With volumes like “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “I, Fellini,” Charlotte Chandler has carved out an odd niche for herself in showbiz books. She chronicles moviemakers’ lives mostly in their own words, drawing on extensive quotes from conversations conducted over many years’ acquaintance to create a hybrid of authorized biography and semi-autobiography. When her approach doesn’t work (see: “Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder”), the results seem sketchy, lacking in critical perspective. When it hits the mark, as in this vibrant portrait of the inimitable Bette Davis, a legendary figure comes to life with immediacy and particularity.
Davis surely did walk alone during an astonishing career that began in the early days of sound films and encompassed such roles as the rebellious southern belle in “Jezebel” (one of her two Oscar-winners) and badly-behaving, middle-aged but still wickedly sexy and vulnerable Margo Channing in “All About Eve.” She gave human depth to such unabashed weepies as “Dark Victory” and “Now, Voyager,” and she played out-and-out bad girls like the wanton waitress in “Of Human Bondage” and the rotten mother in “The Little Foxes” with infectious relish.
“It’s so much more fun to play someone mean,” she told Chandler. “But one doesn’t have to be a bitch to play a bitch.” Indeed, the comments the author collected from coworkers depict Davis as the consummate professional, always on time and well-prepared, ready to fight for her conception of a role but willing to defer to the vision of a director she respected, like William Wyler. (Willingness to grant equal onscreen stature to rivals like Joan Crawford or Lillian Gish was quite another matter.)
Davis’s poignant comments about Wyler, whom she calls “the love of my life,” reveal permanent emotional scars inflicted by her “very brilliant, disagreeable” father, whose carping criticisms of everything from her looks to her talent gave her a lifelong suspicion of men. The unquestioning support of her divorced mother was the bedrock on which Davis built her early career; the nasty tell-all written by her daughter, B.D., “My Mother’s Keeper,” was the betrayal she never forgave.
Chandler’s affectionate but clear-eyed asides to the monologue show a woman who rarely forgot an insult (real or imagined), but who transcended her personal problems in her work, even such late-life exercises as “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” What comes across most strongly in this vivid, compulsively readable book is Davis’s ferocious intelligence, zest for life, and complete dedication to the craft of movie acting.