Bette Davis Wasn’t Typical Star


Reading Kristine McKenna’s quietly savage article on the Bette Davis tribute makes one wonder why the Los Angeles County Museum of Art would bother with a retrospective at all (“A Thorough Look at All About Bette,” Calendar, June 9).

McKenna refers negatively to almost every film in the program: “mercifully forgotten” . . . “larded with maudlin sentiment” . . . “corny” . . . “turgid” . . . “bloated.” One Davis performance “simply doesn’t wash”; in another, she is “blown off the screen.” Davis has “weird diction,” period pieces “don’t suit her” and she’s “impersonating Shirley Booth.”

McKenna even seems to dismiss Davis’ acclaimed portrayal of Margo Channing in “All About Eve”--by stating that Davis was “essentially playing herself.” Who cares? A great performance is a great performance.


With these kinds of reviews, how did Bette Davis even have a career, much less become one of the greatest stars of all time? Arriving in Hollywood during the reign of chromium blondes, the studio publicity man couldn’t even find Bette at the train station because “no one there even remotely looked like an actress.” Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. said, “She has as much sex appeal as Slim Summberville” (a hangdog-faced character actor of the ‘30s).

What these studio men (and McKenna) missed is that Davis became a great star because she was different. Instead of glamour, she had talent, style, guts and was a risk-taker. Davis battled Jack Warner for the chance to play Mildred in “Of Human Bondage”--an ugly, dark role that the studio claimed would end her fledgling career. Instead, it made her a star and she is amazing in it.

Bette battled Warner again to play Judith Traherne in “Dark Victory.” He claimed that no one would go see a picture about a dying woman. The film was a huge hit, Davis got another Oscar nomination and the press labeled her “the fourth Warner Brother” after its release.

Grand melodramas like “The Great Lie” and “Old Acquaintance” managed to show off Davis’ signature emoting as well as her underrated comedic skills. “The Letter” and “The Little Foxes” showcase “bad girl Bette” at her best. “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte” is constantly revived--and the reason is Davis’ complex portrayal of an aging woman on the brink of madness.

Davis made more than her share of bad films. But even in the worst of them, she displays that ineffable star quality that holds the screen and keeps you watching.

So don’t take Kristine McKenna’s word for it, or even mine for that matter. Go see any of Bette’s films. You’ll find out why (as Addison DeWitt said in “All About Eve”), she is “a great star, a true star, she never was or will be anything less.”