Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review: Dark Victory - The Life of Bette Davis

Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis (Published 2008)
By: Ed Sikov

The title is misleading. Those expecting a full-length biography of the life of screen legend Bette Davis should look elsewhere. That's not to say that film critic Ed Sikov's book isn't worth a read -- only that it is somewhat misrepresented as something it is not. 

It's not so much a biography as a glimpse of the film sets for each one of Davis' films, plays and television appearances. Sikov, being a critic, instead discusses her performance in each piece and provides an analysis of her abilities in each role, with only brief glimpses of what was going on in her personal life at the time. 

Warners Brothers co-creator, Jack Warner, once described Davis as "an explosive little broad with a sharp left." When Sikov quotes great lines like that you can't help but wish a little more emphasis had been placed on Davis not only as an artist, but as a complex person. Married three times (all tumultuous, sometimes abusive, relationships), with a raspy voice, heavy drinking problem and a smoking habit that could rival all the chain smokers the world over, Davis was so much more than just her body of work. I suppose I was expecting a biography in the more traditional sense -- discussion of the subjects career with an equal balance of focus on their life away from work. 

Davis is my favourite actress and I'd never read a book on her before. While Sikov provides insightful and fascinating interpretations and opinions on her performances and her on-set behaviour, I was also hoping to learn a lot more about her legendary rivalry with diva-extrodinaire Joan Crawford, her strained relationship with her daughter, B.D., and whether or not people truly believed that the injury she caused her second husband, Arthur Farnsworth, actually caused his premature death while still in his 30s. Davis was forever surrounded by controversy and damaged relationships -- from a broken home that included a distant father, an overbearing mother and a mentally ill younger sister, to three disastrous marriages and an estranged daughter. In addition to her personal woes -- which made for great tabloid fodder -- Davis was also known as being one of the most difficult actresses in Hollywood to work with and was rumoured to have had numerous affairs over the years with everyone from her directors to her co-stars, including actor Errol Flynn. 

However, even though the focus of Dark Victory wasn't quite what was expected, it's still a superior source on Davis compared to some other resources available. Sikov perceptively illustrates how Davis often utilized her personal issues to transform whatever character she was playing at the time into a fully realized and complex human being. Like other screen legends both before and after her success, Davis understood that acting was a unique art form that should be respected, discussed and left open for interpretation. 

Although she was difficult to work with and had countless battles with Warner Brothers over her rights to portray her characters as she deemed fit, no one would dare dispute that she was fully committed to her career -- even when forced by the the old school studio system in Hollywood to appear in films with lousy scripts and dull characters. While Davis always made the best of each situation when it came to her film career, her personal life was always in need of more attention; but she ultimately neglected her responsibilities in that area of her life. 

Davis was a woman ahead of her time, always ahead of the curve -- someone who sassed back at studios when she disagreed with something; a woman who wore pants, cursed like a sailor and once refused to offer her "services" to a theatre producer in exchange for a starring role. Sikov does an admirable job of portraying Davis exactly as she was, even going so far as to note in his introduction that the reader may come away from Dark Victory not liking Davis very much as a person -- but Davis never sought public approval. 

Although not quite a biography, Dark Victory provides well-researched insight into one of the most fascinating women to ever grace the silver screen. 

I was originally going to put up an interview, but I came across this fan video instead. (Music: "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes). 


  1. This is the same book that is our library. Will read it one day!
    Isn't it annoying when a book is mis-represented? The Charlotte Chandler 'bio' I read on Hitchcock was just like this one, a basic chronological look at each of his films and nothing really on the man.
    But this book is well presented and looks like it has a streak of quality about it. The AFI lists her at number 2 on their greatest female stars so I think that says it all about her as an actress. I love all the behind the scenes stuff, especially on the real classics as sometimes what we get on screen can be traced back to their personal lives. The fights with studio execs is always interesting as it again influenced the final product in unimagiable ways.
    By the way have you seen A Place in the Sun? I watched it last night. AFI has it at 95 on its best films of all time list. I'm not sure if I think it is a great film though. Certainly solid and commendable but nothing leapt out at me as far as originality or as unique. It is only the second Liz Taylor film I've ever watched and I coulnd't get over what an absolute stunner she once was.

  2. Yeah, I didn't have a problem with the book once I got the hang of what it was doing's just not what I originally expected. I still feel like I need to read a Bette Davis bio to get more of a sense of who she was as a person.

    No, I've never seen it! I'll check it out sometime. Not all the films on the AFI list should be placed so high ...or be on there at all. Two Liz Taylor films I'd recommend to you, then: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (mainly for her performance) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which I love!).

  3. The AFI is flawed and I only use it as a guide. You are quite right as many films should be and shouldn't be on it, or are placed too high or low. For intsnace Dr.Stranglove is terribly low on the list as I believe it one of the very greatest films ever made. Saw it on the big screen several years ago. Lucky me!!
    I will give those two films a go when the oportunity arises!
    Am slugging my way through this Hitchcock bio at the moment. Very, very meticulous, but I find myself getting impatient wanting to get to his post-war career where I have the most interest in his films. Have just passed Shadow of a Doubt. But it is a genuine bio as it is giving a good impression of him as a person which is difficult because he really had no life outside of making movies.
    I've just watched The Birds ( 3 times!! ),Psycho, and To catch a Thief ( For the first time ever, ah Grace Kelly!! ). I've always just loved The Birds and consider it one of his most under-rated films. Technically advanced in its day I think it still stands up well today. I absolutely love 'Tippi' Hedren in it and get serious heart palpitations every time!! Sigh!

  4. I'm not even sure what the AFI method is for choosing their movies. For example, Amadeus used to be #50 and, when they re-did the list five or so years later, it was replaced completely. It should technically have moved down the list ...not been lifted and taken off completely!

    Grace Kelly was lovely but I've never seen To Catch a Thief!

  5. Yeah they don't seem to keep things consistent. Dr.Zhivago was 35th 10 years ago and has completely disappeared as well. So I have no idea how it has suddenly become less of a film in that time!
    Am well and truely behind in my writing by 7 films...all of them classics. To Catch a Thief has dated but in that wonderful 'classic' way, but it is far from Hitch's best even though thoroughly enjoyable.
    Just picture a guy with a foolish grin on his face and that is me when watching the classics!!

  6. Movies can feel dated but still remain relevant and important to discuss. Rebel Without A Cause is a big one that comes to mind. I will definitely check out To Catch a Thief!