Remembering the Film Legacy of Bette Davis Part Three
By: Ellis Nassour
Trailblazing actress Bette Davis was often dubbed the "Fifth Warner Brother" for her confrontational, take-charge approach not only with studio head Jack Warner but with the countless directors she worked with – or, as he might prefer to put it: worked for her.
Her career was built on "my ability to act. I never could stand my face. Really. I had no more sex appeal than Slim Summerville.* The work is it. It’s what sustains you. It’s the one thing that stands by you." Years later, on The Tonight Show, she told Johnny Carson [whom she had a longtime crush on]: "Now, I see some of my films, and I don’t there’s any question: I was the best looking woman who ever lived!" There were howls from the audience.
[* He was a tall, gangly comic and director who segued from silents to films of the late 30s, including the war drama All Quiet on the Western Front].
Indeed, Bette Davis, was the rare type of gal who didn’t need a lot of gunk on her face and who didn’t have to put on the ritz to keep audiences glued to their seats. Where Tinseltown’s glamour girls feared to tread, BD was more than willing to step in.
After two Oscar wins, and 18 years at Warner Bros., BD was released from her contract. Robert Aldrich and, surprisingly, Joan Crawford, approached her to co-star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Davis had played monsters before – her unforgettable Mildred in Of Human Bondage; that edge-of-the-seat moment in The Little Foxes, when, as Regina, she gives that steely look at Horace, played by Herbert Marshall, when he knocks over his heart medicine and pleads for her to get another bottle – and she sits, motionless, glaring at him, then gets up, walks up the stairs, and lets him die – but this would be the grand guignol kind.
The film premiered October 26, 1962, and was released on Halloween. It not only led to the stars’ being discovered by a new generation, and new career dimensions for both, but also became one of the year’s biggest blockbusters – eventually reaping a windfall of royalties for the stars.
BD received her 11th Oscar nomination. Again, it was a tough category: Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker; Katharine Hepburn, Long Day’s Journey into Night; Geraldine Page, Sweet Bird of Youth; and Lee Remick, Days of Wine and Roses.
Davis desperately hoped for a third Oscar, as she would have been the first to achieve that number. Bancroft won. In a revengeful scheme [since she felt she should have been nominated for Baby Jane, too], Crawford had contacted Bancroft, Page, and Remick to ask, should they win, if she could have the honor of accepting on their behalf. Bancroft was unable to attend; and a glitteringly- gowned and jeweled Joan Crawford rushed the stage to accept – clutching the Oscar as if she’d won.
"Joan really didn’t want me to win," Davis told Barbara Walters. "I felt badly. I thought I should have had it, in all due modesty. And the foolish part was, since we were participating in the profits from the film, we would have made another million! She cut her own throat."
[Trivia: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is having a new life: onstage. There’s been a version presented in the U.K. that’s said to be destined for Broadway.]
Regarding the years-long feud between Davis and rival Joan Crawford, it wasn’t easy to get BD to speak of JC, but when she did she was quite blunt – once stating that "I wouldn’t p–s on her if she was on fire." Another time, she recalled that "the best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Baby Jane?"
When Crawford died [in 1977], I had occasion to be working with Davis at her home in Weston, CT. She was literally in her cups – drinking Bell’s Scotch out of a tea cup. She made sympathetic comments about JC’s long-fight with cancer and that, indeed, she had been a screen legend. At one point, she surmised, "She was used to appearing as a beautiful person and her vanity got in the way. It was hard for her. She wanted to be glamorous. In one scene, she wanted to wear nail polish and [director] Robert [Aldrich said no. She replied, ‘You’re taking everything away from me. I won’t let you take this away. ‘ I always felt her greatest performance was Crawford being Crawford."
Even later, when reporters asked BD her opinion of JC, the old bitterness returned. She told one, "My mother told me never to speak badly of the dead. She’s dead….Good." Maybe it was the booze talking.
Davis always trod a rocky road. Shooting Hallmark Hall of Fame’s 1976 TV movie, The Disappearance of Aimee, about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, BD and co-star Faye Dunaway clashed. Davis claimed she was "impossible and tempermental" [talk about the pot calling the kettle black!]. She cited such "unprofessional conduct" as Dunaway being consistently late, not to mention drunk and high, and agonizing over make-up, costumes, and hair.
Davis gave an example. "We were in this temple in Denver. There were 5,000 extras, but Miss Dunaway hadn’t appeared. It was exasperating. I was getting upset. The crowd was getting upset. I thought I better do something. I told the audience, ‘I’ll entertain you for a while.’ I sang ‘I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy’ [from Baby Jane], which helped a little."
Oscar-nominated director Anthony Harvey [The Lion in Winter, Dr. Strangelove …] took the high ground and simply stated, "Bette absolutely took a dislike to Faye."
Gossip maven Michael Musto [in 2010] wrote: "The two clashed harder than Alien and Predator. It was almost as if Faye was instinctively channeling Joan’s persona and giving Bette an old-time fight, but with higher cheekbones. But she was outclassed. A male co-star told me, ‘Faye Dunaway needs a step ladder to sniff Bette Davis’s ass.’"
In 1983, after filming the pilot episode for Aaron Spelling’s TV series Hotel, which starred James Brolin with Eve co-star Anne Baxter in a featured role, Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Within two weeks of her surgery she suffered four strokes which caused paralysis in the left side of her face and in her left arm, and left her with slurred speech. Then, in a fall, she broke her hip. he commenced a lengthy period of physical therapy and, aided by her beloved personal assistant, Kathryn Sermak. However, after two months, BD regained partial movement.
[Trivia: Alec Baldwin, Peggy Cass, Maxwell Caulfield, George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Peter Frechette, Boyd Gaines, Jack Gilford, Bernard Hughes, Carol Lawrence, Lawrence Luckinbill, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tony Roberts, Leslie Uggams, and Gwen Verdon were among the numerous stars who had Love Boat-type cameos in the series.]
It was during this period that the relationship between Davis and daughter B.D. Hyman, whom she called "the love of my life," began to shatter. Hyman, a born-again Christian, attempted to convince her mother "to mend her evil ways," stop drinking and smoking and follow suit. Davis passed.
Her health somewhat stabilized, BD flew to the U.K. to shoot the Agatha Christie mystery Murder with Mirrors (1985). Upon her return, she received news of what she called "the greatest betrayal of my life": news leaked that B.D. had written a tell-all, My Mother’s Keeper, which depicted Davis as a "difficult mother" who was "overbearing and with drunken behavior."
When Mommie Dearest was published, Davis boasted, "My daughter would never write such a book about me." And at that point she hadn’t read some of the more damning and damaging passages. Davis didn’t help her image much when she stated to reporters, "If you’ve never been hated by your child, you’ve never been a parent."
Many peers and friends explained B.D.’s portrayal was far from accurate. Not that Davis, like Crawford, could win the Mother of the Year contest. The book, never achieved the blockbuster status of Christina Crawford memoir, but was a best-seller.
Mike Wallace, who was a Davis acquaintance, went so far as to rebroadcast a 60 Minutes interview Hyman where she complimented her mother’s skills; even going so far as to state, "I’ve adopted many of mother’s principles in raising my own children."
In her memoir, This ‘N That (1987; written with Michael Herskowitz), Davis concluded the book with a letter to B.D.: "Hyman, the sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given." She concluded, referring to the title: "If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I’ve been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success."
Reports defending Davis stated that the star had financially supported the Hyman family for years – even stepping in to save them from foreclosure. Despite the acrimony of their divorce, BD’s last husband and Eve co-star, Gary Merrill, defended his ex, telling CNN, "B.D. is only motivated by cruelty and greed." Their adopted son, Michael, ended contact with B.D.
Davis disinherited B.D. She wrote, "I am still recovering from the fact that a child of mine would write about me behind my back … I will never recover as completely from B.D.’s book as I have from my stokes. Both were shattering experiences."