Bette Davis sizes up today's TV, films

Bette Davis is doing an imitation of Bette Davis.

She swings her elbows back and forth agitatedly and says, 'Petah, Petah . . . .'' Then she throws back her head and roars the great Bette Davis laugh which film and TV audiences have come to know so well. It is the Bette Davis of ''Jezebel,'' a few decades later.

This petite, mature beauty with ash blond hair streaked with gray is impeccably dressed in a trim classic navy-blue suit with blue pumps to match. She is a gentle lionness who sometimes roars like a lion. Miss Davis doesn't give interviews - rather she holds court.

''I think imitations are the greatest compliment in the world,'' she says. ''You're in the soup if nobody imitates you . . . because that means there's nothing very definite about your personality.

''But now the imitations of me are imitations of imitations. As a matter of fact I imitate myself in the one-woman show I have toured in across the country. One hour of film clips and one hour of me, answering questions.''

She is in New York City to talk about a new television drama she stars in - ''A Piano for Mrs. Cimino'' (CBS, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 9-11 p.m.). When the arriving interviewer starts to remove his slushy boots on entering her favorite suite at the stylish Lombardy Hotel, she says: ''No, don't bother. The rugs in this place have loads of spots already. A few more won't do them any harm.''

''Mrs. Cimino'' is what Miss Davis calls ''a worthwhile project.'' It is a study in how a loving family deals with what is mistakenly diagnosed as senility in their mother. Her home and music shop are taken from her and her financial future put in the hands of a bank. When, entirely through love and affection, she recovers completely, she goes to court to regain control over her own life.

It is a latter-day Miss Davis part she can sink her teeth in - and she does so admirably, making Mrs. Cimino a universally identifiable character. The film is a Roger Gimbel production, directed and produced by George Schaefer. Chances are this touchingly straightforward production will bring awards to everybody involved - especially Miss Davis.

''I've been fortunate,'' she says. ''I've had four fine films in the last few years - all on TV. I'm so tired of the professional snobbery toward TV films. I guarantee that you will find more great film specials on TV in the past eight years than those made for theatrical release. The only difference is that sadly the TV films have those commercials which interrupt.

''Exactly the same kind of thing is going on between movies for theaters and movies for television that used to go on between theater and movies. Pure snobbery. Half the Hollywood actors came back and saved Broadway - that's when they changed their tune. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, me - we all came back and did theater. Then there was no more sneering at Hollywood.''

She likens most current made-for-TV films to the ''B'' pictures of her day - the second part of the double-feature billing.

''But so what if the TV films must be made fast? We never had more than four or five weeks to work on a film in the '30s and '40s. 'Jezebel' was made in six weeks, 'Dark Victory' in four. We were trained that way.

''For 10 years Hal Wallis bought me the greatest properties ever, so I have no real complaints with him. But filmmaking is so much more difficult today, because of all the location shooting. We made most of ours on sound stages, where you could control everything easily - lighting, sound.''Why some of these young actors - I can't even hear them while we are shooting.''Miss Davis has been in films around 50 years - what major changes has she observed?''People look back on those early days of film and it is as if every film was the greatest. That's nonsense. If there were five good films in one year it was a bonanza year.''Some old films stand up to close scrutiny today, others are interesting only as artifacts. But if it was an honest good film, you can be sure it will get by today.''The golden years were just hardworking years as far as I am concerned. One year I made five in a row. I had to rest for when it was over - but those were the greatest days.''Now they do one film and wait and wait and wait. If it isn't a blockbuster, you don't get hired again.''Are the rumors true that Miss Davis is difficult to work with?Again that roar. ''Not if you know your job. I cannot abide incompetence. If a director doesn't know his job, I feel I have to fight for survival. They never say the director was bad - they say Bette Davis was.''For a while a few years back it seemed that Miss Davis was getting caught in a kind of horror-film syndrome. There was ''What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,'' ''Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,'' ''The Nanny. . . .''''But they were all great parts, too good to turn down,'' she says. ''Those suspense roles are difficult, because you don't want to be insincere in your acting at the beginning, but you don't want to give away the surprise ending, either.''Will Miss Davis answer a personal multiple-choice question? Would she call herself (a) happy, (b) satisfied, (c) content?No hesitation - ''Content. Of course, I don't look forward as much as I once did. I don't feel the same kind of great excitement about the future. I'm much more apt to go day by day. I know I've been very fortunate. ''Especially fortunate that I have children and grandchildren. (Two daughters, one son, and three grandchildren). I think my life, aside from my work, would be pretty devastating without children. I'm so glad I have them.''Is she a fighter in the women's movement?''Only for equal pay. It's up to the women to change if they can't change the men. But I believe in homemaking.''My oldest daughter is one of the greatest homemakers of all time. She is a real professional. Sensational. She treats it like a business. That I could have done.'' She looks off toward the windows facing Park Avenue, perhaps just a bit sadly. ''But I just didn't go that way. . . .''Does Miss Davis have a philosophy by which she lives?''Three. To thine own self be true. Pray that you do unto others as you would have others do unto you. And God helps those who help themselves.''Would she call herself lovable?That lion's roar again: ''No! But I am nice. I don't think the word lovable would ever be used about me.''What word would she use?''Honest. And that's what makes me not so lovable.''The interviewer dares to feed the lion a sweet: ''Well, I think you are both honest and lovable.'' Then, he beats a hasty retreat from the gentle lion's lair.

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