Bette Davis defines Oscar. After all, wasn't it the divine Ms. Davis who coined the Academy's golden boy as "Oscar?" The story goes that the little man's rear-end reminded the actress of her then-husband, Oscar, and clever Bette anointed it so. Whether or not this story is true (and it's more than likely, not) it doesn't matter to me. Bette named the Oscar. Fact. No need to check. Print the legend. As Werner Herzog would say, it's ecstatically true. She was also, the Academy's first female president (and resigned in frustration). Bette, in performance and in real life, she's all Oscar -- the role, the telecast, the speech and the ensuing behavior after winning (or not winning) swirled into one nice circular motion of her ever-present cigarette.
Because, as I've stated before, 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 (and perhaps men) doesn't see in herself. Her face -- those buggy eyes flickering with near-homeliness and yet an odd, sometimes exquisite beauty (never forget how uniquely gorgeous Bette was as a young starlet), sadness, insanity, malevolence, rage and finally, strength. And her little body -- 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 an elegant liar (as in The Letter) or mousy turned gorgeous (as in Now, Voyager) or just plain gloriously melodramatic, then vulnerable (as in All About Eve) or bitchy, vain and heart-breaking, so desperate (as in The Star).
The Star. Where Bette possesses her coveted golden boy but no one cares. Well, no one cares except the audience, Natalie Wood and Sterling Hayden (pretty damn good company). I always wished Bette had won another one for The Star (directed by Stuart Heisler). Bette's transformation in the picture is, to use that overused word, brave. But it is. Specifically because she didn't go emaciated, fat, ugly or crazy, she simply did ... dumpy and, bitter, and down and out. She hit close to the bone and had to be thinking of her own life as an actress. Like Bette on a bad day with bad hair and bad frocks and a bad hangover and that kind of brutally honest insecurity actresses dare not discuss while looking blousy. They are older. They are vain. They are sensitive. The industry's harsh. They can't handle it.
In real life Bette could handle it, which is exactly why she could take on the tough material of The Star. How many actresses, in a wonderfully meta-moment, would look at their actual Academy Award and say: "Come on, Oscar, let's you and me get drunk!" before embarking on a dipsomaniacal star tour of jealousy and pity that results in an arrest -- all with their statuette in tow? Perhaps in a comedy, but aside from real life -- and I'm sure plenty of washed-up winners have driven through Beverly Hills, their Oscar propped on the dash like a gilded GPS system, cursing the career of Jennifer Lawrence -- not many would take it that far.
But, again, in the under-appreciated The Star, Bette takes it that far with her Margaret Elliot, a forty-something (looking more fifty-something, and still fantastic to me because she's Bette fucking Davis) ex-goddess -- a part played with a believable amount of sympathetic sadness and unlikable self-absorption. And she holds up beautifully, feeling as relevant today as she did then. We know this woman has never lost her star power, even if studio's don't want her anymore (it's Bette Davis for chrissakes) and so the movie, while showcasing her unwillingness to let go (rather unfairly) does through virtue of Davis's powerful performance, blame both the cruelty of Hollywood and those living in a land of delusion.
You'll wince when you see her prospective boyfriend (a strapping Hayden) suggest she get a job at Saks Fifth Avenue, not because it's a bad job (she's broke after all), but because she'll later lose her mind working there, and... she's a talented actress. She should be acting. But you'll positively squirm when you watch her potentially triumphant screen test, something that turns disastrous when she can't accept that her washerwoman role isn't ... sexy. Her realization of blowing it based on her own vanity doesn't punish her, however, you just feel for her. She sees what she did wrong. She cries. She accepts it. And, by film end, there's a freedom in returning to Hayden and embarking on a potentially easier life with him, aging out of the spotlight, but there's also a loss and sadness there. This woman should still be working. She's not Bette Davis in The Star, she's Margaret Elliot, but, really, she's Bette Davis. Thank goodness Bette never retired.
Because two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis was always the star and actress -- her finest roles, her later spirited talk show appearances, bad TV, good TV, Burnt Offerings and all.
The auteur who prompted Norma Desmond to instinctively ready herself for her closeup, Mr. DeMille, has an award named after him (a Golden Globe). I think it's about time Ms. Davis did too. As she said of herself, "In this business until you're known as a monster you're not a star." She also said, "I'm the nicest goddamn dame that ever lived." Indeed. Enjoy (or don't enjoy) the Oscars. And, really, do take Fountain.