Monday, April 05, 2010

In Memoriam: Bette Davis


It's no secret that Bette Davis - born on this day in 1908 - is pretty much considered a goddess around the Pop Culture Institute; more than a dozen of her movies reside in the collection, and among actors she takes up the most space* in the stacks as well, with a half-dozen titles of biography and autobiography of varying qualities devoted to her life and work. Despite this she made more than 80 movies from her screen debut in 1931 to her death in October 1989, and has been the subject of at least a dozen books, which makes our cozy little selection representative, but far from complete.

Yet what's here is choice; to my way of thinking, if one can't have it all one should at least strive to have the best. Among the books, this means her two memoirs - The Lonely Life, written at mid-career (with Sanford Dody), and This 'N That, written near the end (with Michael Herskowitz) - and a pseudo-memoir entitled Mother Goddam. Of these three, the first two are fairly standard actressy memoirs - fairly candid, breezy in tone, with the occasional barbed anecdote for the fans (Miriam Hopkins was a bitch!); the third represents an innovation in celebrity biography which was simply too good an idea to catch on - interspersed with Whitney Stine's brisk, interesting narrative are passages by Miss Davis herself (which in the original were printed in red ink!). All three are preserved here in more or less their initial hardcover incarnations.

Also included in our collection are a slim but fact-filled volume from a series Illustrated History of the Movies (written by Jerry Vermilye), a middling biography by Barbara Leaming, and another somewhat better-than-middling biography by Charles Higham (which happens to be the first book I ever read about her, at the age of 13). Rounding out the literary side of the collection is a poisonous hatchet job written by Davis' daughter B. D. Hyman, entitled My Mother's Keeper, which is dreck, but entertaining dreck nonetheless. Recently I've been sniffing around a new bio by the thorough (and thoroughly hunky) Ed Sikov; there's another, by the Higham-esque James Spada, which might conceivably join its colleagues someday.

Yet reading about Bette Davis - whether in her 'own' words (that is to say the words of her ghost-writer) or even those of a slavishly devoted fan like Whitney Stine - simply does not do; she must be seen and heard and her performances felt to be fully understood. Selecting a favourite movie of hers is a challenge I normally don't like to undertake, even as a parlour game; for the purposes of this blog, though, I'd have to give the edge to 1937's Marked Woman, a brisk, timely melodrama in the best old-school Warner Bros. tradition. Also in the collection of the Pop Culture Institute are Of Human Bondage, The Petrified Forest, Jezebel, and Dark Victory from the 1930s, as well as The Letter, The Little Foxes, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Now, Voyager, All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Whales of August.

Watching her transformation over 50 years from a pop-eyed mass of neuroses in her earliest films to a soigne sophisticate at the height of her career to a monstre sacree on the long trek to immortality is not only the best biography of the woman-as-actress but also offers a striking insight into the parallel transformation of the actress-in-Hollywood as well.

*Space which is becoming increasingly coveted, I might add.

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lcdseattle said...
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Jeff said...

My all time favorite is All About Eve, with The Little Foxes a periolously close second.

michael sean morris said...
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Mathias N Oz said...

Too bad embedding is disabled:

Always loved that song.

Ed Sikov said...

Hunky?! Thanks!!!

michael sean morris said...

Omigod! Super-hunky celebrity biographer/film writer Ed Sikov left a comment on my blog! I'm plotzing y'all!