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July 14, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 28
 
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The Real Spin
Battling Bette triumphs on DVD in The Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 2
by Ron Anders - SGN A&E Writer

The not-so-funny joke around Hollywood in the 1940s implied that Bette Davis was "the fifth Warner Brother". In her 18-year reign at Warner Brothers (and in her subsequent career with other studios and as an independent artist), Davis acted, fought, fumed, sued, scratched and hissed - bringing her to the rarefied throne of queen of Hollywood. She would come to win the fervent admiration of other queens around the world. Davis made a total of 101 movies in her 60-year career, many of them classics that have set the gold standard for film melodrama.

Fiercely determined, she embodied the contradictions of a woman who claimed that she needed a man to watch over her, but who battled fiercely with any lover or director who attempted to contain her. She truly thrived on conflict - fueling her electrifying film performances, but limiting her to a perennially unsatisfying romantic life. At age 28, she walked out on her Warner's contract in protest of the poorly written roles she was given, and went to England in search of more fruitful work. She lost her legal battle, but ultimately won her war against the studio, getting the roles that would ensure her stardom and reward her audience's intelligence and allegiance.

Warner Home Video has cannily supplied a broad range of classic Davis films in Volume 2 of The Bette Davis Collection. The set includes five films, as well as a new feature-length documentary. The studio that made Davis a star, and which tried unsuccessfully to tame her, has done her proud by showcasing her in movies which display her ability to invest roles with a subtlety she is rarely credited for.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has Davis charging into a role that would give her ailing career the boost it sorely needed in 1962. Teamed for the first (and only) time with her arch-rival Joan Crawford, Davis has a field day in this grand guignol tale of two sisters, both former movie stars, living in near squalor and nursing old resentments. Her grotesque portrait of a woman who desperately tries to jumpstart her long-gone childhood success is comically frightening, her face a pancake makeup mask of desperation.

While the film is remembered chiefly as a camp icon, it holds up as a hugely entertaining horror/suspense tale, with the intensity of Davis's portrait giving the film an unexpected poignancy. Baby Jane's surprise financial success spurred Hollywood to produce a decade-long line of low-budget horror films showcasing female stars of a certain age (Tallulah Bankhead, Olivia DeHavilland, Barbara Stanwyck, among others). John Epperson (Lypsinka) and Charles Busch, who have created a mini-cottage industry from impersonating these dames in their later years, provide the jaunty commentary track for the movie. The film is presented in a two-disc special edition, with making-of documentaries (both recent and from the film's original release) and career retrospectives of the film's stars.

It was no secret that Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins despised each other. This provides a delicious backdrop for Old Acquaintance, which makes its home video debut here. Our two divas play best friends who become rivals as dueling authors, one of whom has critical success and little popularity, the other producing critically reviled potboilers that fly off the shelves. Davis has the more subdued role as a woman whose ethics override her desire for fame, while Hopkins happily chews the scenery as an over-the-top harpy. Pegged as a classic example of the "woman's picture" of the 1940s, the film offers an examination of friendship between women, a rarity in the Warners canon.

Playing a headstrong southern belle in Jezebel, Davis won a second Oscar, but unwittingly put herself out of the running for the most coveted female role in movie history - Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, which would be released the following year. The film teamed Davis with her favorite director, William Wyler, who she credited as the only filmmaker who could match her fiery temperament. They would work together in four more films, and he would succeed in helping Davis tone down her already-legendary mannerisms.

Although Davis gets top billing in The Man Who Came To Dinner, she is by no means its star. An ensemble piece adapted from the hit Broadway play, it has a cast of expert character actors. The antics are led by Monty Woolley, who rules the roost with his epically comic performance as a revered literary critic, spewing acidly funny remarks at anyone who gets in his way. Davis takes a rare supporting role as his faithful secretary, which she carries off with skillful aplomb.

Finally, there is Marked Woman, a 1937 drama that typified the Warner Brothers style of hard-hitting gangster tales. Davis plays a dancehall "hostess" who gets involved with the mob. Again, it is the relationship between the women in this film, caught between keeping their integrity in a dangerous business and giving in to the mob, which makes it resonate with audiences.

The set also includes Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, a documentary narrated by Susan Sarandon. It is a warts-and-all story of a woman who fought for excellence while battling with her own demons, intensified by alcohol, in an industry unaccustomed to women demanding power. Davis' legacy is that of a woman with a huge ego, yet seemingly little vanity - who craved a happy family life, but said work was truly the only thing she could depend on for salvation. She prevailed through six decades of acting, four marriages, ten Academy Award nominations, and two Oscars. Perhaps she is best summed up by the epitaph on her tombstone. It reads: "She did it the hard way".

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