Turner has made a habit of garnishing its film tributes with original documentaries, but this examination of Bette Davis is unusually good, peppered with her own observations and by no means glossing over the dark patches. More than most actresses of her day, Davis fought to control her career, prompting legendary battles with studio boss Jack Warner that provide a telling window into how the film business has evolved. At the same time, her tumultuous personal life — which would have kept Defamer in clover for years — demonstrates that with celebrity, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Producer-writer-director Peter Jones and collaborator Mark Catalena capture Davis through deftly selected clips, sharp interviews (including her adopted son, Michael Merrill) and delicious video of her appearances with the likes of Dick Cavett and Jack Paar.
Narrated by Susan Sarandon, it’s a warts-and-all view of both the star’s prodigious talent — which earned her 10 Oscar nominations — and her messy relationships, including strange allegations regarding the mysterious death of her second husband.
Perhaps foremost, “Stardust” shines in chronicling Davis’ showdowns with Warner, who refused her demands for approval over directors and scripts; as well as her complicated collaboration with William Wyler, who directed her in “Jezebel,” “The Letter” and “The Little Foxes,” and with whom she had an offscreen affair.
There’s also the fascinating process of how Davis dealt with aging, highlighted onscreen by her dazzling performance in “All About Eve” — a role she landed, it’s noted, after Claudette Colbert broke her back.
Yet despite her considerable gifts, Davis proved so difficult — and juicy parts for older women, even then, so rare — that she reluctantly descended into camp roles like “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” which, among other things, burnished her iconic status among gay men. In fact, she followed that film by placing an “employment wanted” ad in the trades, saying she was “more affable than rumor would have it.”
Jones also tackles the sad if familiar scenario surrounding Davis’ daughter, B.D. Hyman, whose tell-all memoir skewering mom was released on Mother’s Day in 1985, when Davis was in her late 70s. Hyman declined to be interviewed for the documentary, but both she and Davis are shown discussing the book.
Along the way, there are the obligatory clips of Davis in various roles, from “Dark Victory” (her personal favorite) to “Now, Voyager” to an Emmy-nominated part in the TV movie “Strangers,” opposite Gena Rowlands, at age 70. While not always flattering, what emerges is a stark, clear portrait of a star who merited that designation in every sense, for good and ill.
From that perspective, “Stardust” is a sterling production — managing to be both a crash course in Bette Davis 101 and a blissful stroll down memory lane for those who insist, with some justification in Davis’ case, that they don’t make ’em like they used to.