Bette Davis

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► A Bette Davis retrospective plays at BFI Southbank, London, throughout August. Now, Voyager is rereleased in UK cinemas from 6 August.

This interview first featured in Sight and Sound Winter 1971/2

In the flesh, she is a surprisingly small woman. Neat bones, fastidiously formed features, figure well contained. Nothing glaring. The famous scathing mouth turns out to be standard size and far from deadly. But the atmosphere at Pinewood on the set of Bette Davis’s latest film, Madame Sin, is electric. You know you are in the presence. Not that she expects or invites attention. She simply commands the court through a formidable sense of being. (It is no accident that one remembers her Elizabeth the First and Catherine the Great before other, better performances.)

Time and hindsight have bequeathed her a celebrity beyond that of great actress and superstar. There is no one left who represents so accurately what Hollywood was all about. Even her rebellions, her suspensions, her legal battle with Jack Warner against the slavery of the contract system, were characteristic. For Hollywood was shaped by rebels who created a governing establishment out of a revolutionary cabal.

Remembering her past protests, she is perhaps slightly astonished at the fiercely protective affection she feels for those 40 tough, humiliating, exhilarating years of “the career”. She talks about “the career” as if it were some separate astral body orbiting around the earthbound being of Bette Davis and not totally under control.

“Films were always a great art. We who worked in them during the 30s – the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood – knew that. But the critics didn’t. They didn’t take them seriously. You know why? Because you could go into the movie house at any time, right in the middle of the film. Not like the theatre where you had to be there on time for the performance. Worst thing that happened to the cinema. Continuous performances. Should never have been allowed. But that’s what helped create the cinema habit, they say.” The tone of the voice says as much as the dialogue. Seconds after the word ‘theatre’ has died in the ear, you can still feel the sting of venom in its tail: left over, no doubt, from the time when the critics saved their reverence for the stage and their ridicule for the screen.

Now, Voyager (1942)

She puffs hard on a cigarette, familiarly. Her costume for Madame Sin – black wig, green eye-makeup, black trouser suit loaded with jewelled medallions – would intimidate most women. But she knows exactly how to dominate the cloth and paint and rhinestones – it’s part of her expertise.

“This film is a new experience for me. For one thing, it’s a crime fantasy and usually I like to find some way of relating to my characters. But how can you relate to someone as outrageous as Madame Sin? So I have to invent all the time. It’s fun. They make films in a completely different way, these days. So I just let this young director David Greene lead me around by the nose. He’s brilliant. But different, as I say.

“Here we go out on location for authenticity. In my time we created exteriors so perfectly in the studio, like the set for The Petrified Forest [1936] for instance, that you couldn’t even tell the difference. And we were able to get on with the job instead of waiting around for the weather. But that’s the way they do it now. I’m learning. But I can’t say I feel comfortable. It’ll never be the same again. Those days are gone, but gone. They’ll never come back…”

She has a real respect for her producer and co-actor Robert Wagner. “That young man is a great administrator. Producing is something an actor can do. But these actors who turn directors! It’s madness. I’ve made 80 films and I can’t begin to know how you should go about directing a film…”

Like most veterans of the Hollywood system, she instinctively distrusts a lack of organisation, a sloppy approach to the job. Arduous work is one thing, wasted work is unforgivable. Though guarded in her comments on the new cinema styles, she obviously finds the hit-and-miss unprepared quality of some new films hardest to take.

“The first indication I had that they wanted a clip from Now, Voyager [1942] for Summer of ’42 [1971] came from the studio, who implied that it would be used for a laugh. My lawyer wrote back saying if they wanted a clip to laugh at why didn’t they choose a scene from one of their current films. How about that…? Actually, I gather it was used very tastefully and made an important point in the story. I’ve a great admiration for Robert Mulligan anyway. You know, I had to fight to get Now, Voyager. Miss Irene Dunne was going to do it. And I stormed into Hal Wallis’s office – he found all my best subjects, a genius! I told him how dare he cast Miss Dunne, when I was under contract? It was my world. I knew all about that woman and her possessive New England mother.

“I was lucky. A lot of my films were produced by a man named Henry Blanke, who had tremendous taste. Things have gone too far these days on the screen, what should be honest becomes vulgar. But we used to get so mad all the time having to compromise. You remember Winter Meeting [1948], about the love affair between a woman and a man who was studying for the priesthood. Well, this was a ferocious story. She hated his Church and his faith. She couldn’t understand why he was shutting himself away from her. And it was tough. You could do it now, properly. But then they had to water it down so much it was just a mild romance with bits of Catholicism around the fringes.

William Wyler and Bette Davis

“And then the classic case was The Letter [1940]. The Code said I had to die because I was a murderess. William Wyler got around that as well as he possibly could, but it missed the point of the story which came out in that last line of hers – ‘The tragedy is I still love the man I killed.’”

Somehow the totally forgettable Fashions of 1934 (1934) comes up. Does a copy even exist? “Wasn’t that ghastly? That was my Garbo period. They gave me this long blonde wig because they wanted us all to look like imitations of Garbo. But I didn’t let them get away with that for long. I used to go into the commissary at Warners and look at the pictures round the walls and I swear to you that every young girl there looked exactly the same. They always started out wanting to fix your teeth, that was the first thing, and then to change your hair style and colouring. Margaret Sullavan, Katharine Hepburn and I were the holdouts. We were the ones who dug our heels in and wouldn’t be changed. I really felt sorry for those Hollywood people. They couldn’t figure us out at all…”

Bette Davis

She remembers, when she was first making her name on the stage, putting a New York milliner in his place when he had offered to send her a selection of hats because “a hat is very special, it makes you feel a different person”. The upstart Bette replied, “But I don’t want to be different, I like the person I am.”

“All the same, hats are nice for an occasion,” she muses and, as in All About Eve (1950), the sudden flashes of femininity, the lowering of the defences, make her seem very vulnerable, rather touching. “The designers we had at Warners were so good. Orry-Kelly, Edith Head. They designed clothes for the people we were. Not like Adrian at Metro who designed fancy dress.

“Metro was a fairytale studio compared to Warners. They made their people feel important, cherished. Great big dressing rooms. All that stuff. I wouldn’t have liked that. Nobody made us feel important at Warners. You just worked damned hard. Six or seven B pictures a year I made in the early 30s. That’s where I learned my trade, that’s where we all learned our trade.

“But it’s a ruthless life and you had to fight all the time for quality. And sometimes it got so tiring. You’d go to the studio and think: ‘Why am I battling like this? Why don’t I just give in? Will it really matter to the audience if that piece of dialogue isn’t perfect, if that dress isn’t quite right for the character?’ But now I see my films on television and I’m so glad I did stick it out. Because the quality still shows.

Jezebel [1938], that’s where the career really began to take shape. Hal found Jezebel for me. I remember David Selznick wanted to sue us because we came out with it just before Gone with the Wind [1939]. But in a way I think it was truer to the feeling of the South at that time than his film. I’ve always felt Gone with the Wind would have been twice as good if it had been in black and white, more intimate, smaller. It’s a pity these days that you have to film in colour, you can’t make what is essentially a black-and-white subject in black and white. [Whatever Happened to] Baby Jane [1962] would have been much too pretty in colour. On the other hand, [The Private Lives of] Elizabeth and Essex [1939] and Mr. Skeffington [1944] would have been marvellous in colour. But in the 30s, the studio was only allocated two colour films a year, because it was so expensive and there was only one process, Technicolor. Those of us who made money at the box office never got colour films because we didn’t need that extra attraction. They gave the colour to the terrible scripts, as an added inducement to get the public in.”

Now, Voyager (1942)

About her colleagues, she talks sometimes sternly but always with understanding. One senses that Paul Muni on Juarez (1939) must have been a penance to work with, but she calls him ‘Mr’ and prefers to remember the time when he didn’t have to have an acre of make-up to portray a convincing character. “He was so spontaneous, so good, in Bordertown [1935], Scarface [1932]. In Juarez he wore this complete rubber mask which made him look exactly like the portraits and statues of Juarez in Mexico. The exhibitors weren’t happy at all; they said, ‘What’s the point of having Muni if you can’t recognise him?’ Anyway, he had his part built up, too. Originally Juarez was a fringe character; the story was about the Emperor Maximilian, Brian Aherne, and his wife Carlotta, me. By the time they’d cut out some of our crucial scenes, the audience couldn’t understand why Carlotta was going mad at the end, anyway. It didn’t make sense.

“People criticise Hollywood now. But we made some good films. Crusading films too – think about Black Legion [1937], I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang [1932], the anti-Nazi films. One of the saddest days of my life was when I went to a farewell party they gave on the stages at Warners. There was a still from every film that had ever been produced there on the walls, and all the old-timers who were still alive turned up, supporting players like Frank McHugh, who often made the films. Those people had size… I came home and I could have wept, because I knew we’d never see the like of that party and that Hollywood again.”

The assistant director on Madame Sin pokes his head around the door of her dressing room and apologises for calling her so early, as it happened unnecessarily. “Don’t apologise,” she tells him. “It’s your job to anticipate the director’s needs. It was the same with Wyler; if he needed a prop or an actor and you couldn’t produce them, you’d have had to take the can back. You’re only doing your job.” And from Bette Davis, there is no greater compliment.