Not Lovable, But Quotable: Bette Davis’ Restless Fury

We were talking about Bette Davis. I told The Smartest Man I Know that I thought the way she habitually flounced into a scene and seized it by the nape of its neck indicated that she was a bit of a ham.

“She wasn’t a ham,” he replied, “she was a hysteric.” The Smartest Man I Know will appreciate the fact that Bette Davis seems to have agreed with him. “Being hysterical,” she told Charlotte Chandler, “is like having an orgasm. It’s good for you.” If this is true, Davis should have spent the better part of her life in a delicious state of pleasurable exhaustion, instead of the way she actually spent it—in fretful agitation.

The title of Charlotte Chandler’s oral biography, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, gives the tonal key to the book: self-pity. Betrayed by her distant father, betrayed by the men she stupidly chose, betrayed because she loved William Wyler far more than he loved her, it’s the story of a woman who nourished a grudge for 81 years because she could never find anybody who loved her like her mother.

The fact that she wasn’t particularly lovable is beside the point. A true narcissist filters everything through her own self-veneration.

She was also her own worst enemy. Lindsay Anderson, who directed her in The Whales of August (1987), told me that her need for enemies, her undifferentiated fury about nothing at all, took her beyond the irrational and into outright insanity.

But, you say, that was at the tail end of her life, when things had gone sour and her beloved daughter had trashed her in a book. Well, dial it back 20-odd years. Robert Aldrich told Ms. Chandler that there were no blowups on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), but if there had been, Davis would have won, because “she was made that way, to thrive on conflict.”

Throughout the book, Davis basks in the unchallengeable belief that the problem with her private life was her choice of men. Admittedly, the dilemma is acute for actors on the mountaintop. Another actor in the house means a battle for dominance that would take Robert Ardrey to analyze, and then there’s the problem of rising and falling careers. So a lot of stars, now as well as then, assert their dominance by marrying someone who, in a rational world, would be a personal assistant—a submissive whose plumage will never compete. One of Davis’ husbands was a hotel desk clerk; another was an “artist,” although nothing ever seemed to get painted.

Makes Kevin Federline seem like a heavyweight.

Of the parts that got away, Davis was notably upset about losing Anna and the King of Siam to Irene Dunne, largely because of her admiration, both personal and professional, for Rex Harrison. (This presumes that Darryl Zanuck would have actually considered casting an innately irascible actress opposite an equally irascible actor.) Interesting that Davis should admire Harrison: He was chamber music, light-fingered and dexterous, while she always seemed to come on with the thundering chords of Max Steiner behind her, even if someone else scored the film. It speaks to a pet theory of mine, that artists often admire other artists who represent qualities they don’t possess themselves.

Aside from her father, the only man Davis seems to have worshipped was William Wyler, who certainly dragooned her best work out of her—The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941), although I must confess a weakness for Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory (1939)—by being even more obstinate and willful than she was. (“He was everything I ever dreamed of in a man, so love and passion soon followed.”) For his part, Wyler told Ms. Chandler, “She was very passionate and emotional, with more energy than anyone I’d ever known. Too much for me.”

You can hear the exhaustion. How could Wyler have gone home to the decathlon after running a marathon at the studio?

Among women, Davis expresses admiration for Martha Graham: “It was she who showed me the importance of the entire body in acting. She was an authentic genius, one of the great people of the twentieth century. I worshipped her. Still do. I learned how to use every part of my body in subtle ways to enhance the words I was saying, or even to belie them. It was the ultimate in body language before that term was used.”

Davis seems to have been a purely emotional creature, with no powers of intellectual analysis whatever. Occasionally, she embarrasses herself: “Because of Mildred [in Of Human Bondage], there were some who considered me the female Marlon Brando of my generation.”

No. Among other things, Brando did better accents. Davis being Davis, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone is always quotable; Charlotte Chandler being Charlotte Chandler, it’s always readable, although Ms. Chandler doesn’t mention why it took a quarter of a century for the book to appear—the interviews were begun in 1980—nor does she point out that Davis collaborated on a very similar book (Mother Goddam) with another writer. Ms. Chandler, though, gets stuff that Whitney Stine never dreamed of.

Take this, for example, about the archetypal 30’s lounge lizard Warren William: “The giggle around the studio was that he had an erection ninety percent of the time and had to wear special underwear in order to conceal it. I think he started the rumor.”

You don’t get tidbits like that on Inside the Actors Studio.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer was published last year by Simon & Schuster. He reviews books regularly for The Observer.

Not Lovable, But Quotable:  Bette Davis’ Restless Fury