On Tuesday in Beverly Hills, Bette Davis will receive yet another in a long line of awards - this one the fifth Annual Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute. The program will be telecast later on CBS, and a retropective series of 15 Davis films begins March 13 at AFI here.
Davis' movie career began at Universal in 1931 when she was 23, and she has appeared in more than 80 features. During a recent conversation at the AFI Davis expressed doubt that she would even try to sustain an acting career if she were entering the profession right now. She feels the opportunities are too limited and the support too shaky. Nevertheless, she also rejects the idea that women's roles have diminished because of some deliberate neglect or hostility on the part of con-temporary movie companies or producers.
"It just happened," she said, "and no one has devised a system to compensate for the changes. Perhaps we shouldn't complain. We had wonderful opportunities for more than 20 years. Maybe it's just the actors' turn to dominate for a generation. The themes and problems seem so much more formidable and violent now. They overshadow the content of most of our pictures, which usually had a romantic conflict at their core and were designed to appeal to a large, faithful audience of women. Those forms don't seem adequate now, but I'm not sure what can replace them. They certainly can't have the impact of the conflicts one sees in the men's vehicles."
Illness prevented Davis from appearing personally at last year's Life Achievement Award ceremony for Wiliam Wyler, who directed her in three important pictures, "Jezebel," "The Letter" and "The Little Foxes" brought their association to a premature, if prestigious, end. They desagreed about the role of Regina, and although Davis played it in the severe, withheld style Wyler urged, she was never satisfied with the performance.
"Jezebel," released in 1938, was Davis' consolation for twice spurning the role of Scarlett O'Hara and brought her a second Academy Award. It remains one of her most stirring and beautiful vehicles. "Anyone who doubts Wyler's genius only has to look at the ballroom sequence in 'Jezebel,'" Davis remarked. "What a wonderful sequence that is! And do you know what we began with? Virtually nothing. It began with a single line in the script: 'Julie goes to the ball.' Wyler was responsible for all the elaboration you see on the screen.
"I desperately wanted Technicolor for that film," she continued. "Can you imagine how beautiful tha ball scene would have been in color? At that time Warners refused to shoot more than two pictures a year in color. I would beg and plead and never get it, because they knew I was a safe money-maker without it. They rejected it as an unnecessary expense.
"Even though 'Jezebel' is in black-and-white, no one really questions the idea that Julie goes to the ball in a red gown. The impact is still there, thanks to Wyler and to Kelly (costume designer Orry-Kelly), who was a genius too. He knew that that black velvet dress would have just the right 'red' effect in black-and-white. In all fairness, working in Technicolor had its disacvantages. The Technicolor people themselves had a rather imperious tone. I recall one run-in with Mrs. Kalmus (Natalie Kalmus, wife of the inventor of the process and a compulsory advertiser on all Technicolor productions for many years). 'My dear Miss Davis,' she said, 'you'll have to do something about that organdy dress with all the lavender.' I replied, 'My dear Mrs. Kalmus, I plan to wear the organdy dress with all the lavender.'"
Davis seems philosophical about losing the most coveted role in movie history. "I can't have too many regrets about Scarlett," she said, "because it was my own fault in the first place. I was too mad at Jack Warner to lister to anything he said. When he begged me not to walk out because he'd optioned some Southern novel with a marvelous role for me, I wasn't impressed. I asked him what it was, and he said the book was called 'Gone With the Wind.' I said, 'I'll bet that's a pip,' and went straight to England.
"When I came back a year later, I still hadn't read the book. I'd been too absorbed in the legal battles over my contract dispute with Warners. Naturally, I wanted Scarlett once I realized what she was all about. Selznick did make the offer, but Warner insisted on a package deal with Errol Flynn and myself, and I refused. I didn't think Errol was suitable, and I was quite right. Not that I disliked him. Errol was one of the most beautiful men who ever appeared on the screen. Lazy, of course. I don't think he ever worked at acting a day in his life, but that was part of his personal charm. He was simply wrong for Rhett Butler, so that was that.
"After 'Jezebel' I couldn't feel as bad about losing out on Scarlett. The same energies went into the role of Julie, and I derived great satisfaction from it. There would have been no point in playing Scarlett after Julie. Still, if circumtances had been different, I would have relished Scarlett. It would have been the greatest challenge of my career."
More than 50 of the Davis films were made under-contract at Warner Bros. between 1932 and 1949. Davis has won the Academy Award twice (for "Dangerous" in 1935, considered a belated award for her performance in "Of Human Bondage" a year earlier, and then "Jezebel") and received nominations eight other times. Despite her conflicts with Jack Warner, she looks back on her old boss and the old system with a considerable amount of both affection and respect.
"I resisted certain assignments violently," she said, "but the contract system was the greatest system in the world for the movie public. We were constantly, constantly making films, and the public got to know us. It's distressing to see how little regard for their profession or identity many young performers have today.
"There's only so much any one person can do. It's difficult enough fulfilling your responsibilities as an actor or actress. I can't understand how anyone can function as a producer or director or whatever at the same time.
John Springer, her agent, mentioned the number of credits attributed to Barbra Streisand, officially and unofficially, on her remake of "A Star is Born": executive producer, star, supervising editor, songwriter, "musical concepts" conceptualizer, wardrobe mistress. Davis, who claims she has grown "too lazy" to see many new films but obviously keeps up on what's being said about them, frowned at this catalog.
"It sounds impractical," she said. "In the first place I've never felt that actors were the best judge of their own acting. If you're working with an intelligent director, you can trust him to select the best takes. It only becomes a problem when you've got a weak or incompetent director. Then I've learned you may need to step in and choose for him. Paul Muni once told me, 'You'll never need a director,' and he meant it as a compliment, but he was absolutely wrong. That sort of thinking weakened his own work."
An AFI staffer came by with a large blow-up of a scene from "Jezebel" and asked Davis to autograph it. "Now that is a still!" she exclaimed. Having completed jthe inscription she held the picture at arm's length. "Oh, Bette," she signed. "We were all such kids then!"
Springer leaned over to look at the scene, in which Davis as the remorseful Southern belle Julie was attending the man she loved and lost, Henry Fonda, now desperately ill with yellowjack, as his Northern wife, Margaret Lindsay, looks on.
"Hank Fonda," Springer murmured. "And Margaret Lindsay. I wonder whatever happened to Margaret Lindsay."
Davis tossed him a bemused glance. "Isn't it funny you should ask that, John," she said. "What ever happened to Margaret Lindsay. To tell the truth, I don't really know what happened to Margaret Lindsay."