Years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles – late ‘80’s, early ‘90’s – my then-partner Robert worked at an answering service located in West Hollywood. It was called Crestview and was located in a fairly nondescript office in a fairly nondescript high rise at 9000 Sunset Boulevard. (I think they’re still there.) This was way before mobile phones had become ubiquitous and you were really on the cutting edge if your answering machine was solid state rather than cassette tape-based. Celebrities in those days wanted a living person to answer their phones, rather than a machine, and among their clients they counted a certain number of celebrities whose careers were in a bit of eclipse at the time.
One such client was Hollywood legend Bette Davis, who by that time had gone through a number of health crises but was still going strong, or trying to, feisty as ever and always willing to work. "I will not retire while I've still got my legs and my make-up box," she once said. Always with her was her personal assistant Kathryn Sermak, who would call in to the service at the end of the day to see if there had been any messages. One day a man called twice to speak to Bette Davis, only to learn that the number he had reached was a service, whereupon he hung up. Apparently he thought he was going to speak to the legend herself.
At the end of that day, for some reason, Bette herself, not Kathryn, called in for her messages. Robert informed her that there had been no messages, only two nuisance calls from someone who was probably a fan and thought he was calling her home. Upon delivering this news, Robert said there was a brief silence on the other end of the line, broken when at last Bette barked “I think people are hideous!” and hung up.
I’ll leave speculation about why gay men of a certain age love certain movie stars for the amateur psychologists and social scientists. I can only assume it has something to do with a certain spirit, determination, an indefinable quality of, for want of another word, “spunk”. Of course, there’s the cult of Judy Garland, whose story was very different from Davis’s: I doubt that Bette would have countenanced Judy’s addiction to pills, her lateness to the set and what could be interpreted as unprofessional behavior. Yet there’s no denying that she was explosively talented and worked, worked, worked to the bitter, unfortunate end. It’s easy to ascribe the adoration of Garland by a certain generation of gay men as being based in their shared feelings of loneliness, fragility, the yearning for love and acceptance. But as we’ve come to find out, Judy was made of stronger stuff and had a core of steel, reinforced with a boundless sense of humor.
After that who is there? Joan Crawford is, unfortunately, more of a camp icon, although her life and career have been reexamined and she seems to be getting her due as something more than the wild-eyed, hanger-wielding harpy of “Mommie Dearest”. Katharine Hepburn? Admired, has her fans. No big gay cult that I’m aware of. Same for Dietrich, Garbo, the rest.
So we’re back to square one: why do I love Bette Davis? Well, there are many times when I think people are hideous, so we have that in common. And, like many of the stars of that era she was not traditionally pretty. Which we also have in common. But in many of her best films, she’s astonishingly beautiful: “Jezebel”, “Deception”... and let’s not forget the transformation of Charlotte Vale in “Dark Victory”. She’s a knockout. Of course makeup, lighting and camera angles had much to do with it, and she learned how to use them all to her advantage.
But she was courageous in the roles she played and fought for. She wasn’t afraid to appear unattractive or behave badly if the role demanded it. “Of Human Bondage” made her a star and by the end of that one she was not, trust me, a pretty picture. To play Elizabeth I she shaved most of her head for authenticity. And of course, there’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” for which she designed her own makeup, based on her belief that her character is so desperate to hang on to her youth that she rarely washed or removed her makeup. So she was deeply committed to her craft. I’d like to think that, if I ever throw myself back into acting, I’ll have the same ethos.
But that ain’t it.
At least for me, when you get right down to it, it was the fact that she spoke her mind and hang the consequences. That we do not have in common, although I trust that with age I’ll become less concerned with what people think about me and my opinions. That quality of no BS honesty is nowhere more on display than in what is arguably her best film, “All About Eve”. Her Margo Channing is a survivor, tough and temperamental, selfish, yes, but good-hearted and larger than life and, underneath it all, still a bit afraid and vulnerable. Which is to say, she’s a human being.
But somewhere along the way we’ve been led to believe that we, as human beings, can be even better human beings. The pundits and life coaches and cheerleaders and those people who pop up on PBS during pledge drives...there’s a whole raft of folks out there telling us how to be better than we are. They know how, and they’re just busting to tell all the rest of us! But I get the sense from Bette Davis that she would have had some choice words for some of these people. I get the sense that she was fine with who she was.
It’s not that I want to live a life like Bette Davis’s, or Margo Channing’s for that matter. (Although that apartment of hers is very Upper East Side and would be more than adequate for me. Not to mention having Thelma Ritter to mix my cocktails and tuck me in.) I just would like to have more moments of belief in myself, more spine to speak my mind or talk back to ignorance. I suppose for many people affirmations and “journaling” and any number of other techniques might work. But more and more I think that, like so many things, the best way to develop that spine, that fearlessness, is just to get out there and do it. Say it. Try it.
Action is the key. Even standing still, Bette Davis was in motion. Could we all do with a bit of improvement here and there? Of course. But you can think about something all your life, and if you don’t do it, as difficult as it may be, it’s all theory.
The inscription on Bette's grave is “She did it the hard way.” I’m still thinking about my epitaph. But as of this moment it starts “Fasten your seatbelts...”