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Bette in Bookstores

Dark Victory by Ed SikovAlthough only the latest in a long string of similar bios, Ed Sikov’s Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis is an excellent book which manages to uncover new insights into the subject. Having considered Sikov’s 1998 bio on Billy Wilder one of the finest books on filmmaking ever, I devoured this one in galley format last summer. It’s a great, brisk read. Well-worn topics like Davis’ unfulfilling marriages and the production of All About Eve get a good going-through here, but the most satisfying parts are when Sikov simply describes the films themselves — even the most rudimentary Warner Bros. programmer in Davis’ career gets a fresh perspective. It leaves you with the impression that Bette was the consummate actress of her time, which is the ultimate compliment for a woman who made sacrifice over sacrifice for placing career over everything else in her life.

Another thing I have to mention: perhaps as a gift to Miss Davis’ most ardent fans, Sikov doesn’t shy away from giving his book a pronounced gay sensibility. The result is that even his most offhand observations have a zippy panache. Take his quip on the costuming in her 1942 soaper The Great Lie: “Orry-Kelly went out of his way to make Bette look dowdy — at one point he sticks her in a bizarre bonnet that makes her look like a cross between Little Bo Peep and Elvira Gulch …” Or this bit on daughter B.D. Hyman’s scathing tell-all book: “My Mother’s Keeper is a sour, whiny book written by a spoiled child who grew up and found Christ.” The book is filled with delicious little nuggets like those.

Perhaps the most tantalizing passage in the book comes when Sikov describes an unsold TV pilot Bette made in the mid-’60s. This show (which I’d never heard of before) was a sitcom scripted by Boys in the Band playwright Mart Crowley in which Miss Davis hams it up as a flamboyant interior designer. Dahlings, what I wouldn’t give to see that!

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