is four days old.

Her baby gifts are itemized in a florid, practically indecipherable Victorian hand. They include a blue rattle, a pink rattle, a hairbrush and comb, a diamond ring from (illegible), and a silver spoon. The book itself was a gift from the baby’s nursemaid, a Mrs. Hall of Augusta, Maine.

April 6, 1908: on the day after she was born, Ruth Elizabeth weighed six pounds. At three months, eight pounds. At nine months, a diary entry notes, she was caught amusing herself by imitating her humorless father and laughing.

The baby began to crawl at fourteen months. At seventeen months she stood alone.1

There is a small grayish envelope glued to one of the album’s pages, and from it you can extract a lock of Ruth Elizabeth’s baby hair. It’s strawberry blonde, or, better, raspberry—more floridly pink than you would imagine, though it may have discolored, the result of age and longtime storage. From another box in the Bette Davis Collection at Boston University you can dig out, sniff, and even taste (if you dare) the stubbed-out cigarette butt that some demented queen snatched off the floor of the Lincoln Center garage on the night the Film Society presented Miss Davis with a lifetime achievement award in 1989, but that would be skipping ahead.2

Whether it’s Ruth Elizabeth’s precocious imitation of her father or a lipstick-stained cigarette butt plucked from a garage floor and preserved in its own tiny Baggie, it is hard not to read what you already know about this woman into everything you discover about her. Take the snapshots her nanny affixed in the baby album. Here’s one of her dour father, Harlow, looking down his beaklike nose at the child as though he was examining a zoological specimen of minor but still appreciable importance. Of course, you say; she had lifelong trouble with men, four failed marriages, various affairs, an insatiable rage . . . it must have started here. But does a distant daddy fully explain an affair with the nutty Howard Hughes? More important, what does any of this have to do with her fiery talent?

Here’s another shot of father and daughter taken at Ocean Park on October 1, 1909, the day Ruth Elizabeth—called Betty—took her first step. Given Harlow Davis’s reportedly icy nature, the photo seems out of character—too relaxed and full of everyday familiarity. Father and daughter look comfortable with each other; that can’t be right. But you cannot deny the camera’s ability to record a split second’s worth of emotional honesty. Ruth Elizabeth’s difficult, severe father may indeed have loved her, however momentarily. The key is that she herself demanded that the world think that he hadn’t.

Scattered throughout the scrapbooks and photo albums in the archive are photos of the mother, Ruthie. They show a proper if plain young woman with eyes set slightly widely apart, a gently dimpled chin, and a rather .at but appealing face.3 Ruthie, the driving, indulgent force behind the superstar. Ruthie, who may have been the one who originally preserved these volumes of clippings and reviews and photographs and keepsakes until they hired a service to take over when the publicity onslaught began in the early 1930s. Nobody, not even the adoring Ruthie Davis, could ever have kept up with press coverage of that magnitude, let alone the magpie preservation of diaries, snapshots, telegrams, and other assorted ephemera.

In her fine autobiography, The Lonely Life, Davis characterizes Ruthie as the artistic one, her father as the intellectual. Ruthie was flight, passion, theatrics, decorating. Harlow was all focus and analysis, as clear and precise as a magnifying glass. He had a stinging temper, too, in a way that Ruthie did not. When Harlow took a good-natured faceful of rice moments after his wedding, he wheeled around to the well-wishers and roared, "Goddamn you! I’ll get you for this!"4

He could not forgive his wife for her sex, either. Harlow Morrell Davis married Ruth Favor on July 1, 1907.5 Three days later, the newlyweds were lodging at Squirrel Island, Maine, where a water shortage kept Ruthie from douching after a bit of honeymoon intercourse. Harlow flew off the handle at this female breach of a gentleman’s trust and, according to Ruthie, brought the whole hotel into his intimate uproar.6 Betty Davis was born nine months and one day later in Lowell, Massachusetts.

In her unpublished memoirs, Ruthie recalls the "lovely April shower" that "heralded" Betty’s birth on April 5, 1908.7 Davis, in The Lonely Life, turns it into a Homeric squall: "The gods were going mad and the earth was holding its head in a panic. . . . I happened between a clap of thunder and a streak of lightning. It almost hit the house and destroyed a tree out front. As a child I fancied that the Finger of God was directing the attention of the world at me. Further and divine proof—from the stump of that tree—that one should never point."8

Appalled at the baby she bore, at least at first, Ruthie said, "Is that what I’ve got? Take it away! It’s horrible!"9 She changed her mind later, though she maintained a vigilant criticism lest Ruth Elizabeth ever commit the sin of resting on her laurels. No matter what Ruth Elizabeth’s achievements and fame, her mother taught her that she could always do better.

Harlow was not cut out for fatherhood, a fact that should have been clear from the start. He was cut out for dissecting infants, not nurturing them. Nevertheless, as Ruthie described it, "Bette’s sister Barbara came along eighteen months later to keep Bette from being spoiled."10 If that was indeed the rationale for bearing a second child, it didn’t work.

With Barbara, called Bobby, it was all about Betty from the start. Bobby was in her crib when Betty, according to Ruthie, waited until Bobby’s nurse was out of the room. She then removed Bobby from the crib Betty considered her own, trundled her across the room, and deposited the usurper on the couch in an act of reclamation and revenge.11

Betty was driven in a way Bobby never was, an innate trait that her parents reinforced with firm Yankee expectations. Their soil was rocky, their winters were harsh; for generations they had been brutalized into enduring. Betty’s grandfather once bullied her into climbing a flight of stairs. Betty faced him from the bottom. She was barely able to walk. "Come on, climb!" he commanded from the top. "You can do it. One step at a time." According to Davis, she made it, bruised but triumphant.12 It was the first of many painful successes.

There were strict rules in the Davis household, as there generally were in the New England families from which the Davises and Favors descended. Harlow Davis was a man who believed that children ought not to dine at table until they could conduct a worthy conversation, so Ruth Elizabeth and Barbara were exiled to the kitchen or nursery. Father’s rule didn’t apply on Sundays, but he often banished them in tears anyway after they committed some infant infraction or other.13

Of the sisters, Ruthie remembered, "they were always close. Bette once cut off Barbara’s hair, but on the whole they lived amicably together." 14 "Now she isn’t going to be pretty," Ruthie heard Betty declare moments after the shearing. "She isn’t going to be pretty any more."15

Throughout her life, everybody liked Bobby. Most felt sorry for her.

A scrapbook photo has both girls stripped to nothing but bandanas tied around their very blonde hair, sitting on a blanket on a hot summer’s day.16 Another poses them with Harlow: the girls are wearing large Mother Goose–like bonnets and sitting on his lap. Betty engages the camera, caught in a half smile, seemingly about to remark upon something of importance. Bobby sports a determined pout. Harlow is sour beyond words, staring glumly at the camera with an admonishing expression on his face. Wire-rimmed glasses perch slightly down on his nose. There’s a high, bony, recognizable forehead on a longer, thinner face. Why he feels such a powerful urge to reprimand remains unclear.17

Harlow graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1910. Obsessive compulsive before the condition had been diagnosed, he found his calling as a meticulous patent attorney with the United Shoe Machinery Company of Boston.18 In The Lonely Life and elsewhere, Davis describes him using words like brilliant, cruel, and sarcastic. She tells a story so frigidly exact in its rendering of her father’s logic that you immediately see and understand her psychological profile as well as his. She was enchanted by a clear summer nighttime sky, as any romantic, unstunted child would be. "Do you see all those stars up there?" the father asked his little girl. "There are millions and millions of them. Remember that always and you’ll know how unimportant you are."19

Still, the portrait Bette Davis draws of her father is complicated by one most unexpected detail: "Christmas should have exacted a loud ‘bah humbug’ from Harlow M. Davis," Davis writes, but "it was Daddy’s favorite holiday." The sour, distant father decorated their Christmas tree every year. Then he played Santa.20 He could be generous with money and special-occasion cheer, if not his affections, of which he had few, though the exception to that rule took the form of his brutal dog, a chow, which terrified Bette with its constant snapping.

Harlow’s menacing presence to the contrary notwithstanding, Davis maintained that her...

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Descripción Holt, 2007. Estado de conservación: New. 'As singular and commanding a figure as world cinema has ever produced', Bette Davis was a working actress until the day she died, and Ed Sikov's hugely successful book tells the story of her life through her art. Looking at the making of films such as Jezebel, All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and at Davis's complex personal life and personality, Sikov shows how her art was her own dark victory. Nº de ref. de la librería 287374

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Descripción Henry Holt Company, United States, 2008. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. The legendary Hollywood star blazes a fiery trail in this enthralling portrait of a brilliant actress and the movies her talent elevated to greatness In Dark Victory, noted film critic and biographer Ed Sikov paints the most detailed picture ever delivered of Bette Davis, the intelligent, opinionated, and unusual woman who was--in the words of a close friend-- one of the major events of the twentieth century. Drawing on new interviews with friends, directors, and admirers, as well as archival research and a fresh look at the films, this stylish, intimate biography depicts Davis s personal as well as professional life in a way that is both revealing and sympathetic. With his wise and well-informed take on the production and accomplishments of such movie milestones as Jezebel, All About Eve, and Now, Voyager, as well as the turbulent life and complicated personality of the actress who made them, Sikov s Dark Victory brings to life the two-time Academy Award-winning actress s unmistakable screen style, and shows the reader how Davis s art was her own dark victory. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780805088632

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Descripción Henry Holt Company, United States, 2008. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. The legendary Hollywood star blazes a fiery trail in this enthralling portrait of a brilliant actress and the movies her talent elevated to greatness In Dark Victory, noted film critic and biographer Ed Sikov paints the most detailed picture ever delivered of Bette Davis, the intelligent, opinionated, and unusual woman who was--in the words of a close friend-- one of the major events of the twentieth century. Drawing on new interviews with friends, directors, and admirers, as well as archival research and a fresh look at the films, this stylish, intimate biography depicts Davis s personal as well as professional life in a way that is both revealing and sympathetic. With his wise and well-informed take on the production and accomplishments of such movie milestones as Jezebel, All About Eve, and Now, Voyager, as well as the turbulent life and complicated personality of the actress who made them, Sikov s Dark Victory brings to life the two-time Academy Award-winning actress s unmistakable screen style, and shows the reader how Davis s art was her own dark victory. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780805088632

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Descripción Henry Holt Company, United States, 2008. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. The legendary Hollywood star blazes a fiery trail in this enthralling portrait of a brilliant actress and the movies her talent elevated to greatness In Dark Victory, noted film critic and biographer Ed Sikov paints the most detailed picture ever delivered of Bette Davis, the intelligent, opinionated, and unusual woman who was--in the words of a close friend-- one of the major events of the twentieth century. Drawing on new interviews with friends, directors, and admirers, as well as archival research and a fresh look at the films, this stylish, intimate biography depicts Davis s personal as well as professional life in a way that is both revealing and sympathetic. With his wise and well-informed take on the production and accomplishments of such movie milestones as Jezebel, All About Eve, and Now, Voyager, as well as the turbulent life and complicated personality of the actress who made them, Sikov s Dark Victory brings to life the two-time Academy Award-winning actress s unmistakable screen style, and shows the reader how Davis s art was her own dark victory. Nº de ref. de la librería BZE9780805088632

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