What a Bumpy Ride
The Life of Bette Davis
By Ed Sikov
Henry Holt. 479 pp. $30
The moment she drawled, "I'd like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair" in the 1932 film "Cabin in the Cotton," Bette Davis became two things: a movie star and an icon of camp. She would remain both for the next 57 years of her life. And beyond.
When a star is so easily caricatured, as Davis is by everyone from cartoonists to drag queens, the task of the biographer is to locate the person behind the distortions. In his smart, witty new biography, Ed Sikov makes an effort to do that, and his conclusion is pretty much that with Davis what we saw, exaggerations and all, is what was really there.
"Nervousness, hysteria and paranoia are defining features of Davis's acting style," Sikov observes. And the boundary between her art and her life was permeable. In a gratifyingly brief but persuasive bit of psychologizing, Sikov writes, "Davis's torn nature suggests that she may have had a borderline personality, one that shifts between the commonly neurotic -- anxiety, depression, emotional outbursts -- and a baldly psychotic inability to perceive the point at which reality stops and paranoid fantasy takes over."
But the real secret to her career and her life, Sikov suggests, is that "Bette Davis didn't give a goddamn. She dares us to hate her, and we often do. Which is why we love her." And he retorts to any readers who may quarrel that his biography doesn't even make her likable, "After all the . . . struggling to get it right, I have to admit it: I don't give a good goddamn either."
That's the spirit, and it makes Dark Victory a refreshingly unsentimental and unapologetic biography, one in which the inevitable bits of tittle-tattle -- about Davis's marriages (four) and affairs (uncounted, but including William Wyler and Howard Hughes) and family life (scathingly depicted in her daughter B.D. Hyman's book, My Mother's Keeper) -- don't seem unduly sensationalized.
At one point, Sikov approvingly quotes Janet Malcolm: "Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world." By now, however, there are few secrets about Bette Davis that haven't been dumped out and viewed. In addition to Hyman's "sour, whiny book," as Sikov calls it, there have been full-length biographies by Charles Higham, James Spada, Lawrence Quirk and Charlotte Chandler, not to mention Davis's own three volumes of ghostwritten memoirs. (The last are more interesting and revealing -- if not factually more reliable -- than most movie star reminiscences because Davis didn't care which Hollywood oxen she gored.) The best that Sikov can do is mediate among the various stories that have been told by and about Davis and choose which ones are most plausible. The author of two other biographies of Hollywood figures -- Billy Wilder and Peter Sellers -- Sikov demonstrates a healthy skepticism. He knows that, the more colorful and juicy the anecdote, the less likely it is to be true.
What Sikov also brings to his Davis biography is point of view: that of a gay man who acknowledges her iconic significance for many gays. He examines such touchstone films as "Dark Victory" and "Now, Voyager" for their influence on gay culture. Davis is the quintessential "drama queen" in these movies, and Sikov observes that "it's the pent-up energy of concealment and its imminent breakdown that provide the gay regent with much of her authority." She "became an icon for several generations of gay men, who learned . . . that they could, through wit and style and camp, rise above this oppressive, second-rate world and, inside at least, be the men they were meant to be."
But Davis would never have been the star she became if her appeal had been only to closeted gay men. She triumphed in the era of the "women's picture" -- the Depression and war years, when movies were the great escape. And she thrived -- eventually -- in the tense symbiosis of the studio system. Warner Bros. treated her shabbily for a long time: In 1935, when she made "Dangerous," for which she won her first Oscar, she earned less than character actor Guy Kibbee. She rebelled, the studio sued, she lost. And in 1937 she was still being paid significantly less than other stars, such as Greta Garbo, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn and even Sonja Henie. But eventually, her success at the box office brought the Warner studio around.
It's tempting to wonder what Davis might have achieved if she hadn't been tethered to the studio. Her best film -- "All About Eve," the only one of Davis's movies to win a best-picture Oscar -- was made after she left Warners. She made dozens of movies -- the Internet Movie Database lists 121 titles, including some TV shows -- and Sikov seems to have watched them all, giving keenly observant and loving accounts of as many of them as he can. She had, as he comments, a talent for overcoming "shallow scripts, artless directors . . . by pumping her characters harder, substituting adrenaline and tics for the substance she knew was missing from the material."
Bette Davis is one of those stars it's impossible to imagine Hollywood without. Sikov's book is a valuable guide to an essential career. *
Charles Matthews, the former book editor of the San Jose Mercury News, lives and writes in Northern California.