Friday, March 07, 2008

In Which the Siren Reads an Anecdote That Ties Up All of the Past Two Weeks

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 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.'


surlyh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
surlyh said...

I'm happy to hear you were laughing. Last year I went to a certain convention in California for the frst time in over ten years. Just before before I left I was hit across the face in my weekly basketball game, resulting in two very black eyes. At the start of the convention I wore a pair of dark glasses to avoid repeated explanations, but soon found that no one recognized me with them on. While wearing sunglasses is commonplace on the coast, here in Chicago it is considered pretentious and rude--and worse indoors. I may be surly, but I try to be polite.

operator_99 said...

Synchronicity, karma, chaos theory, just plain coincidence, no matter, that is what makes life interesting (and sometimes painful). And to be able to tie it in with Bette, who could ask for more.

Campaspe said...

as far as I know, in New York indoor sunglasses just mean you're hung over. :D

Operator, it was too funny. Now with the book I am into her declining years and they make me sad, but she did go out as a working actress.

surlyh said...

After a few days at the convention I also had that as an excuse. :)

Bob Westal said...

I feel like someone's who wandered in on a really good conservation but is missing something --- I didn't read the last post all the way through (My excuse: I've seen "The Letter," remember liking it but have zero memory of it, otherwise, apart from that opening shot...I'm saving it for later. I also know now that I could never, ever have dated Pauline Kael.)

But as for serendipity, I'm actually close to finishing Sikov's Billy Wilder book right now. I agree that he is a real writer and it's a fine piece of work. But his attitude toward Wilder and his films is strangely dyspeptic, even puritanical at times (he keeps calling this or that line or film "filthy," while his own writing occasionally uses some jarring curse words for I'm not sure what effect. He also dislikes "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," which makes me feel sad.).

Still, though I'm not a big consumer of show biz biographies, his book on Davis sounds well worthwhile. His scholarship is solid and I can't think of a more interesting subject when it comes to actors.

Noel Vera said...

What to say, Ms. Campaspe? You live an art-imitated life...

Campaspe said...

Bob, I just meant the makeup/broken nose/Bette Davis intersection gave me a laugh. I'm hoping to have a "real" post up soon. :)

About the Wilder bio - yes, you nailed my one problem with it as well. It's funny, because On Sunset Boulevard frequently reiterates Sikov's love for Wilder (which I completely believe is deep and genuine) and yet not only does he seem to find a lot of Wilder needlessly smutty, he also repeatedly charges Wilder with misogyny and I don't see Wilder that way at all, never have. And I also like Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, for the record. On the other hand it's so well-researched and full of things I have never read elsewhere. It came out around the same time Cameron Crowe's Wilder book did and never got the attention it should have, I think.

Now with the Davis bio, it's sort of the opposite--he keeps acknowledging her perfectly terrible behavior, at one point even raises the possibility that she had borderline personality disorder (not that I'm up on precisely what that is) and he seems to think he's being brutal about her. But to me at least he treats Davis with kindness. For instance, the smackdown he gives that wretched book by her daughter is brief and on-the-nose.

Noel, like the guy said in Spinal Tap, it's a little too much fucking perspective now. :D

camorrista said...

Campaspe, sorry to be the skunk at the garden party, but I have to disagree with you about both Sikov bios. I think they suffer from (1) an academic's ignorance about how movies are actually made; and (2) an unpleasant disdain for movies (and the values of those who make them) that offend his middle-class sensibility.

In my experience, these are pretty typical weaknesses of most film scholars--unlike insiders such as Selznick, or Trumbo, or Zanuck, or (Louise) Brooks; or reporters such as Lillian Ross, or John Dunne, or Joan Didion, scholars don't spend much time on sets, or in editing rooms--and they base their conclusions on what they find--or believe they've found--in the finished movie and on secondary sources, some reliable, some not.

From a historical perspective, the trouble with the various Golden Ages of Hollywood is that no good reporters were on hand to describe them, and none of the participants saw any advantage in giving away the secrets of their craft.

My guess is that Sikov has never acted in, written, shot, cut, scored, or directed a feature film. That means much of what he says about those crafts is no more dependable than what a smart, well-read accident victim could say about his various surgeries.

One of the oddities of film biography is that so few of its practitioners have ever worked in the trade. Who is the Deborah Jowitt, or the Toni Bentley of movie literature? After Simon Callow or Kevin Brownlow, who springs to mind?

Campaspe said...

um, well, uh, I actually haven't any film experience myself. A year of acting training at a well-known program, a role in one student film and that's it.

But, while I understand your beef with Sikov and agree with #2 to a point, I think I'd disagree with your larger point here even if I had spent decades in the business.
I'm sure that experience in the industry adds to perceptions but not having that experience doesn't strike me as a crippling flaw. Filmmaking has changed over the years and working on a modern location wouldn't necessarily mean you understood all there was to know about a set in the 1930s (let alone a silent-era one). The idea that you have to have done something in order to write well about it is fundamentally wrongheaded in my view, akin to the notion in some academic circles that only a woman can write about women etc.

Catherine said...

I really need to see "The Letter". Out of all the studio system-era divas, I'd pick Davis in a heartbeat, but there are still huge gaps in her filmography that I'm yet to see.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I got a copy of the Sikov for Christmas, and it's been my official "what I read when I'm not reading what I *should* be reading" book for a while now.

I agree about Sikov's being a genuine writer. What annoys me about him, though, is the way he declines to discuss individual films. Frankly, I want to find out about things like "Lo Scopone scientifico," and I'm surprised at the way Sikov glides over the odd phenomenon known as "Wicked Stepmother."

One reward for me: learning that "Storm Warning," which I always liked, was originally written in the '40s as a script for Davis -- with Richard Brooks as sole scenarist and Raoul Walsh as proposed director.