Mentioning religion is appropriate, as this is Easter Week. I've been trying to find time to write about my favorite Big Religious Epic movies. I still hope to do that, by the way. At the moment, all that is being set aside. As it turns out, today is Bette Davis' birthday.
As a kid growing up in a small town in the 1950's and 1960s, you couldn't get me to watch a Bette Davis or Joan Crawford movie. I just wasn't interested in "weepers". But one blessed day, when I was about 18 years old, Betty Black came into my life. She was from a wealthy Philadelphia area family, and was one of the most fun women I knew. We hung out together for awhile when I was living in Ocean City, New Jersey.
One day she found out that I had never seen a Bette Davis movie. She insisted that I correct the situation, and threatened to tie me to a chair if that's what it took to get me to do so. We watched my first Bette Davis movie on tv in the little house off the alley that I used to rent. (A tiny little cottage, I used to say that it looked like a doll's house, noting that every time I slammed the door it was the beginning of modern theatre.) We watched Now, Voyager. Davis morphs from frumpy maiden aunt into a fashionable socialite, and ends up taking care of the child of the man she loves but can't marry. "Let's not ask for the moon - we have the stars!" Good God, what an overwrought, over the top, silly, unrealistic, and absolutely wonderful movie. A few years later, it would be the third 16mm sound feature to enter my film collection.
|Ms. Davis as Charlotte Vale, of the Boston Vales (one of the lesser ones), with Paul Henreid in "Now, Voyager".|
I remember once I was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I don't remember if I was in the city on a visit, or if I had already moved there (which would make it after November 1972). What I do remember is that they were showing a Bette Davis movie that day. The movie was "Dark Victory".
In it, a young heiress goes through the hell of accidentally discovering that she's "Prognosis Negative" - with an unspecified fatal disease.She still marries her doctor beau George Brent, flirts with stable hand Humphrey Bogart ("Are you afraid to burn, Michael? Are You afraid to die?", "What a relief to know that you're no better than I am.") and moves to the country. At one point she and the hubby prepare to pick up a friend arriving at the local train station in Brattleboro, Vermont. After more exquisite suffering, she goes blind while gardening, packs her husband off to an important conference while pretending that nothing is wrong, lays down on a bed and closes her eyes forever as the angels sing. I'm not kidding. As the audience left the auditorium, I noted that a group of black high school kids had been in attendance. One of the boys made fun of the story. His girlfriend upbraided him on the spot, "Don't you have any feelings?", she asked through tears. Here was a black teenager, 30 years and a world away from the one which created this movie, who had become totally invested in the story. As had her girlfriends. Such is the power of a Bette Davis movie.
Davis had an incredible career, full of famous moments, iconic performances, and fights with the studio system. She co-founded the Hollywood Canteen, a popular club and service organization for the soldiers of WWII. She was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (whose most public work is in giving out the "Oscars" - which she named, by the way, when she noted that the statuette's backside reminded her of her husband's). She would win the award twice, and be nominated 10 times. Over the years, she changed the way Hollywood worked, went from ingenue to respected box office actress, fell out of favor when movie styles changed, and reemerged in now classic low budget horrors like "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane". She probably had more well known quotable lines that any other performer in the business. And she has provided me with a great deal of entertainment pleasure.
|From the opening scene (really!) of "The Letter".|
|Actress Bette Davis signs autographs at a Vermont War Bond rally.|
|"What a dump!" from "Beyond the Forest".|
|A theatre poster featuring her character in "All About Eve".|
|"Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."|
"Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it's because I'm not a bitch. Maybe that's why Miss Crawford always plays ladies."
"The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"
"Today everyone is a star - they're all billed as 'starring' or 'also starring'. In my day, we earned that recognition."
"With the newspaper strike on, I wouldn't consider dying."
Thank You, and Happy Birthday, Ms. Davis. (And Thank You, Betty Black!)