WEIRDLAND: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Life with the Invincible Bette Davis

Time Warner’s Turner and Warner Bros. reached a deal to stock Turner’s FilmStruck with more than 600 classic Hollywood films each month from the Warner Bros. library. At the same time, WB’s Warner Archive subscription-streaming service — launched in 2013 — will be shut down, and current customers will be migrated over to FilmStruck. Titles in Warner Bros.’ catalog coming to FilmStruck include many that have never been available on a subscription video-on-demand platform. Those include “Casablanca,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Singin’ In the Rain,” “Citizen Kane,” “The Music Man,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Thin Man,” “Cat People,” “A Night At The Opera,” “An American In Paris” and “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” In addition, FilmStruck will introduce new curated themes around WB’s Hollywood classics such as “Rogers & Astaire: The Complete Collection,” “Neo-Noir,” and a “Star of the Week” theme featuring titles with Bette Davis, Hepburn and Tracy, Ava Gardner and others. Source: variety.com

Bette Davis was the first person to receive 10 Academy Award nominations and she twice won for Best Actress. The first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, and the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Davis was in the twilight of her career when the two met, but Kathryn Sermak still witnessed the flamboyant actress’s uncompromising work ethic in her final roles. “I lived with her for several years – it was like a mother/daughter relationship – and she became my best friend. Miss D was not only incredibly generous to me but very fair. I only know that when I first started working for her, Miss D and Bede were super, super close. Whenever she was on a set, photos of her children would come out for display in the dressing rooms. She was very proud of her family. Miss D was such a giving person and always believed in giving to others while she was alive. She gave Michael the Oscar she won for ‘Dangerous,’ and me the one for ‘Jezebel. ’ She told me I would know what to do with it one day.” 

The 1938 “Jezebel” Oscar sold at Christie's auction house for $578,000 which Sermak says at the time “was the highest paid for an actress’s Oscar.” The sale of the Oscar helped fund scholarships for aspiring actresses and actors through the Bette Davis Foundation. Sermak says of B.D. Hyman's My Mother's Keeper: “that book was such a huge betrayal I would never have believed her daughter could have done anything like that.” Still, she maintains, “my book is not about B.D., and I tried to take the high road. But Miss D said, ‘One day, you will tell the story.’” Sermak adds: “I want Miss D to be proud,  she was my teacher, and my mentor. From the response at the many book signings I’ve done, it’s clear people still love Bette Davis. I realize they’re not coming to see me, but want a part of Miss D.” The love between these two women—platonic, aspirational, and nurturing—is the capstone of Miss D & Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis. It is a type of female bond rarely portrayed in either books or cinema.

Bette Davis would often call Kathryn Sermak her “chum-friend-daughter.” “She was always the greatest supporter of women,” Sermak explains. “What she didn’t like was that women could be back-biting. She always said that women should empower other women—just like what men do in a boys’ club. She really did teach me everything – Discretion, respect. She was the most honest, respectful person. It didn't matter if you were the elevator person, she would greet them all. Always respect, she said. Everybody has a job to do. You're no higher or lower. Your fans are your bread and butter, the ones who pay the money to go to your movies.” 

The recent TV series Feud painted a picture of Davis as a difficult character in the actress' rivalry with Joan Crawford. Sermak implies that the tension between Davis and Crawford was born from the latter’s thwarted attempt to romantically woo the former.  “Joan did have a crush on Miss Davis, but Miss Davis is a man’s woman,” says Sermak. Feud is entertaining; it's not accuracy. Miss D was always the first to admit when she was wrong. That's what a strong person does. She taught me about women – you bond together. She loved men, but she was supportive of women.” Of her last husband, Gary Merrill, Davis had said: "Gary was macho but none of my husbands was ever man enough to become Mr Bette Davis." Relationships and her abortions were not something Davis discussed with her ingénue assistant, although Kathryn learned about men from her employer. “She talked me through the stages of having boyfriends. She certainly helped me with Pierre [one significant other] and his messiness.” It became a competition between Pierre and Miss D for Kathryn, and it was clear Pierre stood no chance. The most difficult man in Bette's life was son-in-law Jeremy, married to her biological daughter, Barbara, known as B.D. They met when B.D. was 15 and he was 29, at the Cannes Film Festival. Jeremy was the British nephew of American film executive Eliot Hyman. Miss D was being escorted by the director Robert Aldrich – who, by the way, she never had an affair with, as they insinuated in Feud – and she needed an escort for her daughter. Jeremy went to pick up B.D., who was tall, slender and very striking, and she fell in love with her handsome companion.

Central to the book is a family reunion for July 4 Independence Day celebrations, when tensions reached a head between Bette and Jeremy. It had been a huge operation, with Bette and Kathryn preparing to make sure everything would be perfect for the arrival of the family for the holiday in a house in Huntington Bay. "She spared nothing for her family because she loved them so much." In an argument about whether there are clams in the Bay, the two personalities clashed. B.D.'s book was an enormous shock to Bette. "The betrayal – that was worse than the stroke. Miss D was completely blindsided by it. That's what killed her – a broken heart. She loved B.D. more than anything. She loved her adopted children and treated everybody fairly, but there was that mother connection with B.D. I once asked her, 'How did you give your daughter a lake?' and she said: 'A lake of money.'" She thought she wanted to die, so I exploded: "If you want to die, go ahead, we're going to fight this together." Miss D would not, says Kathryn, have liked today's Hollywood. "She wouldn't approve. She knew she and that world were going. Then came animation – it was just different times." Source: www.nowtolove.co.nz

Katharine Hepburn claimed in an interview for People Magazine in 1976 (shocking coming from an actress with such liberal background): "Most films today are about lunatics and degenerates. I try to avoid degenerates, because I think too much has been done for people who are totally alien to decent society. I would line them up and eliminate them." Unlike Hepburn, Bette Davis’s legacy is ultimately predicated upon her unique ability to understand and fully inhabit truly unlikable characters. She excelled at playing wounded and wounding women without an air of apology or condescension toward the characters (or audience). She played complicated characters whose monstrosity sometimes turned physical in the form of thick, mask-like makeup or physical scars. It isn’t that there haven’t been other actresses to take up this mantle. But none have done so with the consistency, honesty, and sheer delight that Bette brings to the screen. But more than anything, Davis turned anger into an art form and showed the humanity in the kind of women our culture often ignores. Bette Davis’s legacy is even more personal in the way she feels like a voice, an image reaching across the darkness to tell us there’s another way to survive. Source: www.rogerebert.com

For all of the media buzz over B.D. Hyman’s memoir of her life with mother Bette Davis, My Mother’s Keeper is a pathetically unrevealing book. When rumors of the book began leaking out several months ago, columnists speculated that the tome was going to be a Mommie Dearest–style scandalfest about another beloved superstar. Unlike Christina Crawford’s catalog of genuine horrors, B.D. Hyman has filled pages with some of the silliest and most mundane examples that have ever been committed to print. Based on the “evidence” in this book, Hyman’s case against Bette Davis would be thrown out of any court. Hyman gives us a few anecdotes involving heavy drinking, and egomania on the part of Davis. I doubt that this behavior is unusual in most families, let alone the high-pressured world of Hollywood stardom. Like so many familial mudslingers, Hyman tries to paint herself a passive victim of her mother. Rather than generate sympathy, however, it makes her look dumb. Hyman rails hysterically at Bette Davis in the manner of someone who wants to blame her mother for all of her own neurotic behavior. The book verges on parody in the section in which Hyman attacks her mother for passing off Stouffer’s frozen macaroni as a home-cooked dish (the woman includes a step-by-step description of Davis’ deception—I kid you not!). My Mother’s Keeper lacks an exposition of the sort of bizarre traits that Joan Crawford supposedly possessed. While Hyman’s report depicts Davis as an imperfect woman, some readers might react by saying, “So what?” Aren’t there a few other imperfect mothers in the world? And do we expect a movie queen to behave like a well-adjusted suburban housewife (assuming there is such a creature)? Epilog to review: Shut up, B.D. —The Sunday Post (1985) by Joe Meyers

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