Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bette Davis: A Basically Benevolent Volcano (Documentary, 1983)

Good morning!

I've been watching the best documentary on Bette Davis, and the whole thing's on Youtube, what's more! Produced by the BBC in 1983, the program gets its title and one of its best quotes from Davis co-star and personal friend, Olivia de Havilland, who says to the camera, "Bette Davis is a basically...benevolent...volcano. In constant eruption." What a zinger!

I love this almost early SNL looking title card from the beginning of the doc.

Still as sharp as a tack at 73 (and looking strangely unchanged but for age from that exclamation point eyed ingenue she was at 23 in Cabin in the Cotton; compare below),  Bette Davis sat down with the documentary makers to comment on highs and lows in her life and career on film. The Bette in this documentary is a lot like the Bette in her autobiography, Mother Goddam (no joke! Named after the Chinese madam played by Ona Munson in movie version of The Shanghai Gesture)...which is not always the case. Compare the Ava in Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations to the Ava in her self-title memoir, and you have a lynx in one and a tabby cat in the other. One thing I love about the sixties', seventies', and eighties' for old film stars? After the studio system broke down and publicity agents weren't around to groom and coax the career of a film star, you started to see "the real deal" of some of the screen brightest personalities. 

I'm givin' a party, too. A big one! Saturday night. I got a jazz band comin' up from Memphis! I want you to come...and be my boyfriend!...I'd like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair. Bye! - Cabin in the Cotton, 1932
I really AM too much. My enthusiasm is exhausting. - Bette Davis, 1983
Twelve years prior to this interview, Davis showed up on Dick Cavett in a black fur cape, sunglasses, black patent knee boots and beret, looking like a million bucks, telling it like it was about her home studio, Warner Brothers, and what it was like to be an actress rather than a glamazon in the classic age of Hollywood cinema. It's seeing the outsize personality behind the outsized on-screen persona that makes me glad we live in an age where I can pull these videos up at a keystroke! Bette Davis, in these interviews, always seems so less on-guard than other celebrities of her stature and era-- while my beloved Joan Crawford is ultra guarded though gracious (unless she's,um, drunk...), and Olivia de Havilland (in this and other interview sessions) looks like she's playing a colonial British, Deborah Kerr role offscreen, Bette is as tough, outspoken, and crackingly funny as you'd expect her to be, and more!

Go get it, Bette! You go and get it!
Bette Davis was my first big classic Hollywood celebrity crush. Oh! How I pored over books on her life and career, under a large poster of her smoking in this Hurrell shot that hung in my high school bedroom. I like my movie stars as movie. STARS., not just actors but personalities. If there's not a decent drag queen following of whatever forties' film star, then by Godfrey, they weren't doing it right. While method actors of the fifties' would push for realism and total immersion into characters on screen, what I like about old Hollywood is how you can really see people "acting". It's so stylized! It's an imitable inimitableness! Bette Davis never looked like she wasn't acting, but I think this chewing-through-the-scenery ferocity was part of how she made as big a name for herself as she did in her heyday. Davis herself on figurative versus realistic acting:
I think that one should know one is acting. I think we can sit on the street corner and see the real people. A terrible thing has happened today, it's all getting so real. Very little makeup, no hair, nothing-- and I always believed that acting is larger than life.

Ha! "We can sit on a street corner and see real people." How true! And how that encapsulates a lot of what I like about old movies-- they're not realistically instructional in how to conduct a love affair, how to smoke a cigarette, how to wear an Adrian evening gown-- they're part of an aspirational fantasy between viewer and viewed. "Maybe no shop girl in the world would wear a $4,000 set of furs to dinner at the Ritz with Ronald Colman...but if they did! And if it was me!"

Davis and an impossibly young Ronald Reagan
 in one of her best tear jerkers,
Dark Victory (1939)
I was noticing, while they ran through clip after clip of classic onscreen Davis, how memorable some of her lines from some of her movies are. My favorite, included in the doc, probably being from the 1940 film adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Letter. The play and movie both open with a literal bang, as Bette Davis stridently crosses the Malyasian rubber plant plantation's front steps and shoots an offscreen person something like six times, her face wrath itself. Later, as her character stands trial for the man's murder, her husband Herbert Marshall pleads with Davis to reassure him of her love. She capitulates, briefly, before breaking from his embrace with a thunderous, "I caaaan't, I caaaan't....with all my heart, I still love the man I killed!" Ugh! I get little chills thinking about it right now!

Gorgeous direction with William Wyler (with whom she also did The Little Foxes and Jezebel) at the helm... they almost married! (source)
The documentary also features the clip from In This Our Life, an improbable enough soap opera of two sisters directed by man's-man-director John Huston. Bette Davis's character, Stanley, is the selfish, flouncy, vain type to Olivia de Havilland's Roy, the steady, kind, and unassuming sister (both have boy's names for some explained reason like their father expected sons, or something similarly cutesy). When Stanley's involved in a hit-and-run accident and is in danger of being implicated for the crime (though she's already schemed to have the kind, going-places son of domestic Hattie McDaniel take the fall for her), she runs to character actor Charles Coburn, hoping to play on the old man's avuncular affection. Those "Bette Davis Eyes" are in full effect as she pleads for pity and sanctuary in the old man's house, then turns a hundred and eighty degrees as she realizes she won't get it. The change in demeanor is physical, and that one scene defines an otherwise run-of-the-mill melodrama into something grazing high art (or camp, depending on how callous you view 1940's movies, but I say art!).

Geraldine Fitzgerald, Anne Baxter, and other costars round out the interviewed subjects, and couldn't be more vivid nor kind in their reminisces of Davis on and off screen. Probably the best anecdote comes from Fitzgerald, who costarred in the four-handkerchief drama Dark Victory. In Davis's grand exit at the end of the movie, as she plays a high spirited heiress whose life is cut short by a brain tumor, she blindly ascends a staircase in the weepiest part of a true weeper of a movie. While shooting the scene, Davis casually asks "Is [schmaltzy, though beloved-of-me studio composer] Max Steiner going to score this?" knowing she hated "having her big scenes under scored", as Fitzgerald recounts. As the producer lies a tiny bit and answers in the negative re: Steiner's involvement, Davis makes her reply: "Well, I'll tell you one thing, either Max Steiner's going up those stairs, or I'm going up those stairs, but we're goddamn well not going up together." She lost out in post production, as the scene was scored by Steiner, but what a line. See the clip here.

It's a great documentary! I highly recommend it (see the whole thing in pieces on Youtube), as well as the Bette Davis films mentioned here. One thing you're NOT in for, watching Miss Davis's career through the thirties' and forties', is a dull film!

So! What's your story? Is there a particular old Hollywood star that resonates with you on a personal level? If you had to pick a handful of actors who you'd watch in A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G, who would they be? Are you a Davis fan? Let's talk!

That's all for today, but I'll see you back here tomorrow. Have a great Tuesday! Til then.


  1. Okay so, I read this post yesterday and ended up watching the whole documentary. What a fantastic look at her! And seriously, you can FEEL how much the filmmaker adores her -- he lingers over her most impressive clips with such love.

    Also, this is only distantly related, but I always thought Susan Sarandon looks like Bette Davis' long lost daughter. Which is a big plus for her. ;)

    1. Oh, I'm so glad you liked it! That and the Dick Cavett interview were the highlight of my lunch hour yesterday, I so enjoyed spending some offscreen time with Miss Davis! Isn't she so approachable? I thought it would be quite the opposite. And what a great laugh!

      The last photo from Life I put on this post looks EXACTLY like Susan Sarandon. They're very alike! I googled to see if anyone had done a side by side comparison of SS and BD, and look, master makeup artist Kevin Aucoin did for his book "Making Faces". Those big eyes and dainty features!! Take a look at iton this blog, he used a still from "Of Human Bondage" for inspiration, and it's VERY close!

  2. Love Bette Davis films--great recommendations in this post.

    1. I go through phases of remembering how very much I like her movies! Esp. the ones with Claude Rains.

  3. I am a HUGE Bette Davis fan! I was able to catch the Cavett interview a couple months ago on TCM, wow when she walks out in that fur coat and hat, what a movie star!! Loved her in that interview, she was so funny and seemed very down to earth. Heartbreaking hearing her rave about her daughter though, knowing that same daughter was going to stab her in the back writing a book. That was really sad.

    Actors I would watch in anything? Bette, Joan Crawford, Gene Tierney, Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone, Doris Day, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart...OK, I better stop now!

    Going to check out the documentary now, thanks!



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