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).