A dark, square-cut mink jacket and matching hat frames Bette Davis’s face and neck, the fur lent an extra touch of sparkle by virtue of its glamorous silver tips. She is seated at a table at an elegant restaurant—a violin is playing in the distance—and she is angry. It’s a seething, bitter anger, and so she is systematically getting drunk, having discovered in the previous scene two devastating pieces of information: she is dying, and, far worse, she has been lied to. She is talking to her two dinner companions, one of whom is her neurosurgeon and fiancé, the other her best friend—it is they who are the liars—and while she’s not slurring her words exactly, neither is she not; they’re coming out as warm bursts of gin-scented mist.
Her friends, having arrived late enough to have missed the first few rounds of cocktails, are growing anxious and urge her to order some food, and she promptly obliges by yanking a menu out of a visibly startled waiter’s hand. Cut to a front-and-center medium shot. A martini glass sits prominently on a plate before her. The dark frosted fur surrounds her face. She looks righteous, dangerous, divine. And while the flat, white menu serves nominally as the focus of her gaze, it’s clear that she’s putting on a performance of reading it. Bette Davis and her character, the equally willful Judith Traherne, have each been mentally drafting and redrafting the delivery of one of the greatest lines of their joint lifetime, and as they look up together in perfect superimposition, they fire it with precise aim and flawless timing: “Well, I—I think I’ll have a large order of prognosis negative!”
Bette’s enormous eyes widen even further at the end of the sentence. She glares off to the right and draws in a sharp intake of breath as a mark of emotional punctuation.
The film is Dark Victory, the year 1939. The director is Edmund Goulding, and the two other actors are George Brent and Geraldine Fitzgerald.
But the scene, and the film, belong to Bette Davis in the supreme and certain way that the Vatican and all of its paintings and sculptures and manuscripts and chapels and plazas belong absolutely to the Church. Davis’s artistic possession of almost all of her films is just as incontrovertible (though the financial realm is precisely where the analogy fails). Goulding made some decent pictures, Fitzgerald was a proficient actress, Brent kept working . . . but Bette Davis was, and remains, as singular and commanding a figure as world cinema has ever produced.
She was a trained actress but a purely self-styled one. And her style—the cinematic answer to the peaty pitch of a fine scotch or three, the smoke curls of cigarettes by the thousands, the effortless fashion in which a huge square-cut mink sits on her smallish shoulders, her peculiar way with breathing and vocal stresses—that style is what made Bette Davis.
She was magnificent and exasperating, luminous and bellicose in equal measure. Her longtime boss, Jack Warner, called her “an explosive little broad with a sharp left.”1 Humphrey Bogart once remarked, “Unless you’re very big she can knock you down.”2 She was a force of nature, a blazing talent. She defined and sustained stardom for over half a century. She worked like a dog.
Pretty enough to be given the glamour treatment in her early twenties, she developed by middle age into weathered, thick-featured boniness graced by a slash of red lipstick. Later, when she was elderly, crippled by a stroke and weakened by breast cancer, she still compelled the world to look at her, just as she compelled herself to keep acting. Some stared, some cackled, and others no longer cared, but Bette Davis proudly remained a working actress until the day she died. Much more than family or friends or hobbies or, God forbid, idleness (as she would have snapped, “Oh, brother!”), acting was the only thing that really mattered in the end.
Her friend Ellen Hanley stated it simply: “Bette Davis was one of the major events of the twentieth century.”3
Imitating her vocal delivery and broadest physical gestures is actually quite easy as long as getting your audience to recognize who you’re imitating is your goal. You snap the words out between your teeth and swiftly bite them off while holding an imaginary cigarette between the index and middle fingers and cranking the hand around by your waist in an inexplicable circular gesture, as though you’re spinning a small wheel or turning a dial made of air. For longer lines of dialogue, you lay stresses eccentrically throughout the sentences and take breaths at odd places, all the while continuing to wave the cigarette around. The biggest laughs come from leaving off the last syllable of any sentence you choose, pausing for half a beat, and then bleating it in too high a tone.
With a minimal amount of practice and a taste for camp you can pull some laughs out of some of the stories in this book. But mimicking Bette Davis without reverence is (to revive the metaphor) like staring at the Sistine Chapel without awe.
Hollywood in the 1930s is unthinkable without Mildred Rogers, Davis’s scenery-chewing harridan in Of Human Bondage; Julie Marsden, the southern bitch of Jezebel; and her self-knowing, self-reliant Judith Traherne in Dark Victory. The 1940s are unimaginable without The Letter, in which she’s a remorseless killer, and Now, Voyager, in which she’s a growing, healing survivor. Her Margo Channing in All About Eve set the bar so high in 1950 that the rest of the decade was bound, for Davis at least, to be a letdown. By 1962, Bette, a working actress for thirty-four years, gladly turned herself onscreen into the crazy gargoyle known as Baby Jane Hudson in the ghastly masterpiece What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? With Baby Jane, the razor’s edge that separates the tragic from the ludicrous is sharp enough to have cut a lesser actress to bloody ribbons. And all of it—all of it—was a battle.
Dark Victory is the story of Bette Davis’s life as focused through her art. I write more about her films than about, say, her marriages because I care about them a great deal more and because they define her legacy in a way a series of failed husbands cannot. She had four of them, all of whom found her difficult, cantankerous, sniping, rude. Prone to picking fights. Apt to drink too much. So did many of her directors and costars, screenwriters and producers. So did many of her friends. Davis is not an admirable, role-model heroine in Dark Victory except in terms of her thundering talent, which is, I think, what counts. That’s why her victory was dark: with some unquantifiable degree of self-knowledge, she sacrificed her personal life for the sake of her work, and it hurt. She fought people. Belligerence was in her blood. Painting her as a vivifyingly independent woman who battled Hollywood men in the name of Cinema is fair only to the extent that she battled everything she encountered, from Hollywood producers to the tarnished brass doorknobs in her many houses. Only some of it was worth fighting, a fact even she appeared to realize at times. Davis was an angry woman for reasons nobody who knew her ever adequately explained to me and for reasons I still cannot fully understand.
You may grow to hate her. I did not. Because I love her performances—most of them, anyway. Even after three years of researching her life; watching her movies; interviewing people who knew her and worked with her; brooding darkly; thrashing through sporadic fits of writer’s block and bitterly, exasperatedly blaming her for them; and slipping half-consciously and rather morbidly into several of her vices (though I never smoked), I remain entranced by her when she’s onscreen. She had, more than any performer I have ever studied, a blazing ability to imprint herself onto every character she ever played—to make me believe in those fictive characters while never letting me forget that I was watching her, a calculating actress, an intuitive star. Bette Davis forces audiences to notice her as Bette Davis even when she is most deeply immersed in her roles. Always the Yankee, she wants us to appreciate how hard she’s working.
It’s not that she’s unsubtle. Throughout her film career a simple but well-timed intake of breath is enough to take one’s own breath away. The imitators get the drastic parts right in a clownish sort of way, but nobody can mimic her unique sense of restraint: Bette Davis’s face in repose is as dramatic as her broadest gestures. Her most discreet facial expressions are among her most affecting. Think of the wry and knowing look on Margo Channing’s face as Eve Harrington prepares to accept the Sarah Siddons Award in All About Eve; the shy fear in Charlotte Vale’s ugly-duckling eyes in the beginning of Now, Voyager; the set of the jaw Leslie Crosbie effects in The Letter. Davis immobile and silent is as emotionally resonant as Davis in full throat and motion.
It’s a cliché, but the cliché happens to be not only true but historically decisive: they don’t make movie stars like Bette anymore. So it’s difficult to gauge her influence on succeeding generations of actors other than to state the obvious: there would be no Meryl Streep or Charles Busch without Bette Davis. These are flamboyant performers who, like Davis, demand to be recognized and applauded as such, putting on characters and wearing them like the finest couture gowns, their audiences always knowing that at the end of the show the dresses will come off and be placed on hangers while the actors go home. The legacy Davis left to Streep and Busch—and Marlon Brando, for that matter—is this: never let anyone forget or deny that you, the emoting human with the colossal talent, are creating the art. Make them watch you act.
It’s a showy style, but with Davis in particular it brought with it a corollary: if the part required the audience to hate her, then she made them hate her. Many actors claim to enjoy playing villains and thugs, bitches and tramps, but few have ever equaled Davis’s capacity to risk generating an audience’s thoroughgoing contempt, let alone openly invite it. As talented as Meryl Streep is, one gets the sense that, deep down, she wants her characters to be loved a little—and that she herself requires the affection of millions of strangers. Bette Davis didn’t give a goddamn. She dares us to hate her, and we often do. Which is why we love her.
A word of defiant advice to those who hope to grow fond of the people whose biographies they are reading in the same genial way they grow fond of their friends: by the end of this book you may well be disappointed with Bette Davis and angry with me. But Miss Davis taught me something. After all the boozing and the bristling, the struggling to get it right, I have to admit it: I don’t give a good goddamn either.
Copyright © 2007 by Ed Sikov. All rights reserved.