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Mother Goddam: Bette Davis Centenary – Guardian


There were two roles Bette Davis wanted and never got. Like every other white actress at the time she wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara, the part suited her temperament to a tee. Stormy, headstrong and liable to indignation, she had a characteristic way of talking that combined good diction (summer stock in Ibsen taught her to emphasise every word), with an imperious drawl. Together they produced her trademark note of defiance, the much imitated, “nevah”. Who else, she demanded, was so well equipped to play the fiery Southern belle?

Actually she was a Yankee, hailing from Massachusetts, but not from money. She’d “come up the hard way” and it made her a “hell-raiser”. The battle with obscurity gave her a taste for theatre: it’s her sense of the dramatic, of being engaged in power play that defines Bette Davis. She even coached her children to call her “Mother Goddam”. Joseph Mankiewicz, who directed her command performance in All About Eve, preferred “Popeye the Magnificent”; the legend on her gravestone is his, too: “She did it the hard way.” All the bombast, however, did not necessarily get Davis what she wanted: for instance, that role in Gone with the Wind. When Vivien Leigh won the battle of the belles it was further proof that in Hollywood, if you were a woman, beauty invariably triumphed over brains or bravado. It certainly didn’t seem a logical decision when the part could have been written for her: “It was insanity I not be given Scarlett. But then, Hollywood has never been rational.” Or maybe the trouble was this: Hollywood’s rationale just wasn’t her own.

The other character she had a yen to play, a rather more surprising choice, was Alice in Wonderland. In 1938 Davis wrote an article for Good Housekeeping called ‘You Don’t Have to be Beautiful’. In it, she recalls the verdict of her first make-up man: “A fat little Dutch girl’s face, and a neck that’s too long.” Her father was just as encouraging: “Let her be a secretary. Bette doesn’t have what it takes to be an actress.” It taught her from the start to roll with the punches (of which there would be many) and turn what she had to her advantage: “I looked exactly like the Tenniel drawings of Alice; long neck, blond hair, and big eyes.” And she had Alice’s mutability. At just 5 foot 3, Davis was little but could dominate a frame, appearing larger than life. Unlike the stillness of some actresses, she had real kinetic power. Edith Head, the Hollywood costumer, observed, “She had an especially long stride, so it was always important her skirt didn’t inhibit the way she walked.”

To a degree, the men were right: when Davis arrived at the station in Hollywood the driver from Universal left without her, he hadn’t seen anyone “remotely like an actress”. It was only stating the obvious to say she wasn’t a beauty, with the exquisite mask of a Dietrich, a Garbo or a Lamarr. “I had no hope of looking like Garbo, but even so they gave me her eyebrows and hairdo. Awful!” The problem, as the moghuls saw it: she lacked mystery in the European vein, but neither was she buttoned up like the girl next door. Her wit betrayed her. She had too much intensity and appetite. Four husbands and numerous lovers (including Howard Hughes; the songwriter Johnny Mercer; and her favourite director, William Wyler) were evidence of that. As was her claim to have named that little lump of metal, ‘Oscar’: “When I saw the award’s rear end, it reminded me of my husband’s. Both flat.”

She wasn’t just sexually restless, many of her performances display a turbulent mind. While Bogart or Cagney might sneer at the world, Cary Grant and Mae West wink at it, Bette Davis’s eyes were the most subversive in Hollywood: filling the screen with great pools of doubt. Her haughty look threw out a challenge, as if to say, “Is that the best you can do?” But instead of finding roles to suit her scepticism, the studios tried to mould her to their idea of what a woman should be. Wanting success, she let them alter her looks, but when they tried to change her name she put her foot down: “Bettina Davies, if you please! Heaven forbid!” As early as 1935, E. Arnot Robertson, recognised there was something different about this long-striding, foot-stamping virago: “I think Bette Davis would probably be burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet.” Her response to this inhibiting world was to adopt the posture of a fighter. Her autobiography opens in full battledress: “I have been at war from the beginning. I rode into the field with sword gleaming and standard flying. I was going to conquer the world.” But conquering the world was a job for the boys, the province of Clark Gable or Errol Flynn. In the movies just about the only profession open to a woman was the business of being a woman. As far as that went, there wasn’t a cliché Hollywood left unturned. (Even when war came and girls were suited and booted, the plot usually rested on the crisis in femininity that work engendered.) So Davis set about exploring the territory of narcissism. Trying her hand at just about every female stereotype, she personified in her acting all the trouble with women.

Davis in All About Eve, 1950

Davis in All About Eve, 1950

Her first film, Bad Sister, in 1931, was quickly followed by Ex-Lady (1933); Front Page Woman (1935); Satan Met a Lady (1936); Marked Woman, That Certain Woman (1937); Jezebel (1938); The Old Maid (1939); June Bride (1948); The Star (1952); The Virgin Queen (1955), and even Eve herself (1950) – the title role may have been Anne Baxter’s, but the film was most definitely all about Davis. Then, at a time when less determined actresses had given up the ghost – going into seclusion like Garbo, to protect an image of their perfect young beauty – she had a rare third act. With Baby Jane (1962), Sweet Charlotte (1964), and even, Pretty Peggy (1973), Davis created out of the spectre of the woman who never grows up a whole new gallery of horrors. In white mask paint and smeared lipstick she flaunted the role every woman succumbs to sooner or later: female drag, with its underlying suggestion that the whole show has been nothing but a travesty. To cap it off, some sixty years after her first appearance as the Bad Sister, she made her final curtain call, playing in – what else? – The Wicked Stepmother.

In many films the plot turns on Davis’s desirability – which means, as a woman, her plausibility. It’s a problem all actresses have to engage with: some escape by playing celestial or androgynous figures free from the gravity of sex; others collude and play the coquette. But Davis was alone in letting you know she knew she was judged, and that it made her indignant. In her turmoil we see what it is to have one’s existential credibility constantly called into question. Many critics have misread this drama in her performance as neurosis, regarding her as an actress veering between hysteria and ham. David Thompson has her “at once hysterically mortified and daring us to admit that she was not attractive”. But her mortification, I’d suggest, has more to do with the humiliation she was subject to as a woman, than anxiety about her looks. She had, after all, been publicly admonished by a judge as “a very naughty little girl” when she took Warners to court for failing to provide her with strong enough roles. Of course, as the ‘Mother Goddam’ tag shows, she was aware of her reputation, and what it meant: “Being hysterical is like having an orgasm.” she teased. “It’s good for you.” Because what after all are the alternatives? Take it like a lady? No, make a fuss she said, and enjoy the drama while you’re at it. Perhaps this is why so many men find Bette Davis irksome, and why, even today, she commands respect among women.

None of it was easy. She lost the court case against the studio, but won the moral argument, consolidating her reputation as a force to be reckoned with. When, in her fifties, the roles dried up she took action again, advertising for work. She clung on hard because she knew what her career had cost – the failed marriages, unwanted abortions, and a daughter who, like Joan Crawford’s, produced a ‘monster mommie’ memoir. But she survived these betrayals and those of her own body: plastic surgery, a mastectomy, not even a stroke could fell her. She was a Nietzschean force, once saying: “I always had the will to win.” But she also told “the awful truth” about being a working woman, calling her autobiography, The Lonely Life. When a 15 year old fan, Betty Perske, (aka Lauren Bacall) wrangled an audience, Davis cautioned against acting: “I have two Oscars on my mantelpiece but they don’t keep you warm on winter evenings.” This (American) emphasis on hard work had none of Garbo’s nonchalance: Davis was a star, but far from ethereal. Even at the height of her fame she could be seen around Hollywood driving a station wagon, wearing jeans, picking up the groceries. By 1948 she was America’s highest paid woman but success never tempted her into self-mystification. Asked if she’d ever had an out of body experience, Davis replied, “Out-of-body indeed! More like out of one’s mind!” Her voice “twanged with impertinence” (Christina Stead) – that’s what you’re hearing when she delivers her most characteristic line: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”

The insolence of someone like Bette Davis, her snarling manners and lightning comebacks, could be tolerated, enjoyed even, when it seemed a measure of America’s growing confidence. But as fascism advanced in Europe there were many in Hollywood going over to “the side of the angels”, some of them travelling alongside, a few actually inside the Communist Party. The studios did their best to control their employees, binding them to seven year long “slave” contracts, as Davis termed them. But the knowledge you could be kicked out in the cold, the furs dropping from your shoulders, only sharpened Hollywood’s banter, making the dialogue crackle and hiss: “Malice in Wonderland”, Salka Viertel quipped (one of many émigrés in the colony and Garbo’s sometime lover and scriptwriter). When Gene Kelly’s wife, Betsy Blair came to town she noted the divide: there were rats gnawing at the base of the palm trees. Davis was a long way from joining the Party, but she was one of the “premature anti-fascists”, selling war bonds for Roosevelt, and dining occasionally with visitors from the Soviet Union. Alvah Bessie of the Hollywood Ten, describes a comic meal in which a battle of wills ensues over soup. Davis, bored of the speeches, calls for her fur and rises to leave. Mikhail Kalatazov, the visiting director, is unused to such interruption. He places “both hands on her shoulders”, and roars, “Sit down!” But she rises again. Addressing the comrade with queenly condescension, telling him, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful time”, before sweeping out.

Soldiers and sailors queuing up outside The Hollywood Canteen, 1942

The Hollywood Canteen, 1943

When the war did finally arrive, Davis, embarrassed by the irrelevance of the ‘women’s pictures’ she was making, got together with John Garfield and set up the Hollywood Canteen, a club for soldiers waiting to be shipped off to fight. Cary Grant donated a piano and Duke Ellington played it; Crosby and Sinatra sang; Dietrich, Lamarr, Gable and Crawford played hostess, as did Olivia de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine. The stars came down from the skies and it must have seemed like heaven on earth. A uniform got you in the door and fed for free; black and white mingled on the dance floor (when there was trouble, Davis said, “we played the Star Spangled Banner and that would stop it”); while the rich and famous washed dishes and scrubbed the floors. It was just the kind of utopian activity that provoked the Right into associating anti-fascism with communism.

The club closed in 1945 and within two years the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was sitting in Hollywood. Four years later Garfield was called as a witness. He refused to name names, but repented in writing. The following year, at 39, he was dead of a heart attack. Davis did not involve herself in the aborted movement to challenge the HUAC (led by Bogart who protested and then recanted; signing away his dignity in a hotel room). But a decade later she made, Storm Centre, the first film to depict what was happening under McCarthy. Based on the true story of a librarian dismissed for refusing to remove communist material, it wasn’t a very good film, but it showed, as the words inscribed on her cigarette case said, that “an actress is more than a woman”.

David cutting a cake with Russian soldiers.

At the moment of Bette Davis’s centenary how does she stand up to the current crop of stars? Well she’s a lot more red-blooded and rebellious than the well-behaved, pale-skins they serve us today. They positively droop by comparison: the Gwyneths, the Nicoles and the Cates. But evidence that some of our more left-field actresses have a hankering to emulate her greatness came at this year’s Academy Award show when Tilda Swinton ripped off the Oscar joke, saying the statue reminded her of her agent’s “buttocks”. This time around the remark was a little more risqué: the backside in question not belonging to her husband. She doesn’t have a husband. But she does have two lovers (one for the brains and one for the rest of her). Perhaps it was admiration for her domestic arrangement, even more than her acting skills in the rather muted Michael Clayton, that gained the Academy voters’ approval. Indeed, the biggest debt Swinton owes Bette Davis may be for encouraging her ambition not only as an actress but also as a woman.

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