“I was the Marlon Brando of my generation.” —- the incomparable Bette Davis compares herself to the incomparable Marlon Brando. Seems like a fair exchange. Miss Davis was born on this day, April 5, in 1908, and died in 1989, aged 91.
Nobody ever accused Bette Davis of not speaking her mind. When not nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Of Human Bondage (1934), now — as it was then — generally accepted as one of the greatest performances ever delivered to the big screen by a female (LIFE magazine acclaimed is “the greatest performance ever recorded on screen by an actress” and nobody has ever leapt in to correct them) she wrote a letter to the Academy demanding she be included as a nominee.
As she was not yet President of the Academy (which she became in 1941), she had limited power in what could be done, with the Academy informing (or rather, tacitly urging) voters via an immediate press release that for that year only, they could vote for whomever they liked, whether that person was nominated or not. Claudette Colbert went on to win for It Happened One Night and looked visibly embarrassed when accepting.
The next year, as a result of this disaster, the now famous Oscar voting system, with the protracted nominee selection process and locked briefcases and sealed envelopes went began. Not incidentally, Miss Davis claims that the statuette is nicknamed “Oscar” because it’s backside reminded her of her first husband Harmon Nelson’s bottom (his middle name was Oscar). I’m not going to argue with her - are you?
Anyway, the next year when Miss Davis was handed her first Best Actress Oscar for Dangerous she dismissed it as “a consolation prize” and went on to say that the entire sordid Bondage affair ruined the Oscars for all time by setting off an infinite chain reaction, with each year’s winner being awarded for a performance that is not necessarily their best or hat year’s best, but merely a “consolation prize” for prior Oscar-unrecognised work. Meanwhile, that year’s truly deserving winner went home empty handed, only to return the next or several years later to win for a film that meant little to them or anyone else. I’m sure you can think of countless examples off the top of your head.
As always, Miss Davis was right. I mean, if you could just give one Best Actress Oscar, to cover the entire history of Hollywood female acting, there’d not even be a need to hold a ballot:
“Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.”
Bette Davis died on this day (October 6) in 1989, aged 81.
Some details behind Davis’ awesome, alchemic legend: star of over 100 film, television and stage roles, she was also the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She won the Best Actress Oscar twice, was the first person to score 10 Academy Award nominations for acting, and was the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. She married four times, divorced three times and was widowed once; she raised her children as a single parent and at one point put a “looking for work” advertisement in trade paper Variety.
Her favourite pillow became the one embroidered with “OLD AGE IS NO PLACE FOR SISSIES” and though Davis knew absolutely nothing about being a sissy, she knew pretty much everything about the rigours of aging. Wracked with multiple cancers and attacked with stroke after stroke (after her mastectomy for breast cancer in 1983 she had four strokes), she then copped her miserable (adopted) daughter BD Hyman’s bitter memoir My Mother’s Keeper.
Davis disinherited Hyman, and published a memoir of her own, which stated:
I am still recovering from the fact that a child of mine would write about me behind my back, to say nothing about the kind of book it is. I will never recover as completely from B.D.’s book as I have from the stroke. Both were shattering experiences.
She continued to travel the world, appearing regularly on the Johnny Carson Show and at film festivals where she was honoured for her life and career. She collapsed at the American Cinema Awards in 1989 and later learned her cancer had returned. She recovered sufficiently to leave for engagements in Europe and died in Paris, too weak to make a return journey to the United States,
In memory of Ms Davis, you should find time to say this at least once today:
“They say you should never say ‘bad’ about the dead, only ‘good’. Well, I hear this morning that Miss Crawford has died. Good!”
(Answering a reporter who asked for comment the morning of Joan Crawford’s death)
Like the Pyramids of Giza or the temples at Angkor, Bette Davis’ maximum magnificence really kicked in once she became a crumbling ruin.
In 1987 Geraldine Page, the previous year’s Best Actress, was too sick with kidney disease to attend the ceremony (she passed away three months later) and so Miss Davis presented that year’s Best Actor Oscar.
A loving montage of her performances and a thundering announcement of her Academy-related accomplishments played before her appearance at the podium. Miss Davis took in a lengthy standing ovation, before dismissing the adulation with a quick line of self-referential wit at which point everyone dutifully laughed. Then she began announcing the nominees, but in the way of Old Hollywood, where each nominee was briefly spoken about.
Her microphone was immediately switched off after she started talking about Bob Hoskins (nominated for Mona Lisa and a sure winner if overdue Paul Newman hadn’t been also on the list) after the sting for the next nominee, Dexter Gordon, had started playing (to a live television audience of one billion people).
It was switched back on again for her to announce the winner, Newman, and left on as Robert Wise attempted to accept on behalf of the absent honoree. This precious six minutes and twenty-one seconds of material should be watched in its entirety and many times, too, but the awesomeness really goes into overdrive from 5:25:
“Gay Liberation? I ain’t against it, it’s just that there’s nothing in it for me.”
“If I don’t get out of here I’ll die.”
Not nearly dramatic enough. Try instead:
“There are new words now that excuse everybody. Give me the good old days of heroes and villains, the people you can bravo or hiss. There was a truth to them that all the slick credulity of today cannot touch.”
“I don’t take the movies seriously, and anyone who does is in for a headache.”
Wayne Koestenbaum is an author/auteur extraordinaire, the creator of a string of unique, erudite classics such as “Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting An Icon”, and the biography “Andy Warhol”. He also wrote “The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire”, an influential and enterprising look at, well, opera, homosexuality and the mystery of desire.
Now, “An Anatomy of Groucho Marx” has been released.
Wayne teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He spoke with me way back in May 2005.
MARK ADNUM: Are you following the Michael Jackson trial?
WAYNE KOESTENBAUM: I read the latest Jackson tidbits every day in The New York Times. I am a big Michael Jackson fan and it hurts me to see perverts scapegoated. Whatever he did wrong, it’s still a fact that he is being treated by the media and by the court as a latter-day Oscar Wilde–a public figure of questionable gender and questionable sexuality, pilloried and humiliated for the pleasure of a public who won’t admit that its desire is to see shame inflicted on the mighty.
MA: Do you think star fucking, even in the form of worship from afar, is a form of psychic invasion, negative capability that impacts and informs the star’s psyche?
WK: No. Stars are insulated from our projections. Stars go about their own starry business. Stars wear blinders. Stars live in bell jars. (Or so I imagine.) There are exceptions. Mae West. But she was her own star-fucker; Mae West star-fucked Mae West. And if she was “cut off from reality,” that was a result of her own incestuous self-fucked condition, a mise-en-abyme. It wasn’t the fault of her fans.