"A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) is a terrific triplicate of a melodrama. It won Joe L. Mankiewicz Academy Awards for writing and directing one year before he gave the audiences one bumpy ride in "All About Eve" by suggesting that - at least when it comes to love, sex and ambition - fastening one's seat belts is for sissies only. The earlier film is tamer than "Eve"'s non-stop repartee-fest, and its focus is not as pointed. Still, it remains one of my favorite movies ever made: not only for all its brilliant rejoinders (of which Thelma Ritter gets to utter the most hilarious), but for its portrayal of what it means to be anxious about one's relationship and then to receive reassurance from the person we love. It's a story of three women envisioning the end of their marriages in the morning and feeling them strengthened by the end of the day. It goes down like an anxiety-glazed donut with a filling of hope.
April 5 would have been Bette Davis's 104th birthday. I was reminded of this interview I did with her in 1988, which appeared on my CinePad website 10 years later:
When my former Seattle Times editor called me, a few months after I'd moved to Los Angeles, to say he wanted me to interview Bette Davis, I wasn't as thrilled as I probably should have been. I realized it was a rare opportunity -- she was giving only three interviews to promote the paperback version of her book about recovering from her stroke -- but Bette Davis had never been my glass of lemonade.
I just never really got the whole Bette-Davis-As-Icon thing. To me, she was a movie star, a part of Hollywood history (I admired the way she took on the studio bosses when they -- and she -- were at the peak of their powers), but with the exception of All About Eve (where she really used her movie-star mega-wattage as part of the role), I hadn't regarded her as a great actress. I mean, she was no Barbara Stanwyck, who was equally adept as a screwball comedienne, a tragic heroine, or a femme fatale.
But of course, I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to interview a screen legend; there just weren't that many of them left. I remember thinking it was kind of funny and appropriate that she was living on the outskirts of West Hollywood (in the Century House on Havenhurst), mecca to the gay men who really worshipped her. But why did they? Was she just a camp figurehead because her brittle, melodramatic style of acting hadn't aged well? Or was it that she was Larger Than Life, a tough broad who had survived? Probably some of both...
Well, I'll say this: She sure knew how to be Bette Davis. She was cantankerous and flamboyant, but I also thought there was an undercurrent of playfulness to her behavior. Not that I thought she was "performing," or putting on a Bette Davis Act; I think she was probably like this most of the time. But I also think she rose to the occasion, somewhat, because she liked the attention, and liked the feeling that she was communicating -- albeit through me -- to her public.
It was a stellar afternoon...