David's Reviews > Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis

Dark Victory by Ed Sikov
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's review
Dec 09, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: le-cahiers-du-cinema

Spoiler alert! Yes, she really was, by most prevailing standards, a bitch. I think my favorite anecdote from this whole book was culled from the 1960s-era recollections of a random dentist who, hearing angry shouting, ran out to his waiting area only to find Bette Davis and Tennessee Williams ripping each other a new one to the shock and (perhaps) awe of a roomful of the dentally afflicted. She had earlier appeared in a stage production of his The Night of the Iguana—playing that one character Ava Gardner played in the John Huston film version—and let's just say she never really took much to playwrights, screenwriters, producers, and (least of all) directors. She preferred to perform all these roles herself, in a strictly informal but no less diligent capacity. It could be claimed, with little exaggeration, that after, oh, 1940 or so, Bette Davis had never truly been directed.

She was absolute terror on most film sets, especially after she became established: screaming, scolding, mocking, malingering, and grandstanding. But the more I read actor, director, and writer biographies, the more I find this sort of bad behavior goes hand-in-hand with either great talent or great technique. Take Groucho Marx, for example. Please. A horrible bastard—insensitive, unloving, impossible. Ingmar Bergman—an absentee father, a narcissist, a chilly neurotic. Woody Allen? Fucking his de facto daughter. Roman Polanski? We don't even need to go there.

So the bright side is that Bette Davis never drugged a minor and raped him (or her). As bright sides go, I'll take what I can get. (Which reminds me... To anyone who claims that celebrity culture is more sleazy and amoral now than ever before: Bullshit on you! It's just more publicized. The media back then was just either somewhat more discreet or very much more venal—ready to be bought off by the major studios. Bette Davis, while married, was giving blowjobs to the boyfriend of Joan Crawford—a well-known bisexual, by the way—in the dressing room on one of her movies. Gloria Grahame, star of Oklahoma! and In a Lonely Place, was caught fucking her husband's fifteen-year-old son. Tallulah Bankhead an Mae West were poster children for outrageous and bad behavior. Bankhead fucked more than she acted, almost dying of venereal disease in the 1930s; she allegedly had lesbian affairs with Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford, among others.)

Ed Sikov, the author of Dark Victory, is obviously a big (gay) fan of Bette Davis, so he generally takes a position of tolerance or rationalization for her many faults. For instance, she all but abandons her mentally challenged adopted daughter and leaves not a cent of her money for her care in her will. Her biological daughter B.D. was similarly excluded and shunned—but in this case more reasonably, because she wrote a tell-all before her mother had bothered to die. Sikov writes off B.D.'s book as 'whiny' and pathetic, even while admitting that many of its details are well corroborated. Bette Davis was an alcoholic, she was violent and abusive, and she was just plain mean. On the set of All About Eve, for example, Davis's costar Celeste Holm (who is still alive, incidentally, and 94) reports, 'Why, I walked onto the set the first or second day and said, "Good morning." And do you know her reply? She said, "Oh shit—good manners." I never spoke to her again. Ever. Bette Davis was so rude, so constantly rude. I think it had to do with sex.' And poor Lillian Gish! The ninetysomething actress of the D.W. Griffith silent movie era had the misfortune of appearing in Bette Davis's final completed film The Whales of August. Gish was probably one of the kindliest actresses ever, but Davis's competitiveness and subtle enmity left Gish asking the director, simply, 'Why doesn't she like me?'

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. She was a bitch. But she was also one of the notable serious actresses of her generation. She didn't need to appear glamorous. Often she was in favor of making her characters as unlikeable and physically hideous as possible. Frequently she played characters much older than she was, and consequently she had to be made to look old. She played Queen Elizabeth I twice in her life, and both times she shaved off the front of her hair. Sometimes her performances were steeped in the mannerisms and dictions which have become the catnip for gay impersonators the world over, but at other times she was capable of remarkable restraint—something she was never quite capable of in her private life. An incredibly driven and ruthless perfectionist and an incurable neurotic, she took out all of her insecurities, as is often the cliche, on everyone within firing distance. Her three children, her four husbands, her mother, and her mentally disturbed sister included. This same insatiable drive ensured that she worked until the very end—even after she'd had a stroke that impaired her speech and caused one side of her face to wilt unresponsively. I think the only thing she really, really wanted to do in her life was work—and that work just happened to end up being acting.

My Rankings:
(I haven't seen very many of her many, many films. Wikipedia reports that she has over 100 film, television, and theater credits.)

1. All About Eve
2. Jezebel
3. Mr. Skeffington
4. Dark Victory
5. Now, Voyager
6. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
7. Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte
8. A Stolen Life
9. The Star
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Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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message 1: by D. (new)

D. Pow one old queen reads about another.

message 3: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal What D said! What D said!

message 4: by David (last edited Dec 09, 2011 09:50AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David D. wrote: "one old queen reads about another."

As soon as I added this, I thought, 'How long before D-Pow serves up some choice bon mots RE: homoness?'

The answer: Not very long.

Bette Davis was an amazing woman/actress. The fact that gays love(d) her only confirms this. (I do hate Judy Garland though. Booooring!)

message 5: by D. (new)

D. Pow luv u, davey wavey.

message 6: by Jen (new)

Jen What's wrong with Garland- she's lovely when she is frightening

message 7: by Jen (new)

Jen Just look at those arms!

message 8: by Ben (new)

Ben She was great in Of Human Bondage. Not a film I recommend (read the book), but if you want to watch it for her performance it may be worth it.

message 9: by David (last edited Dec 16, 2011 11:50AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David Yes, I have to see that one. It was her big breakout role. You should see All About Eve if you haven't, Benji.

message 10: by Jessica (new)

Jessica "Bette Davis was so rude, so constantly rude. I think it had to do with sex."

Yay! The lady who said that must be awesome. How terrifically well put!

message 11: by Jen (new)

Jen I want to see where The Little Foxes would land on your list.

message 12: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Great review, David! I agree with you - All About Eve is her best.

To anyone who claims that celebrity culture is more sleazy and amoral now than ever before: Bullshit on you! It's just more publicized.

So very true.

message 13: by Bettie☯ (new)

Bettie☯ D. wrote: "one old queen reads about another."

snort - projectile coffee hits monitor

message 14: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed Sikov Thanks for reading my book! I must ask you, though, how I "tolerate" or "rationalize" either the essential abandonment of Margot or B.D.'s childhood. I report both of these subjects fairly, I think, without going into editorializing all that much. B.D. was a spoiled little creep who lived off Bette's money and then turned around and stabbed her in the back in the name of Jesus. Margot is more problematic, but I think I make it clear that Margot's abandonment had more to do with Bette's relationship with Gary Merrill than with Margot herself.

David Margot is more problematic, but I think I make it clear that Margot's abandonment had more to do with Bette's relationship with Gary Merrill than with Margot herself.

I didn't get this out of it, but maybe I missed something. I was left wondering what her rationale for leaving Margot out of her will was. B.D. of course was understandable. And I understand Bette Davis could only tolerate Margot for so long in person, but it boggles the mind how she could have been quite so cold as to leave her nothing. Especially when it really required no effort on her part. She'd be dead at that point after all.

I'm sure you're right about B.D. (being a spoiled little creep), but not having read her book and yet also knowing that B.D. had a lot to complain about concerning her mother left me thinking, Why shouldn't she write the book? If my mother was a famous bitch, I'd probably write a book too. But your point is well-taken: she was also living off her mother, so yes—it's more than a little hypocritical to bite the hand that feeds you. Also, if B.D.'s book is motivated by Christian piety, that makes me even less sympathetic to her.

But anyway—thanks for responding to my review. I really enjoyed this book a lot and want to read your book on Billy Wilder too.

message 16: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed Sikov Thanks! Maybe I didn't make the Margot/Gary issue as clear as I thought I did!

Anyway, thanks again for your thoughtful and well-written review, and I hope you like the Wilder too!

message 17: by Jaykumar (new) - added it

Jaykumar Buddhdev I really enjoyed reading your review, and i truly i hope i'd enjoy reading the book just as much, just as much i've enjoyed her films... thank you...

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