Saturday, April 05, 2008

A bumpy ride, but so much more ...

This may not make you feel old, but it certainly is something to ponder: Today would have been Bette Davis' 100th birthday.

For most people of my age, Bette Davis may be not much more than an afterthought, a relic of old Hollywood - you know, when all of the movies were black-and-white, and who wants to watch those? Boring! For me, Bette Davis was at first one of the many chunks of history that took place while I was recovering from my transplant in the last months of 1989. She died in October of the year while I was still laid up at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. (Other major events during that time span: the Bay Area earthquake; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Eastern Bloc; the invasion of Panama; and, in addition to Davis, the deaths of Ferdinand Marcos, Irving Berlin - at age 101! - Graham Chapman and Secretariat. Also, a certain baseball team made the playoffs. Just saying.) Later, as I matured and began a career as an entertainment journalist, I learned that Davis was more than just a blurb in my personal history. I figured out that she was a star in every sense of the word.

I don't buy the complaint of those who say that there are no real movie stars anymore - you can't look at the likes of George Clooney or Julia Roberts or even Meryl Streep and tell me that with a straight face - but what is true is that for the most part, the definition of the term "movie star," like most things in life, has definitely evolved. Bette Davis was the essence of what it meant to be a movie star back in the day, but I think she would have fit in just fine had she been in her prime in the 21st century. Frankly, she would have flourished in modern roles such as, say, Erin Brockovich. She would have salivated to recite some of the lines that Roberts had in her Oscar-winning role - indeed, as good as Roberts was as Brockovich, Davis would have blown her out of the water. And it was obvious that Davis would have easily filled out Brockovich's bustier-heavy wardrobe. Davis was a very sexy woman for a fairly long time, but never relied solely on her physical attributes. What's more, what was sexy about Davis wasn't just her curves, but her mind and her attitude, the way she carried herself in parts both good and evil.

Bette Davis once said, as age and disease ravaged her body but not her spirit, that "getting old is not for sissies." But Davis was far from any sissy. She had balls of steel and wasn't above using them, on or off-screen. She took on the studio system in the 1930s, when the system was at its zenith, when she wasn't satisfied with the types of roles Warner Bros. was offering her (i.e. ordering her) to do. She lost the subsequent lawsuit, but set the tone for the rest of her professional and personal life - namely, that she didn't take shit from anybody. She also didn't suffer fools lightly - just ask Joan Crawford (well, you can't ask her anymore, but you know what I mean) and Faye Dunaway, whom she called out repeatedly for being, shall we say, unprofessional. But to others, she was more than generous. During World War II, she co-founded the Hollywood Canteen, a star-studded entertainment rest stop for American soliders going to and from the European and Pacific fronts, and regularly volunteered her time there to provide comfort to the servicemen (in more ways than one, if some of the rumors are to be believe - but, hey, in times of war ... ) And, in 1980, when Kim Carnes scored a huge hit with her pop single "Bette Davis Eyes," the subject of the song was so flattered that she sent personal thank-you notes to Carnes and the song's writers for making her cool in the eyes of her grandson and making her a part of "modern times". But then again, almost everything about Bette Davis was part of modern times, if not in front of them altogether.

So while there are still most definitely movie stars in the classic sense of the world, that doesn't mean that we couldn't use the likes of Bette Davis today to remind us of what glamour was and can be again. And if you still don't buy my argument, then I have three words for you: All About Eve. If you only watch one Bette Davis movie in your lifetime, watch than one. Twice. You'll thank me for it.

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