Bette Davis: Talent, Will, And Sweat

Davis, by Victor Skrebneski

Tennessee on Davis:

She lived both on and for struggle--she adored a challenge and felt purely alive when she was in the battle to vanquish it. And, oh, the joy when she succeeded, and for years so many people allowed her to believe that she always succeeded. She was indomitable; she was impossible; she was fabulous.

She was out of her element on [Night of the] Iguana. If she had ever truly had a command of her talent on the stage, she had lost it by that time. There was ever any doubt that she could command a sound stage, but she seemed lost working on a play; she seemed small, lost. Of course this made her terribly angry, so most of what we saw was the virago, railing about the set and the costumes and the audiences: She both wanted for them to love her and want to see her, but would then chastise them for being stupid fans who weren't there to appreciate my play. Davis also could not help perpetually thinking of her investment in the play: At Warner Bros., she would always begin, she could work for four to six weeks, and at the conclusion of that time, she would have a Jezebel or a Dark Victory or The Letter to show for it: a completed project, featuring her, ready to sell, ready for applause. On a play, you put in two, three months, and all you have is the same play, but you are, one hopes, perfecting the performances, helping your fellow players perfect their own performances. This was insufficient to Miss Davis.

As Maxine in The Night of the Iguana (1961).

She had no respect for the director [Frank Corsaro], but none of us did: He was not up to the task. Bette claimed that the Method, or rather its practitioners within the play, sabotaged her, but there was none of that: Patrick O'Neal was far too lazy a student of any acting style to have used it to such a degree as to distract, and Margaret Leighton--sublime, peerless--was simply a great actress perfectly cast. No one had time for Bette, and this drove her insane. Everyone was there to work, to perfect the play, and no one had time to see after Miss Davis.

She hated her dressing room, which like virtually all theatrical dressing rooms was shabby and small and uninspiring. I think she felt at that point in her life, she was at some sort of end point, and it would end up in a supporting role in a play in a shabby dressing room. I liked her and spent time talking to her, but all she wished to discuss were other actresses. She adored bitchy gossip! She trashed Tallulah [Bankhead] endlessly, and ended each story with a statement: 'Well, I certainly triumphed in that case.' Winning was very important to Miss Davis. She felt she and [Anna] Magnani were compatriots, but all they had in common, really, was temperament and a healthy libido. Davis craved Jimmy Farentino, as did we all: He was a marvelously beautiful man, and he enjoyed walking about the premises in next to nothing or nothing. Bette seethed with lust. Bette endured in the belief that she might have a chance with this young stud, and it was very charming to watch her flirt with him, to offer advice, to invite him to her shabby dressing room to discuss the business. In retrospect I think Jimmy would have given her a go, but Miss Davis, a believer in astrology and Yankee etiquette, could never bring herself to ask for the favor. She could never bring herself to ask for anything--she loved to demand, to rail.

I wanted her to be great, but she was not: She was Bette Davis, slumming in a play. To my amazement she would look out over the audience, counting the house, making no attempt to be in character unless she was speaking. I was, shall we say, disappointed. And then she left the play.

I continue to enjoy Miss Davis through her films, and through those other great performances she gives in interviews, during which she gives the impression--false, in my opinion--of a smart, decent, upright lady.

Better, in so many circumstances, to not meet people you admire.


   Davis on Tennessee/By Phone/1984/From New York:

It was not a happy time, and I was terribly disappointed--not in Tennessee Williams, who wrote a wonderful play, but in everything else. Everything else! My God, I got no help at all from anyone. I was led to believe that [Elia] Kazan might direct, and I found this terribly exciting, but he was not available or he was not interested, and I got someone totally terrified and not at all helpful. And that cast! If I got five words out of Mr. O'Neal or Miss Leighton, it was a miracle. There was no camaraderie, no sense of kinship, no attitude of pulling together to make the play work.

I came from the stage! I am a stage-trained actress! Of course I knew how to act for the stage. What I did not know or understand or give a damn about was Patrick O'Neal's motivations to sit or stand or look at an imaginary moon! Miss Leighton was another story--she was not so much Method as totally absorbed in herself and her part. She wouldn't look at me on the stage! She ignored me backstage! I might as well have been a rodent who crawled into the theatre!

I didn't need that, so I left, even though it killed me: I am not someone who leaves a play or a film; I am someone who masters the problem. I had no choice--I needed to support my family and I needed to do work that I loved and that meant something to people who want to see Bette Davis.

I always wanted to play Amanda Wingfield. As in so many other instances, Katharine Hepburn beat me to it. I was in my early fifties during the time of Iguana, but I could have pulled off Amanda on the stage, perhaps even film. Tennessee kept saying that Amanda is truly about forty-five, but they keep getting older and older! Did you see Hepburn in that thing on TV? She looked seventy! Precisely how old was she when she had those children?  I really should have been doing something like Menagerie on the stage, not a supporting role in Iguana or anything. That was my mistake. I thought it would be good for my career.

You know there would be no Jo Van Fleet if it weren't for me? My dear, every decent part she ever had was offered to me first! Kazan wanted me for East of Eden, but I didn't fancy playing a cameo, even if it was such a good part, primed for awards. I chose to play a leading role instead [in The Virgin Queen]. Then I was offered the mother in Look Homeward, Angel on the stage, but I broke my back, and that was off. Then Paul Newman wanted me to play his mother in Cool Hand Luke, but I didn't want to do a cameo. Jo got all of those parts and quite a few awards. I might be sitting here with two supporting Oscars to sit beside the leading Oscars, but I don't have time to think about right choices or wrong choices.

I was always the first choice for the roles I played. I don't want to be a stand-by actress, like Faye Dunaway. One is not a star if one is not sought after, written for, demanded. Miss Dunaway has never been anyone's first choice: she has been cast primarily because Jane Fonda has not been available. She is an accidental star, and I don't want to be that: If I thought I was such a thing, I would find some other line of work.

I do believe that professionalism is dead. The working situations I find today are ludicrous! There is so much waste--of time, of talent, of money. I worked like a demon all those years: You're looking at talent and sweat when you look at my work, but today there is very little work on the parts: the work is in the deals, the contracts, the publicity, and then a vacuum shows up on the screen or the stage. I see very little that interests or impresses me these days, and this makes me very sad, because I love the theatre and I love films. I don't think I'm an angry old lady, complaining about things and feeling left out. I have a body of work and a history that I think merits attention, and I think my opinion means something, and I think the work coming out now stinks! There is no individuality in the actors or the films. Why? What happened?

This project you're on--finding Tennessee's women and talking to them is good, but it's sad. All of those women you've mentioned--there will never be a list of names like that again. Good luck to the person who dreams of a life in the theatre in another ten or twenty years. Who will they write to for help? Who will they wait in line to see? Who will they conjure in thought to create a character? It's very sad, I tell you. It's over. I really think it's over. I honestly think that we will no longer go to theatres to see films--they'll be shown entirely on televisions now: on cable or video recorders. This is horrible, I think. I think films should be seen on a big screen with an audience, and I think you should get together and get dressed and sit with that group and give a damn about what happens. I think you should go to the theatre to see great plays about great ideas, cast with people you want to look at for two hours, creating characters who are interesting and larger than life.

You know I went to a restaurant the other night, and they were lovely to me. They gave me a bottle of wine; they sent me flowers. It was really lovely. A thank-you for all the work and the sweat and the memories. The host of the restaurant came to me toward dessert and asked if I might come with him to the kitchen. I went, expecting to thank the chef for a lovely meal, but instead I was shown to a dark section of the kitchen, where a young man washing dishes was introduced to me. Taped above his sink--this awful slop sink--was a photograph of me, quite stained and curling, I might add, but still lovely. This young man was an actor--he was studying to be an actor--and that photograph was his inspiration to keep washing the dishes, to keep studying, to keep auditioning because something like me, something like my career might happen for him. I was terribly moved, as you can imagine, and I was delighted to meet this young man. Now, really, who in God's name is around today who would be plastered above a sink and could serve as a dream for anybody? Now really! Tell me!

And that is sad. Very sad.

 Bette Davis as Jezebel (1938).



Popular Posts