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Bette Davis at 104: Still smokin'

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...


LOS ANGELES (1988) -- Bette Davis must have a cigarette.

For without a smoke, she cannot entirely be Bette Davis. The iconographic image is incomplete, like a bareheaded Gloria Swanson, an unarmed John Wayne, or a clean-shaven Bogart.

In her elegant fourth-floor apartment, just off Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, Miss Davis (she prefers the courtesy title) chain-smokes Vantage filters and, with stubborn ferocity, grinds her butts into the ashtray. Once snuffed by Miss Davis, those crooked stubs would not dare to continue smoldering.


She lights into the current nationwide anti-smoking movement with a mixture of glee and withering disdain, almost as if defending her legend against unruly hordes of nosy tobacco-haters.

"I Resent It More Than I Can Tell You!" she says at a rapid clip, delivering every word distinctly and discretely, as though each one were capitalized. "I Do Not Wish To Be Told What To Do!

"I wish to have my own life. All this whole thing has to do with people who gave up smoking and can't stand it! I think it's a big farce myself. And I think it's our own business what we do. Who has the right to say 'You can't smoke'? Makes me smoke MORE! Ha-HA-ha. No. I don't like it."

After surviving a stroke, a mastectomy, four marriages, more than 50 years in the movie business and almost 80 years on the planet, Bette Davis knows exactly who she is and what she does not like.

She once sued Warner Bros., the studio that had her under contract, because the men who ran it tried to make her play parts she thought weren't right for her. They tried to put her in pictures she didn't like. And that just made Miss Davis not want to do them MORE!

At one time, the actress who won Oscars for "Dangerous" in 1935 and "Jezebel" in 1938 had quite a reputation for being difficult --

"At one time?!" she erupts. "I've been known as difficult for 50 years, practically! What do you mean 'at one time'?! Nooo, I've been like this for 50 years. And it's always always to make it the best film I can make it!"

Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy interview.

It's fitting that Miss Davis' two most famous characterizations -- Broadway star Margo Channing in "All About Eve" (1950) and demented former child star Baby Jane Hudson in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962) -- were both dramatic players. Because Bette Davis herself is an extraordinarily theatrical character. She may no longer be the vivacious actress she once was, but she's still every bit the Movie Star.


Nevertheless, Miss Davis insists that she and Margo Channing are not one and the same:

"I am not the kind of actress that Margo Channing was. I'm not this type at all. She's a real, real theater type. In terror of age and all that. But I started playing older women when I was 25 or 30 years old. So I never ran into that horrible block. Plus, I had the good fortune not to be a beautiful, beautiful raving beauty like Miss Hayworth, like Miss Everybody -- Miss Harlow and all that. So it never happened that suddenly boom! overnight I was old. So that is very fortunate."

And that may be one reason why she's still acting at age 79. There's a historical marker near the front door of her apartment building, beneath the awning of the lovely old red-brick and white-mortar structure. And you halfway expect to find a similar plaque mounted somewhere on the person of its most famous resident.


But Miss Davis is determined not to become a relic. Her third autobiographical book, This n' That (which she describes as "sort of a jigsaw puzzle" of reminiscences that began to take shape while she was lying in a hospital bed recovering from her stroke) has just come out in paperback and is getting a big push from the publisher. She has a movie in theaters, Lindsay Anderson's The "Whales of August," in which she co-stars with Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern and Harry Carey, Jr. And she starts shooting another feature, "The Wicked Stepmother," in a few months.

And yet, no matter how many different films may have displayed her name above the title, Bette Davis remains bigger than any of them. The name irresistibly conjures up silhouetted images from fatalistic black and white Warner Bros.' melodramas of the '30s and '40s -- pictures like "The Petrified Forest," "The Letter," "The Little Foxes," "Dark Victory," "Now, Voyager," "Jezebel."

One of Hollywood's greatest movie icons for more than half a century, Bette Davis has become, in popular fantasy, a creature of pure style -- an egg-eyed phantom bitch-goddess from a shadowy world of lies, betrayal, ambition, tragedy. And cigarette smoke.

As Miss Davis inhales, a silver charm bracelet jangles around her wrist. She is dressed stylishly, in black of course. That's her color. You can't help but recall that this was the woman who wore a scandalous red dress to the ball in "Jezebel" -- only it wasn't really red at all. It was black satin; it just registered as red in moviegoers' imaginations.


Even now, 50 years later, her wardrobe seems to have been created from the monochromatic fabric of some vintage Warner Bros. production -- maybe cut out of whole cloth from the film stock itself. Only her pale face displays the pastel shades of colorization. Her thin brown eyebrows are painted way up onto her forehead in perpetual arches. And her eyelids are striking -- sharply defined, solid blue-black crescents of color. Her mouth, slightly asymmetrical since the stroke, is a shade darker than pink, lighter than red.

"I always look put together," she states. "I think you can be very very disappointing to a lot of people ... in the market or wherever. No! I always see to it that I look well. I want to look well. Always. Yes. It is my nature to go out. And as a famous Hollywood woman, I have assumed that responsibility. And I think it's very important. And I think it's very sad today, the younger people aren't doing that. And that's wrong."

Miss Davis has a very strong sense of right and wrong, of what is proper and what is not. Courtesy titles, for instance. Kathryn Sermak, the personal assistant who lived with Miss Davis for seven years, addresses her as Miss D. The phony, schmoozy, first-name familiarity that everybody in Hollywood seems so eager to affect these days is something Miss Davis cannot abide.

"I'm sure some people say it's old-fashioned, probably," she says. "Especially the name thing today. I never call people by their first names 'til I know them. And that's the whole thing today. So ... Well, I'll tell you what I am in the present society: I'm a square. I've always been a square. That's right. Square. That's the best description. Right. That's the way I am. Right."


In the grand style of a movie queen holding court, Miss Davis delivers pronouncements. She speaks in periods and exclamation points, punching out brief, emphatic statements. When she talks, she is always listening to herself talking, constantly monitoring and editing herself, like an actress directing her own performance.

Then, when she's content with what she's said, she lapses into an abrupt silence, accompanied by that familiar pose of total composure, assurance and indifference: chin in the air, smoldering cigarette in hand. You fear she could stay like that forever, unless you bring up something else that interests her. It's your cue; deliver your next line.

In her book, Miss Davis has some less than complimentary things to say about such people as Bob Hope (jealous of her Distinguished Civilian Service Medal), Faye Dunaway (unprofessional), Joan Collins (vain), Ronald Reagan (dull, and an ineffective Screen Actors Guild president) -- and, of course, her daughter B.D. Hyman, who wrote a rather nasty book about her called My Mother's Keeper -- rather like Mommie Dearest, the one written by the daughter of Miss Davis's longtime screen "rival," Joan Crawford. (In a letter to B.D. at the end of her book, Miss Davis says her daughter's volume is full of "figments of your imagination.")

Has she perhaps heard any response from these people?

"No, no I have not," she says, dismissing the subject. "And I'd just as soon not discuss that. Let's leave that just the way it is and not go into it any more. No, I have not. I have not."

Miss Davis speaks some phrases percussively, like a human snare drum. Behind them, you can hear the echoes of "What-ta-dump!" from "Beyond the Forest." Other words she bends slowly over her palate, stretching them to the breaking point so that they whine and groan, twisting them into the smoky bray of Baby Jane Hudson.

So, what made her decide to do "Whales of August"?


"I have had a huge television special career for about ten years. Wonnnderful parts: "Strangers," "[A Piano for Mrs.] Cimino" -- wooonderful characters. "Right of Way" with Jimmy Stewart. But I've not been in a [movie] theater. So I decided it was time I went back into theaters. That's the real reason I did it.

"I was never wiiildly mad about it ["Whales of August"]. It was a challenge in that I played a blind woman. That's not easy. And I was a little tempted because it was going to be shot in Maine, where I had brought up my children and lived several years. So, I was a little tempted by that, no question. But, basically, to go back into the theaters."

No one is more aware than Miss Davis herself that what she has to say is less important than the fact that it is she -- Bette Davis, Movie Star -- who is saying it. It's easy to become mesmerized by the erratic cadences and discordant music of her nitrous-oxide-and-cough-syrup voice, as when she talks about her upcoming picture:

"Yes, I am going to make a film. I'm going to make a film in April, we start in April. And it is called 'The Wicked Stepmother.' That is the title of it. And we start it in April. It is for theaters. Yes. Right, Kathryn? Exactly. It is for theatres, the way 'Whales of August' was. Yes."

When she concludes a sentence by punctuating it with "Right," or "Yes" or "No" or "Definitely" -- biting the words hard so that they snap off brittlely at the end -- you know that the matter at hand has been disposed of to her satisfaction. Subject closed. That's it. Next question.

Why did she decide to write a third book?

"Have you read the book? Well, don't you know? There's your answer. I thought it would be a great help to anybody who's experienced the things I have experienced. That's it's basic thing. And then, it's sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. This n' That is the perfect title. But that's the reason I decided to do another book. Definitely."

Did she find the writing of it to be therapeutic in some way?


"No, no, no, no. It was just with other people in mind. I wasn't writing into to help me! Too much work to write a book to help me! No, no, it was all helping. And as a matter of fact it's worked out this way. We've heard from many people who were very encouraged. And the mastectomy part of it all, many people have taken care of discussing that. Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Rockefeller, many different people. The stroke, nobody has ever really written about. Which is, according to doctors, the insult. It is an insult. Every muscle, every muscle, every part of your body. You just work at bringing it back. Yes. But it can be done."

Why did the original publishers of This 'n That refuse to accept the book? Did they want changes or did they just turn it down?

"Oh no, no, no, no. They wanted much more kiss and tell, the other publisher. And it's not in me to write that kind of book. I'm just too proper. I couldn't do it, couldn't do it. Well, it's the fashion. The age of confessions of famous people. Everybody tells you everything today. Too bad.

"It's too bad that publishers are buying these books. If they would stop publishing them, they wouldn't be written. But they grrrraaaab anything that's full of dirt, the publishers. Money-money-money-money-money-money. A lot of money. That's right."

Does she think actresses with strong opinions get reputations for being "difficult" more often than male actors with similar temperaments do?

"The male star in this town is infinitely more difficult than any woman. They're vainer -- vainer! -- than any woman star. Really and truly. Oh, no, no. There are much more problems between male stars than between women stars. It think it's always been true, always been true."


Does she still dislike watching herself onscreen?

"Oh, noooo, I never have and I never will. I just don't like to look at myself. Now, when I look at a film maybe ten years later. Ten years later. Whatever. Then I have a different perspective and I can say you were either good or bad and so get through it. I never liked to look at them when I'd just finished them. But I never liked my face, I just hated to go to rushes.

"Nobody likes the way they look. Nooobody does. If the average citizen were suddenly put in a motion picture, they wouldn't believe who it was, they wouldn't recognize themselves. You have a different image of yourself, and then theeeere is what it is. Um-hmm. Like voices. The first time anybody hears their voice, they sweeear that it's not their voice. Because it's totally different than you have heard it."

In the book, Miss Davis describes herself as "a dedicated Democrat." What does she think of Ronald Reagan's presidency?

"We were at Warner Bros. together. And I've just come back from Kennedy Center. And we had lots of fun talking together, about everything. And I don't know if he ever read what I said -- in the book. I don't think so. [Wicked chuckle.] But he was maaarvelous to everybody.

"I think he's been quite successful in many areas. I think we all wondered in the beginning what it would be like. I think he has given optimism to America. And that's good. Very. People are not always downing everything. Yes. I think he's done a lot about that. He was wonderful to us in Washington."

Does she keep up with current movies?

"I'm very lazy. I'm very lazy. I must say I wait and see them on cable. I must say. Yes."

What about videocassettes?

"No, I'm not into that at all. Hmm-mm. No, I don't want all that in my house. No. No. Plus, mechanically, I'd never know how to run it. Ha-ha.

"Isn't it incredible today? (whispering) Incredible. Imagine if we had known. Imagine if we had any idea about all our films going on video. But who could ever have know? And when you think that Warner Bros. sold all their product for 11 million. Only 11 million. They got scared, you see. If they had bought into television, they could run it today. You wouldn't have cuts. Or possibly colorization. Or probably any of this."


What does she think of colorization?

"I've only seen one: 'Dark Victory.' I hear by the grapevine that it's a very expensive process. So maybe they'll stop. Maybe. I hope. The color of the clothes my character was wearing! A bright pink blouse and a bright pink skirt and every room in my house was all pink. Oh, and all the good taste of the dress designer, Mr. Kelly; and the good taste of a wonderful man named Hopkins at Warners for his sets -- all of our good taste you do not see with colorization ever again. So it's heartbreaking, it really is."

Would she go back on an Academy Awards broadcast after last year's fiasco, where she didn't read the nominees before announcing the winner and came across looking so befuddled?

"May I State Quite Clearly: There is nnnothing, as long as they have the same director, there is nnnnnothing that would eeeever get me on the stage with that man running it. That ... Was ... Horrific. 'Cause I didn't know. It was a terrible thing to do." (Miss Davis blames the director for giving her confusing instructions.)

"But I went on Entertainment Tonight and did some shows and cleared that up. I had to. I HAD TO! But an awful lot of people realized it. That was what was interesting. A lot of people didn't want to realize it and had a good chance to say, 'Well, look what happened to Bette Davis!' That pleeeeased a lot of Hollywood people. They laughed and said, 'She doesn't even know how to do an Oscar show!' HA-ha! Ooooh! He is a wicked man."

Bette Davis defiantly scrunches and twists another filter tip into the ashtray. She smiles as she lights up another cigarette and shoots a plume of smoke into the air, as if into the face of some wicked man, cooly blowing him away.

End of topic.


Was Miss Davis a "difficult" interview? Not at all. I mean, she always had things to say, and quite a stunning way of saying them. She behaved like such a marvelous character that I had a wonnnnnnderful time talking to her. I believe I told her so. After this piece was published, I sent her a copy of it, hoping she'd get a kick out of it.

A few weeks later she sent me a hand-written thank you note. I was floored: She was thanking me?! I'm proud to say that over the years a (very) few actors and filmmakers (particularly directors) have called me or written me to thank me for something I'd written about them or their work, but what Miss Davis did was different. She was being courteous, in a style we won't ever see (particularly not in Hollywood) again. In her day, you thanked the reporter for doing the interview because that was the proper thing to do. And that's what she did, right to the end.

Miss Davis died the next year: October 6, 1989. She did indeed start work on "The Wicked Stepmother," but walked off the set after only a week of shooting. Pieced together from whatever footage the filmmakers had of her, it was released with little fanfare in 1989. It was the last movie she appeared in.

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