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Bette Davis adds her own fuel to the fire of Bette Davis: The Benevolent Volcano (1984), an intimate documentary portrait that utilizes a long and candid interview with the actress herself. Along with an array of clips that demonstrate Ms. Davis' range from Jezebel (1938) to Dark Victory (1939) to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) are numerous recollections from former co-stars like Anne Baxter who played the scene stealing upstart to Davis' theatre star in All About Eve (1950). But the documentary's real punch comes directly from Davis. Her recollections provide an inside look at the highs and lows of her Hollywood career and give insight into the woman behind the revered actress. And as she did throughout her movie career, Davis holds nothing back, stating upfront, "I really am too much."
First, Davis recalls her 1930 screen test for Samuel Goldwyn in New York. Though deceptively demur on the surface, the young actress was already harboring a determined and ambitious underside. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Davis had a self-described Puritan upbringing. So for her screen test, the young actress wore a long dress. When the producers asked to see her legs, Davis at first refused, batting back, "what have my legs to do with whether I have talent or not?" But eventually Davis gave in - at least as far as it suited her. She rolled the skirt up a few inches at a time, until she reached her knees. And there it stopped and so did the Goldwyn audition. Instead, Davis signed a three-month contract with Universal. Apparently her virtuous image played no better there, as the head of studio reportedly said of a Davis picture, "who would want to get her at the fade out?" After nine months in Hollywood, Bette Davis' contract was not renewed.
The actress was literally packing her bags to go home when the call came. The caller identified himself as George Arliss, but Davis thought it was a prank. When she was finally convinced that it indeed was veteran leading man Arliss on the other end of the phone, Davis agreed to a meeting at Warner Bros. Arliss immediately got Davis cast opposite him (as an extremely young romantic interest) in The Man Who Played God (1932). The movie successfully launched Davis' movie career and Warner Bros. picked up her contract. And in 1935, Davis would be nominated for and win her first Oscar® for her performance as an alcoholic actress in Dangerous.
Still, it wasn't all smooth sailing. In Bette Davis: The Benevolent Volcano, Davis reflects on what she calls "bad movieswith bad scripts and bad directors." Included on the list, she names Parachute Jumper (1933), Bureau of Missing Persons (1933) and Housewife (1934). So frustrated was Davis with the lack of good script offerings, that she walked from the studio and fled to London. Warner Bros. of course sued. Davis lost the legal battle but got a pay raise - and better roles. In 1939 alone, she made these memorable pictures - Juarez, The Old Maid, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Dark Victory. It was the latter film that Davis claimed came closest to being the most satisfying experience, one that best realized the potential of the story, acting, character and setting.
Davis' last movie under contract to Warner was Beyond the Forest (1949), a picture Davis never wanted to make to begin with. She played a bored wife married to Joseph Cotten (who she felt was too attractive for the part) who hopes to snag a millionaire. Two days before filming ended, Davis called Jack Warner and negotiated an out for her contract. She would complete work on Beyond the Forest if, at its conclusion, Warner would release her from contract. Davis had made over 50 films for Warner Bros. in 18 years, and could no longer abide the lack of script approval. She likens it to growing up and leaving home; it was time to go.
Her post-WB life included the backstage drama All About Eve, written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, who Davis credits with resurrecting her career. There was also the cult hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opposite off-screen rival Joan Crawford. Both films earned Davis Oscar® nominations. She received eight nominations over her career and took home the Oscar® twice. Davis called the awards "her blood, sweat and tears" and said, "[she] had never not been honored or thrilled to receive an award."
Producer: Geoffrey Baines
Film Editing: Dave King
Cast: Ian Holm (narrator), Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Anne Baxter.
BW&C-60m. Closed captioning.
by Stephanie Thames