In 1987, Bette Davis came to New York to promote her penultimate theatrical movie, The Whales of August, which, incredibly, co-starred Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, and Ann Sothern. Directed by Lindsay Anderson, that autumnal drama made for a sweet, affecting swan song.
They’re all gone now, but cinema’s light preserves them. That means Davis will always be up on a screen somewhere, daunting us with the passionate, imperious, embattled, hectoring, or capricious women she played in unimpeachable classics like Jezebel (1938), All This, and Heaven Too (1940), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1940), Now, Voyager (1942), All About Eve (1950), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). She denies that her films were melodramas, but then Bette Davis was melodrama, both onscreen and off.
Shrouded in black, jingling her jewelry, she talked for more than an hour about her life and times in the following interview (quotes from which appeared in The New York Observer and Time Out). Once the tape recorder was turned off, her natural asperity dropped away and she was as charming as could be.
I understand you didn’t want to do The Whales of August initially?
It was written five years ago. When I saw it, I didn’t like it. Then it was sent to me again. I said, “I’ve seen this before. I don’t like it much more than at first.” But I was tempted to do it because it was being filmed in Maine, which is where I grew up. And as it turned out, it was very challenging to play a blind woman.
Did you establish any kind of rapport working with Lillian Gish?
We always establish rapport with whomever we work. You can’t possibly do your best otherwise.
Did you like being directed by Lindsay Anderson?
I have to be honest. I think he’s an extremely temperamental and difficult man. But he’s a good director, and every now and then a nice side of him came through. He was quoted in the French papers, when the film was shown in Cannes, as supposedly having said to me after [filming] a close-up of Miss Gish, “Well, she was just wonderful, wasn’t she?” And I am supposed to have answered, “Well, why not? That old bitch invented them [close-ups].” Ooh. Now, in the first place, I believe that when we make a film, it’s like a family. And what goes on within that family you do not discuss with anybody, any more than you would discuss your own family. Nothing in the world can make me talk about people I’ve worked with. Except I did discuss Miss [Faye] Dunaway a bit, but Miss Dunaway’s fairly notorious for being a difficult woman. [laughs] And I did discuss Miriam Hopkins years and years ago. She was also very difficult. But I practically never talk about people I’ve worked with. What’s the old saying? If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Miss Gish is extraordinary, though she really hasn’t much use for talking pictures.
In your recent book [This 'n' That, 1987], you deny that you ever had a rivalry with Joan Crawford.
There was no need for rivalry. Hah, I should say not.
Do you think she was a good actress?
I think Miss Crawford was a great asset to Hollywood since she was one of the very glamorous people, and that’s what made Hollywood. It’s very interesting. Today we haven’t got any Joan Crawfords or Rita Hayworths, or any of those women. You cannot take anything away from their effect on the world. They were very inspirational for millions of women. But I classify them as actors and nonactors, and I do not put Miss Crawford in the great acting class. She was very effective in her private life. It made her career.
You say in the book that old age is “no place for sissies.” You’ve overcome cancer and you’ve fully recovered from your stroke—and a broken hip. What particular qualities in yourself enabled you to cope with all that?
My assistant, Kathryn Sermak, is the reason I’m alive today.
There must have been something in you, as well.
I was in and out—sometimes I was very discouraged, sometimes I hoped. My terror, of course, was never being able to work again. Kathryn stayed there in the hospital with me, and I would never have recovered, truly, without her. You must have help—someone who really knows what you’re going through.
But don’t you think you have some particular inner strength?
No, I do not. Inner strength isn’t going to get you well. You have to work hard to get your body back—it’s an enormous amount of work.
Are you a difficult patient?
You’d have to ask somebody else. I have no idea. [laughs] As I started getting better, I would talk back to the nurses, and they would be scared to death of me and would run out and try and get me some kind of sedative. Kathryn would say to them, “Don’t give her anything. If she is acting this way, then she is back to herself.”
You write a lot about motherhood in the book …
I don’t want any questions on that. The word “motherhood” I could never use. [laughs] That doesn’t sound like me.
I get the sense you’re a solitary person. Would you agree with that?
I’m a very sociable person. I love people. I’m not a solitary person in any way. That makes me sound pathetic, and I’m not.
What I meant was that you’ve steered your own course, especially in regard to how you handled your Hollywood career.
Yes, but it had nothing to do with being solitary. Lots of people helped me along the way. I was a fortunate girl in my career. I did many pictures with [director] William Wyler. Hal Wallis, the head of the studio [Warner Bros.], brought me all the great plays that New York ever had. If I did or didn’t want to do something, I just became very opinionated about it. It took me two years to get Mr. Wyler to make Dark Victory .
You had a number of fights with Warners about getting better roles …
Nah, I wouldn’t call them fights. A fight suggests a battle, two people yelling at each other. I just stood up for what I believed in.
You were married four times. What are your views on marriage now?
That is all past in my life, and I don’t like discussing it. I believe in marriage—which is the one statement I will make—but I don’t talk about my own marriages anymore. [laughs] I believe in going ahead, not going back.
Are you happy being single?
I don’t think it’s anything to be extraordinarily happy about. It would have been fine if marriage had worked out. I envy people who can work out a good, long marriage. But—there’s no question about it—fame was in my way. Fame does not make it easy for a man. No matter how much he feels beforehand that it’s going to be all right, it’s not easy. So I’ve accepted that.
You were probably one of the first women to insist on a marital contract …
I never in my life had a marital contract. Didn’t believe in them. I wish I had. What you’re probably referring to is that I did tell one man who wanted to marry me that there would have to be a marital contract, and he walked! He just left! [laughs] He obviously wanted to marry me for my money.
Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
What do you mean by feminist? You mean going out, stamping up and down with flags for women?
I was referring more to the movement for women’s rights—equal pay for equal work, for example.
On that score, oh, yes, yes, yes. It’s very unjust. It’s improving but it’s not completely resolved yet. But I still think it’s a man’s world and that it will be till the end of time.
Do you think your films have made statements about women’s place in the world?
I never thought of such a thing when I played those parts. It never entered my head.
Do you think the kinds of TV series that have been popular recently—Dallas and Dynasty and so on—were influenced by the kinds of melodramas you made in the ’40s and ’50s?
I don’t consider my films melodramas. I thought of them as very fine stories. Now, Voyager and Dark Victory aren’t melodramas. A melodrama is basically a pretty corny affair, and I don’t think any of my films were corny affairs.
Is acting still a raison d’etre for you?
Oh, definitely. It has been my life! And the other thing that was my life was bringing up my children. But, yes, I’m just sitting around here praying there’ll be a good script somewhere. I adore my job. Love it.
Which current actors do you admire?
That’s always a very difficult question. I think Sissy Spacek is terrific, and Debra Winger.
Any views on Madonna?
No. I’ve probably seen her twice, in a flash, on the television screen. I’m not very knowledgeable about that kind of thing anyway. It’s a new world. [laughs] I prefer the world I grew up in.
Do you ever think about your status as an actress?
That’s a terrible question, if you pardon my saying so. You mean, do I sit around and feel I’m Sarah Bernhardt? I have been considered a very fine actress by other people. For that I am grateful. I’ve never been entirely fond of seeing myself, but other people enjoy it, so that’s good. You’re asking me questions that are very difficult to answer without sounding like a very conceited woman. I’m not conceited at all. I don’t run around thinking how wonderful I am all day long.
Do you think movies have declined in quality?
To an extent. There aren’t scripts anymore like we had, so the actresses today aren’t being given half the chance I was given. Many young women say to me, “Oh, if only I had started out when you did.” The girls aren’t getting any good experience today. When we were under contract we played millions of parts, so we had a chance to learn. What is that wonderful saying? Change is not necessarily progress. That’s true of everything today. There’s no free America anymore. And there’s a no-smoking rule in Beverly Hills, where all the restaurants are losing a fortune! You’re not even allowed to smoke if you want to. [laughs]
Interview, September 2006