Bette Davis was in a class by herself, and so was the invitation-only memorial tribute to her Thursday evening at the Burbank Studios on Stage 18. It was the sound stage where she filmed six of the pictures she made for Warner Bros. during a long tenure marked by legendary battles with Jack Warner over the worthiness of material he chose for her.
It was, as David Hartman announced, a "no frills" occasion and in perfect keeping with Davis's no-nonsense, let's-get-on-with-it Yankee spirit. Stage 18 was barren except for neat rows of folding chairs for the guests, some old props, a camera and a couple of spotlights, and was all the more moving a setting for being so unmistakably a workplace. No photographers were permitted.
Above a platform where Hartman, James Woods and Angela Lansbury spoke of their friend and colleague, hung a screen for projecting film clips prepared for last April's Lincoln Center tribute to Davis. To either side of the screen were suspended three blowups of stills from some of her Warner films: on the left, "Hollywood Canteen" and two from "All This, and Heaven Too"; on the right, "Now, Voyager," "Jezebel" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"
Several superstars previously announced as attending were nowhere to be seen, but that was all right too. Most of the people there actually knew and worked with Davis and cared enough about her to come and pay their final respects. Among those from Warner's--and Davis' golden era--were writer Julius Epstein, director Vincent Sherman, editor Rudi Fehr, actresses Janis Paige and Joan Leslie.
Clearly, those involved in the one-hour-plus tribute staged by director George Schaefer were concerned with trying to live up to the high standards Davis set for herself. There was none of the easy, impersonal sentimentality or the self-congratulation that marks so many Hollywood tributes to its own.
Hartman observed that Davis unabashedly loved being a star: "She reveled in it, she trumpeted it and she celebrated it." She admitted that to accomplish her goals she had "to have the guts to be hated," he added. He noted that a wise man once said that the most a person can hope to say of himself or herself is that "I was here, and I mattered." There could be no doubt that Bette Davis was here and that she mattered. Lansbury spoke briefly and informally of Davis' "bravura acting of the first order."
Woods recalled the transforming impact of seeing "Now, Voyager" for the first time and of experiencing the "naked emotion" that Davis brought to her acting. He spoke of her compulsion to go beyond the horizon, of her ability to touch "the fat lady in the fourth row"--a borrowing from J. D. Salinger's "Franny and Zooey"--and make her--and us--say to ourselves, "I thought only I felt that." He surmised that her "great power was that she knew who she was."
In a sense, Woods invited those who knew Davis to look beyond the often-imitated trademark mannerisms--the clipped speech, the punctuations with cigarettes, the nervous gestures, the popping eyes--and to respond to the sheer honesty and unapologetic intelligence of Davis' portrayal of such diverse characters as the middle-aging Broadway star Margo Channing, the hearty but merciless Queen Elizabeth I and "Dark Victory's" ill-fated, gallant Judith Traherne. Never before have Davis' heroines seemed so timeless.
The tribute climaxed with that enormously touching silent montage of Bette Davis' face from countless films prepared for her 1977 American Film Institute Life Achievement Award. It was followed by a recent color still of Davis, accompanied by her off-key half-singing, half-talking of "I Wish You Love," the one mawkish note she herself might have edited out. As the recording ended, Robert Wagner got up and turned on a work light, signaling the conclusion of a worthy celebration of an unforgettable woman.