“There won’t be another Bette Davis. There can’t be.” Mitchell and I discuss Bette Davis

From the audio files: Mitchell and I discuss one of our favorite topics: acting, and how the “old” style of acting – let’s call it before what’s loosely known as the Method- is not only under-appreciated in certain circles (most dishearteningly, in ACTOR circles, where it should be celebrated) but – worse – dismissed, as “phony” or “over the top” or “weird.” Someone like Bette Davis, whose mannerisms are so distinct, whose lines are parroted parody-like across the land … is seen as somehow LESS real than other more “modern” actresses. Or that her gestures are somehow “funny” or “campy” – as opposed to CONNECTED to her deep understanding of the characters she played. I don’t have to fight this so much in “cinephile” circles, but I definitely had these fights with other actors sometimes. (Pity the poor dumbbell who made the mistake of saying to me in an acting class that “Spencer Tracy was okay, he just played himself all the time, though.” I thought to myself, “You WISH you could be HALF as real as Spencer Tracy was EVER in ANY moment of ANY scene you EVER attempt.” I didn’t say that to his face. I just gave him a lecture on the history of acting, and also reminded him that Marlon Brando said the only actor he ever “studied” was Spencer Tracy. There is such a thing as a WRONG opinion.

MF: Barbra and Bette are weirdos. So, I’m sorry that every moment every actor has has to feel like your version of reality – you, being the viewer. But with Barbra and Bette Davis, specifically – they’re so weird, they have weird facial tics, they have weird gestures, but all of it is real to them. I’ll give you a perfect example: Barbra swallowing aspirin in The Way We Were. People are like, “It’s so phony, the way she does that.” How about – that’s just how she swallows aspirin? Stop making everyone having to be like you. These actors are being truthful on a theatrical level. That’s why I call them weirdo actors. Bette Davis was a weirdo. [perfect Bette imitation] “With aaallllll my heart, I still love the man I killt!” It’s such a weird line reading but it is real to HER. Stop trying to make it real to YOU and see that it’s real for HER. It’s also why it’s impossible to take your eyes off Bette Davis.

Bette Davis in “The Letter”

SOM: The Letter.

MF: I mean, can we talk about her fucking hand in The Letter.

SOM: I’m obsessed with her hand in The Letter.

MF: Watch that movie, and watch her hand, the one that shot the gun. In every scene, track that hand. Because I’m telling you, BETTE tracked that hand. Through the whole movie, she tracked that hand. This is next-level acting shit that nobody even talks about. I’ve never even read an article about The Letter where they talk about it, but it’s so clear she’s doing it. The tension in the hand that shot the gun … it’s there in every scene, she keeps it going in every single moment in every single scene.

SOM: And then of course there’s the back-ting she does in The Letter.

Bette Davis in “The Letter”

MF: Bette Davis was the best back-tress in the business.

SOM: The whole movie is her back!

MF: Nobody does it better. Or Barbra – the way she holds her mouth, her gestures, certain words: “Hubbell – people aaaare their principulllls!” Like, if you were to tell somebody you were going to do the line the way she does it, people might say, “Uhm … you sure about that?” But it’s totally real for her.

SOM: And then you can’t imagine it any other way.

MF: And also let’s remember this, it’s shit like that that becomes iconic. You can imitate them, sure, but you won’t even come close. Immortality means: there’s nobody else like you. There won’t be another Bette Davis. There can’t be. She came out of a time and place – Massachusetts – and an era of women’s pictures – there can’t be an equivalent. She already did it. She already opened a door – and she didn’t close it behind her – but you can’t go back through the door. You’ve gotta open another door. And speaking of opening doors, can we talk for a second about Bette in Of Human Bondage. That character … What a HORRIBLE woman. She was a rising star at that point and she plays THAT absolutely wretched character?

SOM: She was so fearless that way.

MF: It’s insane!! Even watching it now, I still cannot believe she had the balls to do it. I cannot believe she chose to play that part and I cannot believe she played it as fearlessly as she played it. Who in recent memory has given a performance that truly ugly? I can’t think of anyone!

SOM: And you can’t compare that character to, say, femme fatales, who at least get to be sexy, even though they are evil.

MF: Every actress worth their salt has to play some version of the evil queen. Anjelica Huston, Michelle Pfeiffer, Angelina Jolie – but to be truly AWFUL like that woman? “I wipe my MOUTH” … So ugly. She was 26 years old! Just unbelievable.

SOM: Think about her in Three On a Match – which is really a Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak movie, and she’s the cute little blonde support staff tossing a beach ball around with the little kid on the beach. But Three On a Match was only a year or so before Of Human Bondage. Look at that leap she took. She had to take it and boy, she TOOK it.

MF: To give a performance like she did in Of Human Bondage – I still don’t think it’s fully appreciated what that meant to Hollywood at that time. Or – oh God, you know I go back and forth on this because I’m such a huge fan of hers I can never pick a favorite role – but Mr. Skeffington. Talk about fearless, about exposing the vanity of her character and yet you have empathy for her because she’s so trapped in it. She’s trapped in it and goes insane from it.

MF: It’s like finding out my grandmother was depressed because she didn’t have a successful marriage. Meanwhile, my grandmother seemed like such a rock to us. She kept generations of people safe and fed and housed but she saw herself as a failure because of what was expected of women – and that’s what that movie was ultimately about. And then when you compare Mr. Skeffington to Now Voyager, Dark Victory, Little Foxes. I mean, that’s a definitive performance. Has anyone ever played that role better? But then look at how lovely and quiet she is in The Man Who Came to Dinner. She’s so contemporary and subtle and she lets everybody else do the “acting”. It shows you that there were all sorts of people inside Bette Davis and she was just more fucking creative than everybody else. Why not be Fanny Skeffington? Why not be Regina? Or Mildred? Bette Davis plays these harridans but then she’s the sweet one in The Great Lie, with Mary Astor.

SOM: And you buy it.

MF: You totally buy it. Mary Astor’s a bitch and she’s brilliant at it. “Can’t we do something about that lamp?”

SOM: I love Mary Astor.

MF: She won the Oscar.

SOM: How about Bette Davis in The Star? So meta. Her character is trying to make a comeback, she’s ruined her marriage, her husband has custody, and so one night she gets wasted, grabs her Oscar statue, and drives around Beverly Hills, drunk and talking to her statue. And she MEANS it. It comes from such a raw place. Same with All About Eve. She was able to play actresses dealing with aging in a way that is still somewhat definitive.

MF: And it’s still a problem in Hollywood. She called it out and that bullshit is still with us. She also has that gorgeous speech – which is kind of anti-feminist but whatever – in the car in All About Eve: “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Unless there’s a man to come home to, you’re not really a woman.” It’s a little sexist but there’s honesty in it.

SOM: It’s truthful.

MF: Even the funny lines she makes desperately true. “Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.” Genius. Mankiewicz frames it to make it a little showpiece for her – but when she says those lines, Bette Davis is not fucking kidding. I just want people to get how connected people like Bette Davis and Barbra Streisand are to their own weird choices. I want people to stop judging them for not being normal people with normal behavior. [suddenly screaming] THEY’RE BARBRA STREISAND AND BETTE DAVIS, FOR GOD’S SAKE. They are both weird women and they are both irreplaceable. There is nobody like either of them on earth. They are fascinating to talk about but difficult to explain to people who don’t just immediately get that, who are like “They seem phony to me.” Phony to you, but Bette Davis believed every goddamn word she said, and if you look at it that way, then it’s the most real acting you’re ever gonna see.

This entry was posted in Actors, Movies, On This Day and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to “There won’t be another Bette Davis. There can’t be.” Mitchell and I discuss Bette Davis

  1. Jessie says:

    Stop trying to make it real to YOU and see that it’s real for HER.
    What a perfect way of saying this!

    We went into The Anniversary last night knowing less than nothing about it and had a blast. We were gasping, swearing at the screen. She was hysterical! You really do believe that her only joys are torture and fireworks (I’m kind of haunted by how simply and genuinely excited she was over the fireworks).

  2. So enjoyed this and the GIFs make it all so much better. Runs to watch Bette Davis movie. (And makes mental note to watch the Way We Were next time its on)

    • sheila says:

      Sarah – it was so fun tracking down the Gifs. Bette has some really good ones!

      If you feel like watching The Letter – which in my opinion is (perhaps?) her best performance – although she gave so many great performances – track her hand through the movie, the hand that shoots the gun in the first scene!! :)

  3. Brooke A L says:

    I love these conversations. And this was pretty good too:

    “You WISH you could be HALF as real as Spencer Tracy was ‘just playing himself’ EVER in ANY moment of ANY scene you EVER attempt.” Yep, summed it up nicely!

    You two should be doing an actors, etc. series/podcast/videos/something. I’m not joking. Youtube, Sheila. You and Mitchell need to be doing something with this!

    • sheila says:

      Ugh, that actor in my class. He was gorgeous, sweet, dumb as a sack of rocks, a good kisser, and totally clueless about what was good acting. Like: seriously, dude, I’ve acted with you, you could LEARN from Spencer Tracy about how to LISTEN to your scene partner. Jeez Louise.

      and ha – Mitchell and I have talked about a podcast! But we never get it together.

      I’m glad you enjoy. When we get going, it goes on for hours. We were both in our pajamas in his apartment in Chicago during a blizzard and it was like 4:30 p.m. and we hadn’t left the house in 2 days. so naturally this is what we were doing.

      • Brooke A L says:

        //He was gorgeous, sweet, dumb as a sack of rocks, a good kisser, and totally clueless about what was good acting.//

        I laughed out loud at that! Especially that “a good kisser” is smack dab in the middle!!

        And I’m not kidding about you two doing something with this. If I had money to throw around I would be throwing it at you. There’s a lot of material between you guys and there’s so many places you could go with it!

  4. Sheila

    This is epic, so great! I wanted it to go on! Yes, to all the comments above! some things so hilarious, like MF “suddenly screaming”. I so love the passion here with you two.
    C is always saying things like this to me too. Yelling at the tv, “Robert DeNiro has some kind of stiff neck and legs, he turns his head and walks like that because that’s what he has, you don’t, stop it. Actually even when it comes to art, a little off the topic, but, C says,”DuChamp did the toilet once and first, it can’t be repeated, even if you use a vacuum. it doesn’t work, besides, he was an intellectual and an elegant man, you are not.” But thats our opinion on conceptual art!
    The two other versions Of Human Bondage with Eleanor Parker and Kim Novak are quite good, because they don’t try to be Bette Davis, they are coming from themselves. I give them enormous credit. But! They cannot hold a candle to Bette Davis! She is in a category all by herself.
    Also I saw The Great Lie quite young, just a kid, and I remember clearly thinking, “But who is the woman playing the piano, she’s great! Mary Astor, oh! and I never forgot her.
    Everything here so great, Davis’ back acting, and I do have to check out her hand on the gun!

    • sheila says:

      // besides, he was an intellectual and an elegant man, you are not.” //

      Ha!! Yes, this is such a good and funny point. Often the imitators don’t even know what it is they are imitating. And of course that’s fine – culture moves forward in all kinds of messy ways. But there’s nothing like the original.

      // She is in a category all by herself. //

      She really is.

      And yes: her hand in The Letter! She holds all of her tension in that right hand. The HAND remembers what she did and why. So brilliant.

  5. P.S. Of course I read this post out loud to C and he said, “there was another actor Brando mentioned. Who was it?” We started to try to look it up, can’t find it anymore. But guess where we found the answer in only one place, The Sheila Variations! It was Cary Grant you told us, yes! Then we went on a Cary Grant kick, watching everything….

    • sheila says:

      So now I’m wondering where I heard it in re: Brando? I should put footnotes on my pieces, just for my own reference.

      I can’t imagine any actor worth his/her salt thinking they COULDN’T learn something from Cary Grant.

  6. Melanie says:

    I need an emogi that says, “I loved reading this and how could I possibly add anything meaningful to this geniusness!”

  7. Sheila

    I think it was on TCM for Cary Grant week.

  8. Maureen says:

    I love The Letter, I’ve seen it at least 10 times. How have I never noticed her hand?

    I adore these conversations between you and Mitchell, and I would totally buy a book that had transcripts of your talks. Sheila and Mitchell Talk Classic Movies…

    I wish Mary Astor and Bette Davis had done more together. From what I read they really worked together on the script. The Great Lie is a big favorite of mine-you know my love of Mary Astor-and she was so, so good in this. I love when they are waiting for the baby to be born, and she is so pissed, but sweet in a way when she asks Bette’s character for something like onion in her sandwich. Felt so real.

  9. Andy McLenon says:

    This is great, I too would tune into a podcast of you two’s high level informative riffing. I recently rewatched “Deception” because I was on a “Claude Raines is underrated kick” and I love his over the top flamboyant rock star type character, “Alexander Hollenius” but Bette is great too of course. Not a great film but it’s so odd in tone that I always watch it if I happen upon it on cable.

  10. gina in alabama says:

    Your comments about watching her hand reminded me of her crazy-frantic lace-making, it was like her hands were possessed and couldnt be still. Who could ever sleep under that counterpane and not have bad dreams from the bad karma that went into the making of it! And the great Wicked Queen Gale Sondergaard, standing in the shadows, menacing, but also being the wronged wife, the “good woman”, wreaking vengeance. A lot of issues in that movie! Another vote for the podcast too.

    • sheila says:

      Gina – // Who could ever sleep under that counterpane and not have bad dreams from the bad karma that went into the making of it! //

      Yes!! So true!

      I need to watch it again. It’s peak Bette.


    What a refreshing read. Davis always seemed to find a way of expressing the core of each character through body language, facial/hand tics & vocal style. Each character different from the last but so appropriate to each character. I never tire of re-watching her films to find spot little moments I hadn’t noticed before & thinking “of course, that’s why she’s playing it like that”


      Her back-ting is the best.
      The scene in The Catered Affair when she finally breaks down into a blubbering heap on her bed is all from the back & you feel every sob.
      & when she flips on the stairs in …Charlotte is magnificent

  12. Bill Wolfe says:

    I wonder whether one key to understanding Bette Davis’s acting is that her characters recognize that other people see them as grotesques, but the characters themselves know that they aren’t, and they want the rest of the world to understand that. (Or, occasionally, as in the case of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, they say, “You want grotesque? OK, I’ll give you grotesque.”) I’m thinking of Now, Voyager, where almost everyone sees Davis’s character as a pitiful freak, but Bette allows us to see she’s not.

    I love her rendition of Frank Loesser’s “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” in Thank Your Lucky Stars. (Errol Flynn is also pure joy in this one, singing “That’s What You Jolly Well Get.”)

    My Bette Davis story. When I first moved to Los Angeles in December 1981, after graduating from CCNY in June, I stayed briefly with my cousin, who lived in Bel Air. Driving through the residential section of Westwood one day, I approached an intersection with a two-way stop. I did not have a stop sign, so I began to enter the intersection. As I did, a brown Dodge Dart coming from my right blew through the stop sign and turned left in front of me. At that point, the Dodge was right next to me, and my window was rolled down, so I leaned out the window to cuss at the idiot driver. At that point, I was greeted by the sight of Bette Davis behind the wheel of the car. My wide open mouth froze without a sound coming out and Bette drove away, while visions of newspaper headlines reading, “Ohio Man Kills Beloved Actress” danced through my head. In its own “over the rainbow” way, this was a perfect introduction to Los Angeles.

    • sheila says:

      Bill – // I’m thinking of Now, Voyager, where almost everyone sees Davis’s character as a pitiful freak, but Bette allows us to see she’s not. //

      Yes! That character is so important to me. It’s a very unusual character – then OR now.

      // so I leaned out the window to cuss at the idiot driver. At that point, I was greeted by the sight of Bette Davis behind the wheel of the car. //

      Oh my God NO WAY!! lol that is such a great story.

  13. Kate F says:

    “EHverybody has a haaaht…Except for SOME people…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.