Remembering the Film Legacy of Bette Davis Part Four
By Ellis Nassour
Film buffs from around the world celebrated the stellar film legacy of two-time Oscar winner and Kennedy Center Honoree Bette on April 5, on what would have been her 106th birthday, with movie network screenings, documentaries, and tributes. Davis would have loved all attention. Her mother once was quoted, "Bette demanded attention from birth, and found ways to get it."
Though she would never admit it, throughout her career Davis was four handfuls – arrogant and with a know-it-all superior attitude. She actually did know more than most, but it was how she broadcast that she did. She wasn’t easy to direct. Many tried to tame her hand gestures, her over-the-top style. They failed.
For someone who always thought of herself as the ultimate professional, she proved to be bitterly disappointing.
Take the relationship with director Irving Rapper, who bonded with Davis and counseled her on directors. He also played referee on the set of Elizabeth and Essex, as BD found problems with Errol Flynn and fought with director Michael Curtiz.
Warner had purchased the rights to Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager, based on the third book in her five-part saga of the Vales, a high-class Boston family. Rapper informed Davis about the upheaval over who’d play Charlotte in this planned high-end film, an adult love triangle with psychological aspects that was way ahead of its time. While it was being carefully crafted to meet the Hollywood Code, there was indecision on whether Irene Dunne, Norma Shearer, and Ginger Rogers would win the role of repressed, over-weight spinster Charlotte Vale. BD settled that quickly. She demanded JW cast her and that Rapper, who had only three directorial credits, should direct. Warner had his doubts, but was happy to turn "the Davis problem" over to Rapper.
Vale, dominated by her wealthy mother (a memorable performance by Gladys Cooper, who was Oscar-nominated), meets psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith [Claude Rains], who treats her to the effect that she segues into a fiercely independent, sophisticated, and confident beauty with all its torment. In Rio, she begins an affair with married architect Jerry Durrance [the suave Paul Henried, hand-picked and championed by Rapper]. Months later, Charlotte returns, and goes up against her mother, who has a heart attack and dies. Charlotte, racked with guilt, returns to Jaquith, where she meets and befriends Jerry’s daughter and takes her in when she’s rejected by her mother. All this and in only 117 minutes!
Now, Voyager had a very professional and attentive director. When Davis fought to have Max Steiner’s stunning score, one of the film’s highlights, removed because she found it too intrusive to her performance, Rapper wouldn’t budge. The richly-romantic score by one of the greatest of film music composers not only became immensely popular, but won Steiner an Oscar. The central theme was adapted into a hit song, "It Can’t Be Wrong," with lyrics by Kim Gannon.
BD often spoke ill of Rapper, even intimating numerous times and loudly that she literally rewrote the film and directed herself.
[Henreid, a polite, low-key gentleman, also proved ungrateful to the director who gave him the role that launched him to stardom and a leading role in Casablanca. He claimed the famous moment when he lights two cigarettes and passes one to her was his idea, not Rapper’s. But Rapper never took credit for it, just remembered seeing a similar type moment 10 years earlier in a B-Picture and in a silent. The director called him on it, which embarrassed Henreid greatly.]
Now, Voyager was one of BD’s lushest films, and contained finale dialogue that’s been quoted through the decades. When Durrance comes for a vist and hints of a life with his daughter and Charlotte, she says, "Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars." It became the biggest box office hit of Davis’ career up to Baby Jane. Amazingly, it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but did net Davis an Oscar nomination.
And Davis despised Rapper so much, she went on to work with him on four more pictures.
However, trouble reared its head on Deception (1946), a remake of an early Jeanne Eagels talkie. It’s the convoluted drama about a music teacher, her cellist fiancé whom she believes is killed in combat but who returns. After they are married, the couple is menaced by the egotistical and flamboyant composer she’d dated and who can’t give her up.
Davis [reunited her with Voyager co-stars Rains and Henreid] complained Rains, as the composer, was over the top and needed to be tapped down. Rapper didn’t agree. BD threw one of her famous curve balls. She went to Jack Warner behind Rapper’s back and demanded script changes. [So much for the fact that she considered Rains a close friend!] Rains did everything but eat the costumes and scenery and stole the picture. However, in the new version, she shoots him. Rapper believed that weakened the film.
With the release of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Davis began a new stage of her career. She worked steadily, but not always in the type of pictures she had fought so viciously for at Warner. However, BD was now fast approaching her 60s.
There were studio and indie features, such as the Italian/American co-production, The Empty Canvas, a drama of sexual obsession shot in Rome; opposite Susan Hayward and Joey Heatherton in the lurid Where Love Has Gone, a fictional rehashing of the headline-grabbing murder of her mother’s sometime gangster lover Johnny Stompanato by Cheryl Crane, daughter of Lana Turner; her very last picture for WB, the twin sister thriller Dead Ringer; Bunny O’Hare, with Davis as a penniless widow learning the crime trade and riding cycles with Ernest Borgine; White Mama, about a elderly white woman living in a black ghetto tenement;and the hugely successful all-star Death on the Nile, from an Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot novel. In between, she had notable TVguest-starring roles on series and several quality TV movies.
But just ahead was the big game change brought by Baby Jane : the "scream films"- Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which originally got underway with Joan Crawford as co-star [however, Davis proved to be heavy-handed again and JC withdrew to be replaced by Olivia de Havilland]; and such pulp programmers as Scream, Pretty Peggy and Burnt Offerings.
Bette Davis, cancer-stricken and after her mastectomy and stroke, was determined to keep working.
Still chain smoking and drinking, she was cast in the Lindsay Anderson drama, The Whales of August (1987), based on a play by David Berry, opposite screen legend Lillian Gish, 93, once dubbed "The First Lady of American Cinema," as widowed sisters near the end of their lives, spending a summer on the Maine seashore, who recall circumstances that ruptured their relationship.
Davis, portraying the more infirmed, and showing it, and bitterest of the two was beyond rude off and on set to Miss Gish, who was quite deaf. Visitors to the location, many champions of Davis, were appalled by her behavior.
Once, when Anderson lavished praise on Miss Gish following a close-up. Davis groused, "Of course, it’s a good close-up. The bitch invented the close-up!" Not quite as deaf as everyone believed, Miss Gish, tenderly took BD’s hand, and said, "Dear, that is the truth!" Once accused of whispering her lines so Miss Gish would miss her cues, Davis yelled, "That’s a lie. She couldn’t have heard the cues if I’d shouted them through a bullhorn."
A woman of immense kindness and patience, Miss Gish let such incidents roll off her back, even making excuses for Davis, such as blaming tantrums on her failing health.
However, to allow Davis her defense, on the 1988 Tonight Show, she told Carson that she and Miss Gish, whom she’d never met, "had a perfectly pleasant time [making The Whales of August]. She was a lovely person. Definitely." The audience laughed, and BD reprimanded, "I don’t know why you’re laughing. I am being sincere. I have no hidden meaning at all. She’s a delightful, delightful person."
Davis, not knowing that Anderson, the no-nonsense Indian-born, British film critic and documentary director, and Crawford had been friends, once went into a tirade about JC. According to witnesses, Anderson slammed a fist on a table and castigated her, stating, "Miss Crawford was a friend and I won’t listen to anymore of this!" Not to be outdone, Davis, raising her voice, stated "Just because a person’s dead, doesn’t mean they’ve changed!"
You might think Davis and Miss Gish would have been Oscar-nominated, but the honor went to co-star Ann Southern, who came out of retirement to play a friend of the sisters. Davis’ longtime friend Vincent Price was also featured.
In 1988, on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, he asked a very fragile, skin-and-bones BD who was "one of the worst people you know in Hollywood, that you wouldn’t want to work with again." Not mentioning a couple of the obvious names, the ever-feisty Davis blurted, "One million dollars, Fay Dunaway! Everybody you can put in this chair will tell you exactly the same thing. She’s totally impossible. I don’t think we have the time to go into all the reasons. She’s just totally uncooperative. Miss Dunaway is for Miss Dunaway."
The very brave Carson said, "Well, you’ve had a reputation for being tough."
"No," replied Davis, haughtily, "I never had a reputation for behaving in an unprofessional manner. Ever." Ever?
[You may wish to reference Part Three, if you missed the making of The Disappearance of Aimee.]
[Trivia: Carson, obviously was fond of Davis. He not only had her on numerous times for multiple segments, but literally allowed her to run roughshod over the proceedings. More often than not, he played straight man. And BD never disappointed. She was never afraid to say anything about anyone. Visit YouTube, to revisit some appearances.]
Bette Davis’ last onscreen appearance, Wicked Stepmother (1989), is painful to watch. At least for Davis fans. She has shrunk drastically in weight and the depth of her illness is quite visible. Though BD is given top billing, she’s only in the film a matter of 12 minutes.
Yes, there was a revolt with the writer/director, veteran TV writer/producer Larry Cohen. BD was so disgusted with her part [you wonder what she thought the film was going to be], she demanded a rewrite. Cohen refused. Feigning a medical emergency, BD left to be hospitalized, never to return. She was axed. Cohen’s rewrite inanely attempted to explain her absence – with Davis, evidently now her cat, morphing into Barbara Carrera.
[Trivia: A female impersonator had to dub some of Davis’ lines. Also, if you look closely, Davis, evil till the end, pulls her last joke on Crawford. As a character tells how much she misses her deceased mother, we see her in a frame. It’s Joan Crawford.]
Bette Davis was the first woman president, albeit briefly, of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences [the Oscars]; and the first female honored with the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
[Trivia: Davis, told by peers and friends she deserved to be honored, when the AFI sent a form asking for honoree recommendations, she recommended herself.]
She ranks Number 2 on AFI’s Greatest Screen Legends actress list and is on AFI’ s 100 Years of the Greatest Heroes and Villains list [Regina Giddens, The Little Foxes and Baby Jane Hudson, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?]. Now, in her honor, there’s the Bette Davis Foundation, which annually bestows a Medal of Honor and Lifetime Achievement honors to notable actresses; and scholarship grants to young artists to Boston University School for the Arts.
Davis was nominated for four Emmy Awards, winning in 1979 as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Special for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter.
Of course, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Late in life, BD was saluted and feted on the 10th Kennedy Center Honors. She was heartwarmingly saluted by Angela Lansbury, who cited Davis as her inspiration "from the moment I saw her as Mildred in Of Human Bondage."
Miss Lansbury said, "In the New England of her childhood, a fortune teller told her, ‘One day your name will be world famous.’ Bette smiled and replied, ‘I know.’" She noted Davis’ famous quote about her arrival in Los Angeles, "I was a mousey 22-year-old with nobby knees and a pelvic slouch." That didn’t faze BD. She persisted.
"Hollywood was a factory town that knew what it wanted," said Miss Lansbury, "carbon copies. They tried to turn her into one, too. But she fought two years for a role other actresses feared. She unleashed her raw power. She said, ‘I did something no actress would think of. I dared not to be loved.’"
That unleashed power is evident when Davis screams at Leslie Howard, calling him "You gimpy-legged monster. You’re a cripple, a cripple, a cripple!" is one of the rawest and most memorable scenes in movie history: "You cad, you dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once … You bored me stiff. I hated you. It made me sick when I had to let you kiss me. I only did it because you begged me. You hounded me and drove me crazy. kissed you because you hounded me. And after you kissed me, I used to wash my mouth. Wash my mouth!"
This sequence alone is evidence of why Davis was considered for the role of Martha in the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Miss Lansbury spoke of what a trouper BD was during the filming in Egypt of Death on the Nile, "where we shared a dressing room, but what a dressing room it was, a tiny, two-bunk cabin on an old rusty, creaky river steamer, Bette, Maggie Smith, Mia Farrow, the wardrobe lady, and I. Two of us had to lie on the bunks while the other was being dressed by wardrobe. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a slight look of impatience on Bette’s face. I thought, ‘Is she going to raise hell? This is going to be death on the Nile?’ Not a bit of it. Her consummate professionalism came to the fore, and her wry sense of humor. She poured her patience and indomitable and towering talent into the role."
In conclusion, she added, "Bette Davis is an original. There’s never been anyone before or since who can touch her! … With sheer galvanic force, she willed a universe of characters into being. She’s an artist who never gave less than everything."
At her CT home, when Davis took me into the small den where she had the embroidered pillow with "Old age is not for sissies" stitched on it, her Oscars, Emmy, Cannes Best Actress [All About Eve] and BAFTA awards , film festival citations, all manner of bronze and acrylic tributes from around the world, and her bejeweled Legion of Honor from France placed in a bay window, Davis said, "This is the shrine to my blood, sweat, and tears."
The U.S. Postal Service issued a Bette Davis stamp on the 100th anniversary of her birth. In a bow to political correctness, her ever-present cigarette was airbrushed out of her hand. Regarding her smoking habit, she once said, "I enjoy it. It’s never done me any harm. It would be difficult to give it up."
Bette Davis died of breast cancer October 1989.
On her tombstone at Forest Lawn, it’s inscribed "She did it the hard way."