In honor of Bette Davis’s stunning career, this blog post shares my admiration of her as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, as a part of The Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for the opportunity to participate!
One fun thing about growing up in the 70s was catching classic film stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, reruns of TV westerns of the 60s, and the NBC Mystery Movie (looking at you, of course, Mr. Rock Hudson as McMillan), as well as getting stories about them from my grandparents who remembered seeing many of their earlier movies in original runs. Unexpected vehicles like Disney movies, such as Return from Witch Mountain, also featured some of them, which is exactly where I remember first seeing Bette Davis. Later, Kim Carnes shared the mystique of the actress through a song about her eyes, and after sitting up until the wee hours of a Sunday morning with my grandmother watching All About Eve, I made the connection of the evil woman chasing the twin witches, Tony and Tia, of that Disney movie and discovered just how important she was to the classic movies I loved.
For this blogathon, choosing only one of Ms. Davis’s movies to post about would have left me with the notion of wondering if I perhaps should have chosen another. There are so many I adore and admire a lot. Aside from her films, I have been long fascinated by Ms. Davis, the woman. While reading her memoir, This ‘n That, many years ago, I was intrigued by the steps she’d taken to gain some sense of control over her career in the early years. In film, we typically see her in character as a no-nonsense woman, facing down enemies, frenemies, siblings, and fighting for love. Off screen, she was a woman full of wit, a keen sense of humor, and she possessed the desire to impart her wide-scaled amount of wisdom. Her memoirs and an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on November 17, 1971 allowed me to find that out and it’s a cherished discovery. That interview provided me with such insight and posting about it here made an easier choice of topic about the great Bette Davis.
Before she walked on stage, Dick Cavett started the show by asking his audience various questions about Ms. Davis’s life and career, offering an interesting interactive exercise for his guests. I’ll have to admit that my favorite moment then was his asking if anyone could describe the actual plot of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, to only receive silence until one person blurted out, “Weird”, and Cavett accepted it as an answer. Given the timing of FX’s current miniseries about the feud between the co-stars, Ms. Davis and Joan Crawford, during the making of that movie, it gave me a good chuckle. He then introduced the energetic and delightful – sure, “delightful” may not be the word one would think of for such a dynamic personality, but she was! – Bette Davis, who steps out in a short black dress, black fur coat, black leather go-go boots, and a cool black beret, appropriately cocked to the side. Standing before the audience and receiving their applause for a little over a minute, she was quite hip at 63 years of age.
This was his third interview with her and they had developed a comfortable bond that’s a pleasure to watch. Of course, that was Cavett’s sheer talent as a talk show host – to make his guests at ease enough to talk, but in this case, it seemed beyond the job. There was a fine camaraderie between them and enormous respect and even awe from Cavett. From Ms. Davis’s wisdom chest also came something quite profound in this regard. She noted the bumpy relationship she’d had with famed columnist, Louella Parsons, and also commended the dedication Ms. Parsons had in her own career as a journalist to get the scoop. After pointing out how the columnist’s job is to ask the stars questions of which she knew probably contained an incriminating answer in response to their character, Ms. Davis swiftly lambasted those who got angry with the columnist instead of casting their ire upon the interviewed actors or actresses who foolishly answered the question as opposed to simply saying they’d prefer not to answer. Common sense, isn’t it?
Ms. Davis’s professionalism and dedication to her career and craft are as legendary as her career itself. Starting as a stage actress before heading for Hollywood, she expected her craft as an actress to be as important as the money she was earning. After refusing to play in the film, The Man with the Black Hat, she left for a film role in England instead. In 1937, Warner Bros., with whom she was still under contract, sued her for not honoring her contract by refusing a role. She lost the case in England, but later here in the States, Olivia de Havilland – with whom she co-starred in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte in 1964 – took her studio to court and won in 1944. That act lifted the suspension clause in an actor’s contract when they refused a role and ruled what became called the de Havilland Law. On more than one occasion in her interview, she stressed that the fight was for her career and the worthwhile parts: “I knew only good directors and good scripts could give me a career; I couldn’t do it with junk.” The money was of less concern during the battle; she cited that “The money comes if the career comes”.
Ms. Davis also shared an event that continued to sting her quite a bit: “A horror on me”, she called it. According to her, before she left for England, Jack Warner had optioned what he called, “a marvelous book for you… by Margaret Mitchell and the title is Gone With The Wind”. Still fuming over the lack of decent roles she’d been experiencing at the studio, she had little faith in the project and told him, “I’ll bet it’s a dilly”. She promptly walked out of the office and headed to England!
Interesting timing to point out here also was the fact that this interview took place the day after her friend and co-star in Now, Voyager, Gladys Cooper, had passed away the night before. They discussed her life for a bit and then her friendship with Claude Rains, who was also in the film. Ms. Davis also stated that she sometimes thought about the ongoing life of her characters after the movie ended and that she believed that Charlotte Vale didn’t wind up with Jerry after all. Gasp! Well, as she further noted, considering how much fulfillment Charlotte got out of working at Dr. Jaquith’s sanitarium with Tina, she became a part of the staff and that she and Dr. Jaquith got married. I laughed and nodded my head in agreeing how I too could see that happening!
In this interview, there was a piece of Hollywood machinery of which I wasn’t aware going on until she revealed it. That era should leave little to surprise by now, but this one did just that – to me. Young actresses were often used to “test” fellow actors for the steamy kissing scenes! In 1930, the self-proclaimed “Yankee-est, modest, virgin” actress was chosen to have fifteen actors “lie on top” of her and kiss her on film. Studio heads decided which man was better suited for the part of a lover. As much as she loathed it, Ms. Davis’s take was that Gilbert Roland made the job worth it. (Hmm… I think I can understand that). Incidentally, he wound up getting the part for that particular film.
She also spoke of her four failed marriages and pondered about some of the things she do differently if she had the chance to do them again, which namely included making better fiscal decisions as it pertained to her own earnings in marriage. Through her analysis, she also recognized that in “one of those awful marriages” she got a “beautiful daughter”. Her tears were full of pride as she spoke of her daughter, B.D. Hyman, and naturally it was difficult not to think of their estrangement as a result of B.D.’s memoir telling her version of their relationship (which I’ve never read).
As a writer, the creative in me was struck by Ms. Davis’s statement of life as an artist, especially of those in serious relationships and marriage. She indicated that she and fellow people in the arts world are “dedicated people to our work, which is not fun for a partner – their work, really – and that there is no other way to live than to just do it”. She was unapologetic about her gift and desire to live it out – a lesson for all creatives and their partners to understand.
Ms. Davis clearly enjoyed her time spent with Dick Cavett and vice versa. For a time, it didn’t seem like they were in a studio full of people watching them talk. They were like two friends chatting up the breeze and she commended Cavett’s professionalism as host to make the hour a success. She also pointed out how much she enjoyed being out of character, of being herself as she was there.
As they came to a close, she acknowledged me. Well, not only me… but my generation, the ones who watched classic movies on late-night television. “I have had two careers. All the kids today would never know anything about people in my era without late television.” I cherish helping to be a part of that for her.
I hope you get a chance to watch it for yourself soon. It’s on Hulu and YouTube!