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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Larger Than Life: The Bette Davis Story

This is my entry for the Bette Davis Contest at Film Classics. After entering a couple of months ago, I think many of you are pretty well aware of how the contest works, but I will be posting more details anyway later on. This time I won't ramble forever and just get on with the show. Enjoy?! :)

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"I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile, and ofttimes disagreeable... I suppose I'm larger than life."

- Bette Davis

MY INTEREST IN BETTE DAVIS did not begin that long ago. It began with a character named Baby Jane; my father watched the film "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" in the spring of this year, and upon learning what it was about, I was excited more than ever to give it a watch (yes, all its morbidity in tow). By June, school was out and summer had begun and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" was right at my fingertips, ready for me to watch.

Before this, I had only seen a couple of Bette films. I knew what a legend she was (who doesn't?), but for some reason it just hadn't happened all that much. That night I sat down to watch that movie, and experienced my first true Bette Davis performance.

It was Baby Jane who did it first. She was crafted in my mind as the hyperbola of the character that is so creepy, she is somewhat hilarious. The makeup caked on her face, the curls in her hair and that little turn of the lips that turned into a smile, a smile smeared with lipstick across her "wrinkles" as she'd asked a begrudging victim, "Do you know who I am? I am Baby Jane Hudson."  

"Who the hell is Baby Jane Hudson?"

She'd written a letter to daddy, made life a living Hell for Joan Crawford (or the tormented sister, Blanche) and had disappeared into the kingdom of "has-beens" after being a bratty child star on the vaudeville circuit. Still upholding her dreams for stardom based on her father's memory, the answer to the title of the movie truly is: "She takes care of her sister Blanche now." But not for long.

In the role that made me a Bette fan
I loved Bette Davis in this film so much. I wanted to rewind and watch that scene again or this scene. I was shocked at the emotions she pulled raw from me as Baby Jane - one moment hating her for tormenting Blanche, the next wanting to weep for her because you could see that at her core she was just a troubled person who really, really wanted to sing and dance for the world. Chew scenery, maybe, but I enjoyed watching Bette chew the scenery.

Of course, as perfect as she may have been as Baby Jane, there isn't much that the actress and the character had in common. Bette herself may have argued that the two of them were both driven in several deep faults (as she has claimed in her "larger than life" quote) - but truthfully, have you ever heard someone say "Whatever happened to Bette Davis?" 

Playing Baby Jane proves something so true about Bette Davis - a quality that every good actress must exude and not be afraid of: to drop the glamour and tear yourself down to a character that might not always appear as beautiful (Baby Jane certainly wasn't) or appealing.

Bette Davis was never afraid of this. In fact, for her role as Baby Jane she was said to have come up with the Baby Jane mask herself: to put layer upon layer of makeup on until she appeared, quite simply put, as a disastrous hag.

This is not to say that Bette herself was not beautiful. Though she is probably not considered the "traditional beauty" (and for that matter, neither was a famous beauty like Audrey Hepburn - who had, as the critics would describe, "colt like" features), she was, in her own way, quite gorgeous.

It just wasn't the glamour or the beauty, it was the confidence and resilience she could withhold in her characters. Take Charlotte Vale in another favorite Bette film of mine, "Now, Voyager." In the beginning of the film, Bette's Charlotte Vale is unattractive, beige, nervous, and owns a severe pair of caterpillar eyebrows. But with some plucking, lipstick, and a better wardrobe, she turns into the new Charlotte Vale: glamorous, sophisticated, beautiful. The beauty is a combination of Bette's own particular prettiness and a shining confidence.

Bette Davis commanded the screen. Sometimes she chewed the scenery to get there, but most of the time it was just one look at her face. Her face held many facets, expressions. It was almost as if you could turn a dial and get an expression, like that of a comedienne (yes, I'll draw a comparison to Lucy here). In "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" it was the tilt of the head and a nearly innocent smile. "But don't you know who I am? I am Baby Jane!" In "Now, Voyager" it was a smile of confidence, kindness. In "Essex and Elizabeth", a domineering, smug look that demanded the screen to herself.

Every character she played would become immortalized into film history on its own. Margo Channing, Charlotte Vale, Baby Jane: just to name a few. True, these characters were, well, quite characters themselves ("Fasten your seatbelts: It's going to be a bumpy night!" - extra emphasis on the bumpy!), but Bette made them come alive. She took these characters who were just leaping off the script with excitement and made them leap off the screen and into our theaters and living rooms.

Bette Davis off screen was a personality that no movie screen, however big, could actually project. (She was, after all, larger than life, which most certainly makes her larger than a movie screen). 

There were so many things that made her memorable to movie audiences, simply in addition to this aura of Bette that defined her as a movie star. 

The fact remains that the personality Bette made so famous was truly her. It was anything but a put on and if one would like to trace Bette's life back to her bassinet, you'd discover she had forever exhibited her superstar personality.

She was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 5th, 1908. Called Betty, she was a headstrong spirit from the start. A sister named Bobby was born the following year and started to occupy the crib that was once Bette's - according to Ed Sikov's Dark Victory, the young Miss Davis was not pleased by this and decided to reclaim the crib she thought was hers. Plucking her baby sister from the crib and depositing her on the couch, Bette crawled into the crib.

When she was in her teens she played Santa Claus in a school Christmas pageant. The tree on stage had real lit candles, and Bette in her Santa Claus costume wandered too close. Her beard caught on fire and she was wrapped up in a rug to calm the fires. Her face was burnt and she kept her eyes closed (the eyes that would be come so famous later) in fear that she had been blinded.

When she first arrived in Hollywood, she would tell Dick Cavett years later, the studio didn't exactly know what to do with her so one of her first jobs was to be a "kiss mat" for males trying to make it into the business.

I won't add a picture of Joan, because for
some reason I don't think Bette'd be crazy about it!
But Bette would always hold her own, and that was what would make her the very posterchild for the 1940's movie star. If anything, Bette's performances would come across with a lot of overacting or chewed scenery, but she was always sure to put effort into her performances and entertain the viewers. You could never call Bette Davis faded, dull, one dimensional or flat - and for this, she gained a reputation in Hollywood. A force to be reckoned with.

There was her mutual hatred for another one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Joan Crawford. It began when Joan Crawford "stole" Bette's off screen romance interest, Franchot Tone, and ever since things would not get better. Once Bette remarked, with great gusto, "She [Joan Crawford] has slept with every male star at MGM but Lassie!" Their hatred for one another became public and well known, and on the set of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" the reporters would not leave them alone. However, for the sake of the film the two remained professional - "We're getting along fine!" - and the hatred would come in handy for the film. Though when they were all set to do a similar film called "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" a few years later, Joan bailed out due to "illness," but mostly because the two stars could not get along. (See a closer analysis of these two films here).

Joan and Bette would both suffer through a case of betrayal from their adopted children, however. (Though Joan's would occur after her death, the impact of the book was great and even turned into a film starring Faye Dunaway). Anticipating her mother would die soon, her daughter, "B.D" wrote a harmful book about her mother entitled "My Mother's Keeper". Bette was not dead yet (as disgusting as that sounds) and the publishers insisted upon publishing the book, so B.D had to go ahead with the book. (I guess she didn't have the luck of Christina Crawford).

"My Mother's Keeper" - and we Bette fans would like to think of it all as lies - painted an unappealing picture of Bette: as spoiled, egotistical, an alcoholic. Bette was just recovering from her stroke at the time of the book's publication, and many (celebrities) came to her defense. Bette had spoiled her daughter, had always been kind to her and loving. Bette disinherited B.D - a strong step, perhaps, but Bette was a strong person.

Bette would always be strong, the pinnacle of a personality that was larger than life itself as we knew it. In reality, she was tiny: five feet, three inches. But on screen she always seemed to be ten feet tall. Not just because the characters she played were always large - take Margo Channing, for example, so confident at first but all those insecurities lying under the surface - though most of them were. Bette just commanded the screen: with her face, her voice, and her indeniable talent as an actress. She was much, much more than an icon.
"She's got Bette Davis eyes."
           
Part of her command was her eyes. Movie goers probably always recognized it, but they would become forever famous when revolutionized in the popular 1981 song "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes. Bette was flattered and delighted: "You made me cool again!" Oh, Bette, like you ever weren't cool.

I think I'll leave you with some lyrics from that song:

"Her hair is Harlow gold,
Her lips a sweet surprise,
Her hands are never cold -
She's got Bette Davis eyes.

She'll take a tumble on you,
Roll you like you were dice until you come up blue,
She's got Bette Davis eyes."

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Thanks for reading!

Also: Breakfast at Tiffany's turns 50 years old today. I plan on doing a blog on it after the Carole Lombard blogathon tomorrow - I read the original short story written by Truman Copate for the 50th anniversary, and I think I may do a blog contrasting the story and movie! :) You can read some more about it here: Breakfast at Tiffany's Turns 50, The Washington Post


3 comments:

StanwyckFan said...

Great article, Rianna!

Rianna said...

Thanks, Natalie! :)

Marcela Costa :} said...

The first time I ever saw Bette was in All About Eve and fell in love instantly! Whatever happened to Baby Jane made me intrigued about her feud with Joan Crawford. Sometimes I think they really did hate each other, sometimes I think it's just publicity or they were just trolling us :) Awesome piece!

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