I wish I could have met Bette Davis. Just once in my life. I wouldn't have cared if she hollered at me, blew cigarette smoke in my face, crisply informed me that my apartment was a "dump" or told me to take "Fountain" -- any of it -- I'd take abuse from Ms. Davis just to listen to that voice. And maybe, perhaps more than likely, she would have been nice. She herself said: "I'm the nicest goddamn dame that ever lived." But nice or not, I would have loved to solicit advice from that woman. Bette Davis as life coach. That could work for me. A life coach who states: "Never, never trust anyone who asks for white wine. It means they're phonies."
Yes. Bette. For if there is or was any female figure to whom others should turn to in times of crisis, loneliness and despair, it is Bette Davis. Why? Because Bette Davis is every woman (and some men) wrapped into one: ugly and beautiful, sweet and biting, honest and deceitful, classy and vulgar. There isn't a side of Bette that every woman doesn't see in herself. Her face -- those buggy eyes flickering with homeliness and yet an odd beauty (never forget how uniquely gorgeous Bette was as a young starlet), sadness, insanity, malevolence, rage and finally, strength. And then her bearing -- both instantly recognizable, iconic and, then surprising. The Bette way -- all coiled up and ready to strike (as in Another Man’s Poison) or sloppy and cruelly casual (like in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: “Here’s your lunch” she announces to Joan before promptly serving her a rat) or lovely and wary (as in All This, and Heaven Too) or brassy and swishy (as in Jezebel) or elegantly deceitful (as in The Letter) or nervously mousy turned coolly gorgeous (as in Now, Voyager) or just plain gloriously melodramatic then vulnerable and tough (as in All About Eve) or heart-breakingingly desperate (as in The Star). There are moments when Bette seems almost turned inside out, as if she’s revealing the innards of the female psyche -- which is exactly why she can appear so damn terrifying at times.
But she had her soft moments (watch her opposite Charles Boyer in aforementioned All This, and Heaven Too and you'll see what I mean). In later years Bette recalled, "Christ, I was always bitching about how I hated my face in those days. Compared to what I look like now, I was an absolute living doll!"
She was a doll. God knows she had those famous, buggy-beautiful eyes, silky skin and an ample chest, but Davis, like most women, lived with numerous imperfections. But she didn't harp on these flaws or engage in diva delusions, instead she gleefully, sometimes perversely played up her problem areas. And it sometimes made her all the more attractive. In All About Eve, she's supposed to be an insecure, aging star, yet even when a young Marilyn Monroe walks on (who looks like a peach, even after undoubtedly consuming numerous benzos and splits of champagne), you can't take your eyes off Bette.
And it wasn't just her looks -- it was her style. Everything Bette did -- walking (in minced steps), talking (with exacting enunciation), smoking (in circular jabs) -- she did with a flourish. Like Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and the great Tallulah Bankhead (who really should have made more movies) Bette was her own unforgettable invention, an unconventional glamour-puss, who stands the test of time. Unlike sanctioned beauty, Bette's particular magic is something that never fades.
Neither did Bette's ballsy view of life and relationships, so wonderfully expressed on (and frequently off) the big screen. For instance, what to do when dumped? Go out in a blaze of glory. Though her demise was devastating in Of Human Bondage, she pulled off a stunning, final fuck you to poor Leslie Howard. Bette, who insisted on looking the damaged strumpet against director John Cromwell's wishes was not only one of the first actresses to choose looking this bad on screen but also appeared like some kind of punk rock prototype (young Courtney Love must have studied this scene) or, like Bukowski wrote of Barfly Faye Dunaway, a "distressed goddess."
Sitting in a flophouse, emaciated and dying, but still snarling all ugly/sweaty-hot-sexy in her revealing slip, bleached blonde hair and runny eye makeup -- all it took was a few withering looks to leave Leslie Howard's passive-aggressive club footed doctor with an image to smolder for a lifetime. In a very un-Camille like performance, she seemed to be saying: "Here I am, warts and all. Can't handle it? Your loss. Now go live your boring life with you new boring girlfriend."
And what about giving someone the cold shoulder? Bette showed women how to deal with the delicate situation of the brush off (or tease) by sparing him the psych-speak and exiting with a baffler: As Ms. Davis' Southern belle character drawled in Cabin in the Cotton, "I'd love to kiss you, but I've just washed my hair." (Try this one out). And along these same lines, she also reveled in showing that not all women want marriage and babies.
In Beyond the Forest (a movie she didn't want to make but was brilliant in nonetheless), Davis' character is married to Joseph Cotten -- not a bad catch by any stretch. But she grows bored and becomes critical of what marital bliss and good living are supposed to be ("What a dump" she bitches about their house). Though cast as an evildoer in the film, I've always felt sympathy for her Rosa Moline --- she was limited, in love with another and then, dear God, pregnant. So how to remedy this situation? She hauled herself off the side of a mountain, pregnant belly in tow. Sure, it wasn't the nicest, safest move (and it certainly wasn't as glamorous as Gene Tierney’s tumble down the stairs in Leave Her to Heaven), but perhaps through the dictates of the Production Code, this was the only way she could not have that baby. And she wanted to move to Chicago -- high-tail it out of that stifling, small town where everyone talked shit about her. And... yeah, yeah, yeah... she was having an affair with David Brian (who ditches her), and she's dangerous with firearms. I don't care. I feel for Rosa Moline. "If I don't get out of here I'll die. If I don't get out of here I hope I die and burn."
Feisty. That's the, dreaded, overused word. And yet, as much as women and men say they love the "feisty" ladies, it often simply comes down to the bitch. That other overused word. What a bitch. Bette would say bullshit to all that and then proceed to call Joan Crawford something like a bitch or, rather, just state flatly: "I wouldn't piss on her if she was on fire." I prefer the word Bette herself used -- guts. "No guts, no glory." Like other women with guts, she made a man's head spin: Is she a bitch? Or an assertive fox? This is the continuous (and exciting) inward query (and you know hubby Gary Merrill got all hot and bothered by that alluring combo). Well, she's both. She's human. Like a lot of strong women, she probably suffered a Napoleon complex, but we love that in men (Pacino, De Niro). We get a thrill watching Joe Pesci shove a pen in a man's eye. But Bette? That would scare the shit out of us. Just imagine what Bette could do to an attacker -- the carnage a maniacal Bette would leave defending herself -- all that flying fur, red scratching fingernails and a lit cigarette to the face. I can’t see Bette Davis successfully getting mugged.
And I imagine that if Miss Davis couldn't win a physical fight, she could reign victorious via a verbal arsenal of movie lines that were nearly as lethal or often, just witheringly honest. No, she didn't write them, but it sure sounded like she did. Take, for instance:
Marked Woman: "I'll get even if I have to crawl back from the grave."
It's Love I'm After: "You're going to have love for breakfast, love for luncheon and love for dinner. Sweet, sugary, sticky worship. You're going to have a steady diet of it till you're ready to scream, you billy goat!"
Jezebel: "I'll make him live, I will. Whatever you might do, I can do more, 'cause I know how to fight better than you."
Old Acquaintance: "It's late, and I'm very, very tired of youth and love and self-sacrifice."
All About Eve: "Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn't worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be."
And the more subtle diamond dagger from The Little Foxes: "I don't ask for things I don't think I can get."
But she wasn't just tough, she was honest. Think of this, from the endlessly quotable All About Eve. It could be Davis herself discussing her own name and stardom: "And what is that, besides something spelled out in light bulbs, I mean - besides something called a temperament, which consists mostly of swooping about on a broomstick and screaming at the top of my voice? Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave - they'd get drunk if they knew how - when they can't have what they want, when they feel unwanted or insecure or unloved."
Oh, Bette. She didn't act the diva, she was the diva. But strangely down to earth too. She hated airs, which contributed to her dislike towards Joan Crawford (that, and something to do with Franchot Tone, and don't get me wrong, as proven in many essays written here, I revere Joan. I do not pit them against each other). It was also one of the reasons she slammed poor co-star Celeste Holm from All About Eve -- bemoaning perky Holm's on set salutations, Bette snarled something like, "Ugh! Manners." As artificial as her carefully constructed lips were (that line!), Davis detested fakes, and forced, silly sentiments, things that would, as Bette said, “provoke anyone of sensibility to nausea.” This attitude helped make her so wonderfully, lovably real and stable against a fantastically fake and annoying-verging-on-nervous-breakdown Miriam Hopkins (whom she loathed in real life) in one of my favorites, Old Acquaintance. She wasn't always a bitch. Of her legendary All About Eve character Margo, Bette stated: "Margo Channing was not a bitch. She was an actress who was getting older and was not too happy about it. And why should she? Anyone who says that life begins at forty is full of it. As people get older their bodies begin to decay. They get sick. They forget things. What's good about that?"
So with that hatred of the passing of time, here's to those dreaded birthdays Bette Davis. Like you ask/tell that Oscar statuette you placed on the dashboard during your dipsomaniacal drive through Hollywood in The Star, I'd love to have been able to ask, just once: "Come on Bette, let's you and me get drunk."