Bette Davis on April 5, 1941, the occasion of her 33rd birthday.
Many of you (or at least some) may have noticed I don't really do tributes here at Cinema Styles. When it's someone's birthday or an important figure in film history dies Cinema Styles usually comes up empty. Come looking for a birthday remembrance or an obituary and you'll likely wander into a barren landscape of curiously absent posts on the subject. It's certainly not because I don't have immense respect for artists like Jules Dassin or Richard Widmark, the two most recent important film figures to leave us. It's because, more often than not, I feel inadequate to the task. Except for some very specific figures I never feel that I'm a big enough fan or historian of the given artist's career to do them the proper justice. Along with this comes the knowledge that many very good writers will be giving their impressions and saying far more, and more eloquently, than I ever could. Having read some of the tributes to Richard Widmark I knew it was best that I stay out of it. There was nothing for me to say that so many others hadn't already said, and said so well. Add on to that the fact that when I hear of someone's death it's usually halfway through the day, I've got projects due at work and a family I want to share my time with at home and the last thing I want to do is slap together an insincere rush job.
But birthdays are a little different. At least with those, you know they're coming. You can prepare something with a little more care than an obituary (unless you're a major media outlet that prepares obits in advance). Still, I don't really do birthdays either. I did one, once, for Alfred Hitchcock and I enjoyed it (it was a sampling of Hitchcock's superlatives such as Best Location, Best Chase, etc.) but I haven't done one since.
And I'm having the same problem. Bette Davis turns 100 years old today and she is, in my opinion, a figure in film history that cannot be ignored. When she hits a milestone like 100 (even if obviously she's not here to celebrate it with us) it has to be acknowledged. But I know that the other cinephiles out there will have much more to say about her than I do. With a figure like Davis it's difficult because so many of the stories about her, like storming off the set of The Letter only to return shortly thereafter out of respect for William Wyler, are already so well known. What can one say other than give personal remembrances? And my personal remembrances are not unique. Like so many others I was amazed at an early age by how utterly unappealing she was willing to make herself look on the screen, time and time again, if it fit the character. When I listen to people talk with reverential awe about Robert de Niro gaining weight to play Jake LaMotta or Charlize Theron uglying herself up to play Aileen Wuornos I think (with all due respect to DeNiro and Theron), "Davis did that every other movie."
Like others I found her personal appearances to be a mixture of fascination and hilarity. I remember watching her on David Letterman in the eighties (tried to find it online but couldn't) and she mentioned how difficult Faye Dunaway was to work with and Letterman said, "Well we've got a little surprise for you Bette. Faye, come on out here." Bette immediately tensed up and her eyes bulged. Letterman then said, "I was just joking, she's not really here" and Bette replied (I'm doing this all from memory so it's not exact), "I know that David, I'm not an idiot!" The audience burst into laughter and applause. It was clear she had been fooled by Letterman but something about her steadfast refusal to admit it, and admonish him at the same time, made her seem like a giant. Odd, because with anyone else that would probably make them appear smaller.
Then there was the 59th Annual Oscars Ceremony which I only remember because of Bette going on about Robert Wise, who was accepting the Best Actor Oscar for Paul Newman. That one is online here if you'd like to watch it. All Wise wanted to do was say "thanks" for Newman and exit the stage but Davis was going to make sure she sung his praises first. She's old and very fragile in appearance but someway, somehow she's the strongest and boldest person in the building. Again she stands her ground and again the audience loves it. There's something satisfying about watching someone who has no illusions about their dominance, but not in a bad way. Not at the expense or pain of others. Just knowing they're strong and not shying away from that fact.
But strength is often misconstrued with something else. More than once Bette was called "bitchy," "difficult," or just a plain old "pain in the ass." But for every story about an on set incident there are two or three stories about graciousness the give lie to the reputation. As I said when I started this post others say things better than I do when it comes to tributes so I think it best to let Olivia DeHavilland have the last word here.
In a TCM Documentary I watched last year on Errol Flynn, De Havilland was talking about making The Private Lives of Elizabeth of Essex. Anyone who knows Davis knows the stories of how she couldn't stand working with Errol Flynn on the film. She thought he had a lazy approach to acting and did not find the shoot rewarding. Years later, at a birthday party for Davis in which her friend Olivia De Havilland was attending, Davis decided that they should all watch Elizabeth of Essex. De Havilland thought it was an odd choice and was worried that things would be awkward afterwards if someone mentioned Flynn's performance. They all sat and watched the movie and enjoyed it. As the movie finished and De Havilland started to worry about what might happen, Davis stood up and announced loudly, "Damn he was good! I was wrong, he was brilliant!"
Happy Birthday to Bette Davis, 100 years old today.