The day after posting about The Letter the Siren took Heavy Baby to the library story hour and on the way out spied Dark Victory, film writer Ed Sikov's new biography of Bette Davis. The Siren believes that she has read enough, perhaps even too much, about Davis but she admired Sikov's careful research and deft writing in his Billy Wilder biography, so she picked it up. And it is well done, although still somehow not the book the Siren truly wants about Davis--the one that focuses almost entirely on the work, and primarily on what she did up to the year she left Warner Brothers, 1949. Yes, that eliminates All About Eve, but that movie has also probably been chronicled enough and the Siren would rather just watch it.
Sikov is a real writer, not a sensationalist, so although he does have some gossipy bits (and truly, with a subject as rich as Davis it would take someone as self-denying as Teresa of Avila to resist those) he gives her artistry and methods enough attention to keep things interesting. He spends a lot of time on her peculiar line delivery, how that works in her good movies and grates in her bad. He points out how her overflowing energy could result in too much movement in early performances, and chronicles how she brought it under control, performance by performance, aided by her best directors. ("Do you want me to put a chain around your neck?" snapped William Wyler, tired of Davis's head motions during the filming of Jezebel.) Sikov begins the book by warning readers that they may wind up disliking Davis, and him for revealing her flaws, but in fact he is pretty fair-minded.
He has a fine chapter on The Letter, although he does make one observation about the opening that the Siren obviously doesn't agree with: "For reasons that aren't clear, Wyler cuts to some startled but irrelevant plantation workers..." There's a great discussion of the scene where Herbert Marshall discovers the amount of the blackmail payment, though. And the Siren didn't know that Wyler second-guessed his own work and wanted to reshoot the end to make Leslie more sympathetic. Davis arranged to screen the first cut and talked him out of major changes, although they did reshoot the final bedroom scene with Marshall.
But here's the payoff, the Sikov passage that, for reasons which will become clear to her readers, made the Siren double over with laughter. It isn't often that you get the sort of synchronicity that ties together everything you've posted on your blog for a couple of weeks. Sikov discusses how Davis's character endures a beating at the hands of Humphrey Bogart's goons in Marked Woman.
On the day she filmed the scene, Bette decided that she'd had enough of the type of glamorous beating she'd endured under Michael Curtiz's timorous eye in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. From Bette's perspective, a new year had turned. It was 1937, and Warners' executives, producers, directors, and makeup artists still didn't get it. She alone did. The script called for Mary to be thrashed and knifed and scarred for life, but as Bette later described herself after she came out of makeup that morning, "I don't think I ever looked so attractive. Lilly Dache herself could have created that creamy puff of gauze at the peak of her inspiration. It was an absolute gem of millinery." According to Davis, she "smiled sweetly" and left the studio, supposedly for lunch.
She went instead to her physician, Dr. F. Le Grand Noyes, to whom whom she explained the plot turn and who she asked to bandage her as though she had, in fact, been kicked hard, punched repeatedly, and knife-gashed in the cheek.
Bette may have added a few contusions of her own before showing up at Hal Wallis's office, where Wallis greeted her at the door, saw her swollen eyes, outrageously broken nose, brown abrasions, and acres of bloody gauze, and burst into laughter. 'Okay, you get your way,' the producer told her--'all except that broken nose. You can't have that.'