David Thomson Bette Davis (Great Stars)

ISBN 13: 9780865479319

Bette Davis (Great Stars)

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9780865479319: Bette Davis (Great Stars)

"She could look demure while behaving like an empress. Blonde, with eyes like pearls too big for her head, she was very striking, but marginally pretty and certainly not beautiful . . . But it was her edge that made her memorable--her upstart superiority, her reluctance to pretend deference to others."


Bette Davis was the commanding figure of the great era of Hollywood stardom, with a drive and energy that put her contemporaries in the shade. She played queens, jezebels, and bitches; she could out-talk any male costar; she warred with her studio, Warner Bros., worked like a demon, got through four husbands, was nominated for seven Oscars, and--no matter what--never gave up fighting. This is her story.

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About the Author:

DAVID THOMSON is, among many other things, the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition. His recent books include a biography of Nicole Kidman, Fan Tan (a novel written in collaboration with Marlon Brando), and The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. His latest work is the acclaimed Have You Seen . . . ?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Born in London, he now lives in San Francisco.

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

Bette Davis was twenty-three and too smart for her own good. But there she was lying on a couch at Universal in a fixed camera set-up so that any man the studio could round up came in and made movie love to her. ‘You gorgeous, divine darling,’ they said – they had to say something, so they had lines written for them. ‘I adore you. I worship you. I must possess you.’ There were fifteen of them – ‘The most compulsively dedicated harlot never had a morning like mine,’ she would write – and there you see how smart she was. Not just funny, but able to surmount her own indignity with caustic intelligence. She was a novice being tested for ‘chemistry’, or ‘it’, or ‘sex appeal’. This was after Carl Laemmle, the head of the studio had announced – with her in the next room and the door open – ‘She has as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville!’ Summerville was fortyish, a country hick with a simpleton cowboy face. He was just a little niftier than his horse.

We can talk about what Bette Davis had and didn’t have, and what you might like to have done to her if you were a red-blooded American male. Suffice it to say that with Bette Davis, her looks and her sexiness – her appetite for the movies – were always under question. ‘Well, she was never beautiful,’ you hear people say. But the same Bette Davis, in those years from 1931 to 1945 – the golden age, more or less – was nominated seven times for best actress. In the same period, Garbo got one nomination, Katharine Hepburn four, Marlene Dietrich one, Claudette Colbert three, Barbara Stanwyck three. Davis outpaced the field without ever convincing a studio – or maybe herself – that she had ‘it’. Simple, unequivocal desirability. Yet something possessed her, an energy or a need that could leave every other actress seeming vacant.

The thing she asserted was that there were ‘Bette Davis parts’, a territory where other actresses had best not tread. For there was something fearsome in being Bette Davis, something that seemed close to consuming the woman herself. It’s a part of the nature of acting in those days, and of the terrible insecurity of actresses, that several of the great parts might have been recast – Irene Dunne surely could have played Mrs Miniver, Barbara Stanwyck could have done Mildred Pierce, Katharine Hepburn could have been in My Man Godfrey, Claudette Colbert was actually cast as Margo Channing in All About Eve and I am tempted to share the lady’s own imperious view, that Bette Davis would have been a natural as Scarlett O’Hara – ‘It was insanity that I not be given Scarlett.’ (The essence of Davis, it seems to me, is in the use of the word ‘given’ there, as opposed to some such construction as ‘be cast as’. The ‘gift’ was something the common people should have seen as appropriate to their queen, and it should have required no asking from her!)

In other words, competition – the helpless state of the harlot – was as open as the studio contract system allowed. And Bette Davis had at least a dozen rivals who photographed better than she did, or who had more glamour or lustre, more gender obedience and more of ‘it’ than she could offer. Yet she was the commanding figure of the great era of stardom and star projects. Moreover, most of that time, she was employed and held by a guys’ studio where the bosses would tell her to her face that not a single man was going to pay money to see this or that project. Let’s add that she had another three best actress nominations after 1945 – in All About Eve, The Star and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Come to that, one has to note and marvel how in her heady years she was not actually nominated for Of Human Bondage, The Old Maid or The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

I doubt there is a better example of willpower thriving in the alleged age of sex appeal. Her own insistence that she was right for a role, or the best actress around, is not always sympathetic. But it is much harder to make a case for her being wrong. She prided herself on exact judgement and insight, on reason and justice – New England virtues – and never quite realized that on the West Coast the country was run rather differently.

Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born on 5 April 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. This was nine months and four days after the marriage of her parents: Harlow Morrell Davis, of Bates College and Harvard Law School, and Ruth Favor, an amateur actress of some ability. The Favors were of French descent, while the Davises had been in Massachusetts since 1634 – and in Wales before that. It was a Davis who had helped found the city of Haverhill. Harlow Morrell Davis had a great dome of a forehead, rimless spectacles and a most earnest gaze. He would have been shocked if, say, his first child had been delivered less than nine months after the day of his marriage. Nevertheless, he had not intended to have a family so swiftly and the father proved incapable of talking to Ruth or to her younger sister, Barbara, born eighteen months later. Aged five, apparently, Ruth decided to alter her name to Bette – a name she had seen on the spine of a Balzac novel. The father thought the change was pretentious, and that attitude only offended Bette the more. When Bette was seven, the father left the family.

By the time Bette was twenty, she was resolved to be an actress. The mother passed this information on to the father, who was reported as having said, ‘Let her become a secretary! She’ll earn money quicker. Bette could never be a successful actress.’ The young girl took this as a challenge, just as she now perceived her father as a negative force. It was a part of her larger determination to triumph, to do as she wished, and to lead what would amount to her ‘lonely life’. In 1962, Bette Davis published a short memoir called The Lonely Life and it is nearly shrill with her determination to take personal responsibility for everything:

I have always been driven by some distant music – a battle hymn no doubt – for I have been at war from the beginning. I rode into the field with sword gleaming and standard flying. I was going to conquer the world . . .

My father’s cavalier disappearance from our home when I was a small child certainly has significance. Consider my quartette of marriages. But his hypothetical perfection as a father might have bound me to him and spoiled other men for me.

If I were making a documentary film about Bette Davis, I would cut from that observation (preferably in her piping voice – a regal, declaratory voice) into the opening scene from The Letter. It is night in Malaya. Clouds cross the moon. Rubber plantations are busy with their dripping business. Suddenly there is a flurry of action at one house. We hear a shot. A door opens, a man tumbles out, pursued by a small, fierce-faced woman in a long housecoat that flows as she moves. With a revolver she fires five more shots at him, and into him. It is a very arresting passage of movie and a great opening. It will be said quite soon that this woman, Leslie Crosbie, shot the man because he tried to force his attentions on her.

We don’t quite believe that story. We can believe that a man might tell Leslie he loved her and even try to rape her. And she might be hurt and shocked by it. She might shoot him – once. But six shots, one after the other? In such flowing, irresistible motion. We guess that if the gun had held a dozen bullets, the man would have had to soak them all up. No, there is another story – this man has let the woman down, and she is ready, waiting, expecting such an insult, and equipped to rebuke it. And she takes no prisoners.

The Letter is one of those films for which Davis received an Academy nomination, but it is not the only one of the ten in which her character is malicious, vengeful, hostile to men, a bitch. There are similar traits in Dangerous, Jezebel, The Little Foxes and Mr Skeffington. There is more of it still – at either end of the social register – in Of Human Bondage and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. And what is Scarlett O’Hara but the ultimate bitch role in American cinema?

Now look at the faces of Bette Davis in the late ’20s and early ’30s. It is certainly not the case that she was not pretty. As a teenager, with long blonde hair and very friendly eyes, she was the sort of girl to draw attention wherever she went. But it was a completely natural beauty, and it had not a hint of glamour or allure. She was plainly smart, merry and quick – and her look promised sympathy and friendship, as well as teasing and mischief. It was not the look of someone consumed by a great dream of the self – like Garbo, or Joan Crawford even. You can see, from the earliest times (and Crawford the perpetual rival was ahead of Bette Davis for years), that Davis might have dismissed Joan as a fabrication of hairdressing, cosmetics, photography and gall. Whereas Bette’s was a face you might see on a beach in Maine, in summer stock, or in a shop, a face that pricked your attention. In America in the first decades of the twentieth century, Hollywood came to represent the manipulation of appearance as against an authentic, God-given naturalness. Bette Davis believed she looked like an ‘ordinary’ person, or an ‘ordinary’ genius.

Audiences might have agreed, except for the eyes. Before she arrived in Hollywood, Bette Davis had eyes that popped a little or which looked as if she might have been crying. But in real life, tears tend to make the eyes go raw, narrow and tired – and Bette’s jumped open. They were startled or alert – as if she had just been touched somewhere intimate. It was thus that one saw the liquid glaze or pressure ...

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