One Friday night last spring, Hollywood legend Bette Davis left the Los Angeles film set of "Wicked Stepmother" after one week of shooting to undergo some dental work in New York. She never returned.
Now, eight months later, the true story behind that departure is the source of a heated dispute between the 80-year-old Davis and "Wicked Stepmother's" 41-year-old director, Larry Cohen.
Cohen says Davis did not return because of her health, particularly the severe weight loss she experienced after dental surgery. But the relentlessly feisty Davis blames Cohen for her decision not to return. She sharply criticizes his directorial style and says he refused to heed any of her advice.
With "Wicked Stepmother" tentatively set to open Jan. 27, Davis is anxious to distance herself from the film--even though audiences will see her starring in scenes during the first half-hour. "I would be ashamed to have people think I sanctioned something like this," Davis says.
Davis has not seen the completed film, but she did view the first week's footage before she left for New York. "People will be horrified at the footage on me," she says. "I think that for the good of my future career I honestly had no choice" but to go public with the story.
Despite an acting career already spanning more than half a century, Davis' "future career" is much on her mind these days. In 1983, after undergoing a mastectomy, followed nine days later by a stroke, Davis was terrified that she would never again be able to act. She wrote in her book "This 'n That" that, "I wouldn't want to live if I could never act again."
Today, Davis is back on her feet, with a chatty autobiographical book and a starring role in the feature film "Whales of August" behind her. During a recent interview in her Hollywood apartment, she looked resplendent and elegant in her tailored red-knit dress and diamond-laced jewelry. But as Davis settled into her armchair, reaching for her trademark prop--a cigarette--it was obvious that while she has recovered from the stroke, she will never recover from her intense need to work.
"I lah-h-h-v my profession," says the ever-so-theatrical voice, deepened by years of tobacco smoke. "I would n-e-e - e-ver stop. Relax? I relax when I work. It's my life."
That need to go on acting, regardless of her age, is what prompted Davis to go public with her side of the "Wicked Stepmother" story--and to voice her criticism of Cohen's direction. "I'm not a vain person," says Davis. "But at 80 years old I don't want to look the way I looked (in the "Wicked Stepmother" footage). It seriously could be the end of anybody ever hiring me again."
There is also an unspoken concern here: Studios are reluctant to hire actors, particularly older actors, with publicized health problems. A key reason is the steep price of obtaining cast insurance, which covers a studio's losses if an actor dies or falls ill during production. In Davis' case, according to Cohen, the insurance company paid out a $1-million claim to cover the costs of her departure from "Wicked Stepmother."
But, as Cohen notes, Davis' dental problems should not make her any less employable because they weren't related to her age or health. "This could have happened to anybody," Cohen says. He adds that Davis passed the physical that is required before obtaining cast insurance.
Cohen--who launched his own career writing such films as "Carrie," and has made his mark as a director of horror offerings like "Q," "The Stuff," and the "It's Alive" series--wrote the "Wicked Stepmother" role specifically for Davis.
He recalls the story of Davis' departure this way: Soon after the actress flew to New York last spring, it became clear that her dental problems were more serious than anyone had anticipated. She stayed in New York several weeks, undergoing surgery and experiencing severe weight loss. (Davis herself says she dropped from 88 to 75 pounds.)
Several days later, her business manager contacted Cohen and began raising objections to several aspects of the production. "Her manager came out and said there were problems with the set," says Cohen. "She had fallen on something. . . . (At another point) a special effect cigarette prop had exploded and hurt her."
Cohen contends that Davis' representatives were paving the way for her decision not to return for the two more weeks of filming required in the original script. By then, he says, he had received a letter from her doctor saying she was unable to return anytime soon. As production stalled and costs escalated, Cohen says he considered hiring a replacement.
Instead, he rewrote the script to minimize Davis' role as the wicked witch who marries into an unsuspecting family, becoming the children's stepmother. In the original script, Davis was going to turn a cat into the beautiful Barbara Carrera. In the new version, Davis herself turns into Carrera, who assumes Davis' lines for the bulk of the film. (Though some family members continue to see her as Davis.)
Davis sees things differently. Yes, she says, she did undergo intensive dental work, including surgery, and lost 13 pounds as a result. "But I was perfectly able, had the conditions been right, to return to the film. Perfectly able," she says.
Those "conditions," she says, centered on Cohen's direction, and his attitude. "Before I left, I told him I had to see the rushes (that is, the film footage) from the week's work," Davis recalls. "I've always tried to be very, very honest with audiences. Whatever I did, I believed in myself. I was really very upset with these rushes. Many of the scenes that I wasn't in had nothing to do with the script I had approved. Much of that week's work had, well, to me, many vulgar moments.
"He never rehearses actors," she complains of Cohen. "He just rehearses the camera. So we work for the camera. I was very uncomfortable in all the scenes he had me play in that week because he worried about the camera. There was always a dolly running around."
Davis was particularly disturbed about her own appearance on film. "If he had gone in and seen the rushes daily he would have seen that there was a problem dentally, but he never does," she says. "On the screen I looked uncomfortable--and I was."
She says that after many days in New York agonizing over what to do, she concluded that she had to leave the production. "I just knew I could not come back," she says, "that nothing would change. He took suggestions from nobody."
Cohen dismisses Davis' criticisms. On the quality of the Davis' footage, he says that no one but Davis could tell that her dentures were slipping. He adds that in the final cut he edited out the pauses she took between lines--apparently a result of her dental problems.
He says that while he doesn't block out scenes on location--preferring to work more spontaneously--he spent days rehearsing lines with her personally and with the cast at his home. "And I have plenty of cigarette burns all over my house to prove it," Cohen said in a reference to Davis' smoking habit.
Then there is the dispute over one scene: "Vulgar, in terrible taste," says Davis. "One of the biggest laughs in the movie," retorts Cohen.
In it, the audience gets a glimpse of a photo of the family's natural mother on the mantel, as the children recount how wonderful and kind she was. The photo is of Joan Crawford, subject of her daughter's scathing book, "Mommie Dearest," and Davis' "Baby Jane" co-star. (Davis received similar treatment from her evangelical daughter, B.D. Hyman, who condemned the actress' mothering talents in a 1985 book.)
The strong-willed Bette Davis is no rookie in the ring with film makers and studios. There was the time in 1945, for example, when she "raised H"--as she puts it--over an advertisement for "Corn is Green" that pictured her schoolmistress character, Miss Moffat, in a slinky gown.
Davis' fights with Jack Warner were legendary. Angry over the uninteresting parts his studio was requiring her to play during the 1940s, she fled to Europe to make pictures. But Warner filed a suit against her for breach of contract and obtained an injunction against her non-Warner work.
But, Davis says, she has never before left a film in the midst of production. "I thought this part would be fun," she says. "In all my years, I never heard of a director who never saw rushes, who never listened to me. I was always flattered by directors. I think you have a duty to bring ideas to them--that's the way I've always worked."
Cohen insists that his and Davis' relations were amicable right up to her departure to New York, when she said goodby to him with a kiss. "My attitude is that many people give Bette Davis dinners, many people give Bette Davis awards, but very few give her jobs," says Cohen. "I gave her a job."
Cohen still considers Davis "wonderful woman, very brave and courageous. I'm sorry it worked out to be an unfortunate experience." Of her decision to go public with her story, he says, "She's a fighter, that's why she's been around so long. Now she's fighting for her next film."