Sunday, June 14, 2015

#1,763. Stardust: The Bette Davis Story (2006)

Directed By: Peter Jones, Mark A. Catalena

Starring: Susan Sarandon, Bette Davis, Ruthie Davis

Line from the film: "I never cared how I looked as long as I looked like the character"

Trivia: This movie was produced by, and originally aired on, Turner Classic Movies

She was the best actress of her generation, and one of the greatest ever to step in front of the camera. Determined and strong-willed, she stood up to the studio system at a time when actors and actresses were treated as property, fighting for roles she deemed important and rejecting others that didn’t meet her high standards. As if mirroring her tempestuous career, her life behind-the-scenes was every bit as dramatic, yet through it all, she lived life on her own terms, and didn’t allow anyone to stand in her way. The actress was Bette Davis, and Stardust, a 2006 documentary produced by Turner Classic Movies, is her story.

Starting, as most documentaries do, at the beginning, Stardust provides background on the family life of Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known years later around the world as Bette, including how her Puritan father left his wife and two daughters to marry another woman; and the early days in New England, when her mother, Ruth (lovingly called “Ruthie” by her girls), laid the groundwork for her daughter’s future. Through interviews with those closest to her, such as adopted son Michael Merrill and former nanny Marion Richards, we learn about Davis’ four marriages, almost all of which ended badly, and the sketchy circumstances surrounding the death of husband #2, Arthur Farnsworth, who allegedly died of a head injury following a fall. Often absent from the family home, Davis would nonetheless speak publicly of how motherhood changed her life, and in later years kept her daughter B.D. very close to her, making the teenage girl her constant companion (a role she herself filled with her own mother, Ruthie, who, by all accounts, benefitted greatly from her daughter’s success). Stardust delves into the dark recesses of Bette Davis’ personal life, showing us the good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly, to give us as complete a picture as possible of this complex individual.

And then, of course, there are the movies that made Bette Davis a household name. Though, as we discover, fame and fortune didn’t come easily; following a string of successful stage plays, Universal signed the young starlet to a contract, then, upon her arrival, humiliated her by making the poor girl submit to a series of screen tests (Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, was supposedly unimpressed with her appearance, and in later months would comment privately on her lack of sex appeal). Released from her contract after a short time, Bette then hooked up with Warner Bros., and the rest, as they say, is history. Over the years, she would make many films for the studio, including Dangerous (for which she won her first Academy Award), Jezebel, and The Letter, playing femme fatales the likes of which Hollywood had never seen before (ironically, her star-making role in 1934’s Of Human Bondage was produced not by Warners, but RKO). Yet, despite her success, Bette always fought for better roles, challenging chief Jack Warner, who retaliated by suspending her and, on one occasion, dragging her into court to keep her in line. But Bette never backed down, and soon was in control of her own career, choosing scripts and directors for many of her projects. Along the way, she made a few enemies, including fellow actresses Miriam Hopkins and, more famously, Joan Crawford (both of whom, its rumored, became irritated with Miss Davis when she had affairs with the men in their lives), but even in her later works, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (where she appeared alongside Crawford), Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte and The Whales of August (in which she co-starred with another legend, Lillian Gish), Bette Davis showed the world that, even at an advanced age, she could hold her own with the best of them.

Narrated by Susan Sarandon, Stardust gives us the complete story by way of archived footage, a collection of stills, and clips from some of Davis’ finest movies (along with the ones listed above, we’re also treated to scenes from Dark Passage, Now, Voyager, All About Eve, and The Star). In addition, there are interviews with friends, family, and the next generation of performers, including James Woods, Ellen Burstyn, and Jane Fonda, all of whom speak very highly of her work. Despite all the turmoil that surrounded her, there’s no denying the power of Bette Davis' on-screen persona, where, even when playing vixens and cheats, she possessed a strength that made her an icon to women and, eventually, gay men, who, among other things, identified with her “who gives a damn” attitude. Davis may not have been the prettiest actress (though at times she was beautiful, like in 1932’s Cabin in the Cotton, where she portrayed a stubborn southern belle), but that didn’t matter to her. “I never cared how I looked as long as I looked like the character”, Bette Davis once said, a belief we see time and again in films like 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, where she portrayed Queen Elizabeth (she had part of her head shaved for the role) and The Old Maid, for which she was prematurely aged with make-up. “The great achievement”, James Woods says at one point during Stardust, “is the total absence of narcissism in a business and art that is truly, totally, and only about narcissism”. A consummate professional, Bette Davis often sacrificed appearance in favor of performance,. something many of her peers were unwilling to do.

An in-depth presentation of the life of a Hollywood legend, Stardust is a treat for both the fans of Bette Davis and those looking to learn more about her. If you love movies, this documentary is not to be missed.

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