"The American Film Institute Salute to Bette Davis," on Channel 9 tonight at 9:30, is strictly a star vehicle, much like many Bette Davis movies. Virtually anyone who likes movies likes to watch Bette Davis, and this special - taped at the Beverly Hills banquet where Davis received the AFI Life Achievement Award on March 1 - offers a lot of Davis to watch.

We see her in her screen debut, strolling down in a staricase. Nothing special, it appears. But Davis was a fast learner, and soon she was gobbling up the screen. We see Davis the independent woman, David in love, Davis the fighter, Davis the villain, Davis the old frump. Sometimes it's said that stars in the Davis days shone because of their range as actors. But Davis had it all.

Even when the clips are interrupted for the accoladed on tonight's special, Davis continues to demonstrate her range whenever the camera cuts to her for reaction shots. She looks alternately delighted, embarrassed, pensive. She never appears as "overcome" as she says she is - it's hard to imagine anything overcoming Bette Davis. She is always worth watching.

The same cannot be said for all of her admirers who appear tonight. Their comments have been merficully edited for length. A rambling peroration by Joseph Mankiewicz at the actual dinner has been transformed into something sly and slight, but even artificially imposed brevity cannot save some of the speeches. A long plug for AFI's good works unfortunately plugs up the evening's pace.

Only one of the guests, Henry Fonda, has anything to say that can match the Davis clips, but his one anecdote, about a meeting with Davis when both of them had yet to make a movie, is one of the most charming moments the AFI has ever sponsored.