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Like many Hollywood actresses, Bette Davis always dreamed of getting the glamour treatment at MGM. But she spent the bulk of her career at the more economy-minded Warner Bros. Not that they failed her in the glitz department. But MGM was Hollywood's House of Glamour, with such beauties as Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and Ava Gardner under contract. It wasn't until the fifties, when her career was in a temporary slump, that Davis finally got the MGM treatment. But by then the studio was more interested in gritty realism, and Davis wound up playing a Bronx housewife with a grown daughter in The Catered Affair (1956). That hardly set her back. Davis was always more interested in the role than the look. But it certainly was ironic that while using Lana Turner's old dressing room, she had a wardrobe of housedresses bought off the rack in Brooklyn. She even powdered her arms to make them look heavier.
The Catered Affair started as a television drama by Paddy Chayefsky, the author of such realistic stories as Marty and The Bachelor Party. For the film version, MGM signed Marty's screen portrayer, Ernest Borgnine. Thelma Ritter had played the female lead, a broken-down housewife who fights to use the family savings to give her daughter the big wedding she'd never had. She was a big screen favorite at the time, but director Richard Brooks decided he wanted Davis, much to the displeasure of studio executives, who feared she'd be too much the diva for the simple character study. But Brooks had just scored a big hit directing the trail-blazing juvenile delinquency expose, Blackboard Jungle (1955), and he got his way. Once he'd pushed Davis on them as leading lady (and novelist Gore Vidal as screenwriter), he had to give in on something, so he accepted the studio's choice to play Davis's daughter, Debbie Reynolds.
Davis immediately impressed Brooks with her commitment to realism. She traveled to New York to study women in the slums and even worked to master the speech of Irish-American housewives. Brooks suggested she model her characterization on his mother, whom he described as suffering all the time. As he would later tell Davis biographer Charles Higham, "My mother would just put her hand on her heart and say constantly, 'You want to make me suffer? You want to do this to me?'" That was all Davis needed to hear. To Brooks' astonishment, she transformed herself into the image of a woman she had never met.
For her big emotional scene, in which she breaks into tears when her plans fall apart, Brooks asked her for deep, over-powering sobs. She informed him that she could give him what he wanted, but only once. Brooks spent two hours setting up the difficult shot, which tracked her through the entire apartment until she broke down in the bedroom. In preparation, Davis sat apart, concentrating on the role. When the time came, she took her place, signaled Brooks that she was ready, and got the scene in one take.
Davis also did everything she could to help her co-stars. She loved working with Borgnine and was particularly thrilled when he won the OscarÆ for Marty during filming. She took young Ray Stricklyn, who played her son, under her wing and helped him learn the ins and outs of the business. When she realized how unhappy Brooks was with Reynolds, whom he derisively referred to as "Debbie Dimples" and "Miss Hollywood," she devoted extra time to rehearsing with her and giving her points about screen acting (Reynolds had done mostly musicals at that time). As a result, Reynolds scored a personal triumph in the role, winning the National Board of Review's award for Best Supporting Actress.
The critics had mixed reactions to Davis. Though some thought she had suppressed her famous mannerisms to get inside the character, others said she looked like a grand dame slumming. As a result, the film did not do well at U.S. box offices. Things were different in England, however, where the critics hailed her performance. In later years, Davis would consider the film one of her proudest achievements. When she toured with a program of clips from her greatest films, the scene from The Catered Affair in which she informs Reynolds "You're going to have a wedding whether you like it or not!" always moved the audience to roars of approval.
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Gore Vidal
Based on the Teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky
Cinematography: John Alton
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Andre Previn
Principal Cast: Bette Davis (Mrs. Tom Hurley), Ernest Borgnine (Tom Hurley), Debbie Reynolds (Jane Hurley), Barry Fitzgerald (Uncle Jack Conlon), Rod Taylor (Ralph Halloran), Dorothy Stickney (Mrs. Rafferty), Ray Stricklyn (Eddie Hurley), Mae Clarke (Saleswoman).
BW-94m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning
by Frank Miller