By Tom Shales
May 3, 2006
Bette Davis titled her autobiography "The Lonely Life," but a new film about the inscrutable actress suggests a very crowded existence -- friends, enemies, fans, husbands, lovers and betes noires, many driven away when they started getting too close.
Sometimes, those who do the most brilliant jobs at imitating life are the lousiest at actually living it.
"Stardust: The Bette Davis Story," premiering tonight at 8 on Turner Classic Movies, is one of the most personal, intimate and shocking biographical documentaries ever made about a movie star. One of the conclusions to be drawn from it -- not a new idea, but one that is eloquently restated -- is that talent can be a hideous blessing, a glorious curse, and it can make someone a pain in the neck to everybody within shouting distance.
Filmmaker Peter Jones and his colleagues found a wealth of material about Davis, whose very existence was a performance -- and who appears to have loved nothing more than a good fight. "Stardust" recalls the legendary struggles as told by those who knew and worked with (and sometimes loathed) Davis, an attempt to put all the jigsaw pieces together and figure her out in a riveting and intense 90 minutes.
Among the most famous of her battles, of course, was a long-running struggle with Jack L. Warner, head of production at Warner Bros., where Davis spent 18 years and made most of her greatest films. Balking at having been offered a terrible role in what looked to be an awful movie, Davis refused to work, and Warner suspended her to show her who was boss. But Davis never liked having bosses and figured she knew more about movie acting than any of them did.
Her epitaph, engraved on the family crypt, was appropriately blunt: "She did it the hard way."
The star's mother, Ruthie, seemed to know that her daughter was headed for great acclaim and accomplishment. In archival interviews, Bette Davis describes her mother in seemingly contradictory ways. "Mother believed in compliments," she says in one interview. In another, though, she recalls Ruthie scolding her for being too thrilled over the rave reviews she got in a 1929 production of "The Wild Duck."
"You can't allow yourself to enjoy it that much," her mother lectured her, almost as if warning her that happiness equals complacency. Her father, meanwhile, showed her a skyful of stars when she was young and told her how insignificant she was in the firmament. (The documentary is not called "Stardust" for that reason. "Stardust" was also Davis's favorite song, which begins with one of the greatest verses of all time: "And now the purple dusk of twilight time steals across the meadows of my heart."
In interview clips, Davis says her father was not a nice person and that "I was delighted" when her parents divorced. It was a blessing to her mother, Davis says: "I really felt happy for her and for all of us."
Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn and very knowledgeable TCM host Robert Osborne are among the many who are interviewed about Davis, whose life was often more melodramatic than her movies. As a child, Davis caught on fire while near a Christmas tree candle and, it is recalled, she played the scene to the hilt for maximum impact (her injuries were apparently minor). And the documentary suggests that head injuries suffered by her second husband were not entirely accidental -- that Davis once pushed him, hard, up against a wall in the compartment of a train.
In an interview with Mike Wallace that aired on "60 Minutes," Davis confesses that she had an abortion because she wanted to devote her time to her career. Davis later had a daughter, B.D. Hyman, who would grow up to be another of Davis's enemies, telling vicious tales about her mother that make the stories related by Joan Crawford's daughter about her "Mommie Dearest" seem almost wholesome (Crawford and Davis's feud, of course, is legendary).
Davis's lovers included director Vincent Sherman and William Wyler, who directed her in, among other films, "The Little Foxes." The shooting of that picture was a constant battle, as he kept trying to convince her that less would be more. They never worked together again.
We can follow Davis getting old through the awesome array of clips assembled: Davis interviewed on the "Today" show, and talking about marriage with some sort of psychiatrist on "The Steve Allen Show" in 1964. She also appeared with Dick Cavett in 1971, during the last third of her life, when the role she played most often -- and with the greatest relish -- was that of Bette Davis. In a rare clip from "The Jack Paar Program" in 1962, she demonstrates to Paar and his guests the correct gestures for doing the classic, or standard, Bette Davis impression. (On May 30, Warner Home Video will release another batch of Davis DVDs, including "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and "Old Acquaintance.")
The documentary also discusses Davis's particular appeal to "generations" of gay men, due partly to her on-screen roles, partly to her off-screen intransigence and refusal to apologize for who and what she was.
Whether you're a fervid Davis fan or a casual admirer, you're bound to come away from this film feeling sorry for her -- even considering the hostility she showed to so many around her. She played many a suffering heroine on the screen, but she did plenty of suffering in real life, too.
At some point, the star and the woman became one; it was almost as if Davis wanted to make sure her life would make good reading, maybe someday a good movie, once she had passed on. This documentary is a good movie, too, a very good one, lusciously and lyrically put together -- full of insights and wit and revealing anecdotes.
"Love is now the stardust of yesterday," the song goes, "the music of the years gone by." Seventeen years after Bette Davis died, she is still giving us a helluva show.