The reviewer is co-editor of "Thou Swell, Thou Witty: The Life and Lyrics of Lorenz Hart."
In 1962, Bette Davis, the Hollywood tragedienne with the limestone hair, published her memoirs, an excellent book with the sad, wise, proud title "The Lonely Life." It was a short book written when movie-star autobiographies were still considered generically worthless; it was also a very good one, controlled by the same tact and sincerity that the author had brought to even her most histrionic film roles.
Of course, there has always been more to Bette Davis than the flapper wiggle, the protruding eyes, and the vehement, sibilant, dentalized consonants. As an actress, her greatest assets have been her intelligence and an impassioned sense of truth. In the last chapter of "The Lonely Life," Davis dismissed any protracted explanation of her four failed marriages with becoming candor. "The whats matter in this world, not the whys." Those last words perfectly crystallized the philosophy of both the actress and her memoirs.
But what is the philosophy of Charles Higham, the author of this new biography? Exploit someone else's past and you will make money? Charles Higham may be remembered as the author of a best-selling biography called "Kate" -- a messy, breathless book that constituted a virtual invasion of Katharine Hepburn's privacy, tirelessly disinterring and endlessly reinterpreting Hepburn's intimate lasting friendship with Spencer Tracy. His other big hit was "Erroll Flynn: The Untold Story," where, on the most tenuous documentary grounds, he called the Warner Brothers' Robin Hood a Nazi secret agent.
But Charles Higham can't accuse Davis of treason, just as he can't pry into any 30-year love affairs. The plain, recalcitrant fact is that, since her film debut a half-century ago, Bette Davis has avoided public scandal. Consequently, instead of scuttlebutt, "Bette" has only a floundering, desperate, moralistic prurience.
This book is yellow journalism, managing to be both puritanical and voyeuristic at the same time. Higham's hope chest consists largely of innuendo, condescension and slurs, and the only reason to repeat his putative "discoveries" is to illustrate his cavalier disregard for evidence. Should anyone really believe that Joan Crawford "had for years nourished a secret desire for Bette," just because, as Higham says, "over the years, Bette has confided it to friends"? What friends?
The general miserliness about sources disappears only when the author would look completely ridiculous without them. According to Higham, Davis' embittered first husband, Harmon Nelson, gave him the dirt on the night when he bugged Davis' bedroom, supposedly finding her in the embrace of Howard Hughes. When all else fails, Higham turns to another gloating variation on his thesis that the famous Davis toughness and resilience mask "another, hypersensitive, thin-skinned self, full of insecurity, vulnerability, and bad nerves." In a spectacular act of mind reading, he announces that her failure in the Broadway revue "Two's Company" was precipitated by her fear "that she would not return to Broadway in triumph; that she would not be the big Broadway star everyone would expect after 'All About Eve.' "
As Davis is the subject of three books already ("The Lonely Life," "Mother Goddam" and "The Films of Bette Davis"), there was barely any need for another book about her. Only a fresh assessment of Davis' performances, so many of which are so extraordinarily good, could justify "Bette." But although Charles Higham constantly professes his undying adoration of her talent, the praise is vapid ("acting achieved through empathy with character and audience" "all fire and music"; etc., etc.). He also has a nasty habit of hinting that an inflamed assortment of personal neuroses account for her best work. Nervous exhaustion "explains" the stunning bravura frenzy of "Dark Victory"; an alleged sadomasochistic romance with her greatest director, William Wyler, "explains" the ambivalence and nihilism of "Jezebel."
In the end, it may just be that the great secret of Bette Davis' acting is simply her mercy. With Davis, it doesn't matter whether the character is the repressed Boston spinster of "Now, Voyager," enslaved and victimized by her mother, or the decrepit, homicidal child star of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" denied a friend or a kind word by her hypocritical sister for three decades. She can play the angry actress-heroine of "All About Eve" and the lonely, suspicious mother in the recent TV movie "Strangers" equally well. And she can do it because she has mercy on all of them. She mitigates judgment with compassion. Where mercy might be inappropriate or ludicrous, as with the cold, restless heroine of "The Little Foxes," she shows mercy's cerebral equivalent: understanding.
But mercy and understanding are precisely what is lacking in this cheesy, tattletale excuse for a biography. Books like "Bette" have no regard for the privacy, let alone the pride, of the performers who have given America a heritage of joy and solace on film. Like the authors who write them, they are better left ignored -- ignored and forgotten.