BETTE DAVIS. On the heels of a new honor and a new film, a screen legend looks back over her 60-year career.
Washington — BETTE DAVIS, glimpsed from the end of a long hotel corridor, stood backlit against an open door as if in a John Ford film. Tiny, blond, and indomitable, she waited with her hand on her hip in that inimitable gesture that conjures up dozens of films from the early ``Of Human Bondage'' to this year's ``The Whales of August.'' ``This way,'' she said, welcoming the reporter. ``It's always so hard to find the room numbers.'' And then Bette Davis - one of the Oscar-crowned queens of Hollywood, 1977 winner of the American Film Institute's Life Achievment Award, and this year's Kennedy Center Honors Award winner - led the way into an interview as candid as a snapshot.
Viewers will hear inside stories about Miss Davis on the telecast of the Kennedy Center Honors gala Wednesday (CBS, 9-11 p.m.), in which she and the other honorees - violinist Nathan Milstein, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., singer Perry Como, and modern dance choreographer Alwin Nikolais - are paid spangled tribute by a jury of their peers.
But no story is more typical than the one Davis tells in this interview about the shooting of ``Of Human Bondage'' with English star Leslie Howard. In novelist Somerset Maugham's story, Howard played a promising young doctor whose career was nearly ruined by his obsession for a predatory Cockney waitress (Miss Davis). She talked of him in the familiar throaty voice, clipped as a boxwood hedge:
``Well, of course, he was a very fine actor, [but] he did not like films. He looked down on films. Films were just a way to make money. He preferred theater. In the beginning of `Bondage' he was so horrified that an American girl was playing it that when he had [to say] his lines offstage when I was on camera in a closeup, he would read. He would stand there and mutter the lines into a book. Yes. He did not help me at all. And one day he was crossing the RKO lot, where we were working, and this man said to him, `Mr. Howard, you'd better get with it. This picture's being taken right away from you.' So he behaved much better from then on.''
But perhaps too late: Bette Davis established herself as a Hollywood star in 1934 with that performance.
Today after nearly six decades as a star, Miss Davis still glitters. She is regal at just over five feet, but much more diminutive than her films suggest: a slip of a woman in a chic black cr^epe dress tiered from waist to hem. Blond hair, softly waved, frames the resolute face and the ``Bette Davis Eyes'' that inspired the Kim Carnes hit with that line. Wide open, blue, and penetrating, they are made up with the long-lashed glamour that has been her screen trademark.
Her roles have ranged from the lethal to the sublime. She's gone from the murderous Regina in ``The Little Foxes'' to the inspiring school teacher, Miss Moffat, in ``The Corn Is Green,'' Emlyn Williams's classic about his Welsh coal-mining childhood. Perhaps her most memorable role is that of the fading star Margo Channing in ``All About Eve,'' with her famous line, ``Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy night.'' But she's also played Queen Elizabeth I and Apple Annie, a drab spinster and a flamboyant Southern belle, a courageous, doomed wife and a gun moll. Whatever the role, the women have always been strong and spirited.
Miss Davis has won two Oscars as Best Actress, in ``Jezebel'' and ``Dangerous.'' And she has received eight Oscar nominations. She also won an Emmy Award for ``Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter.''
This year there is talk of another Oscar nomination for Davis's biting, poignant performance as an elderly blind woman in ``The Whales of August.'' She insisted in ``Whales'' that her character subtly use her sense of touch to compensate for loss of sight. ``Interestingly enough, my director [Lindsay Anderson] fought me every inch of the way on that,'' she recalls. ``But I just said forward, march, and did it. Oh, of course, I was right. It made the performance. You must do that.''
This independent actress has sometimes been accused of being difficult to work with, but as she explains: ``You see, you must be careful. It's your name up there. If it's good, you get the praise. And if it's bad you get the blame. They don't blame the director. So you must be careful that it's right.''
In his book ``More About `All About Eve''' director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (in a colloquy with Gary Cary) wrote that when he cast Miss Davis as Margo Channing, Eddie Goulding, who had directed Davis in four films, moaned, ``Dear boy, have you gone mad? This woman will destroy you; she will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away.'' Mankiewicz wrote that he prepared for the worst, but ``instead of the worst, of course, what eventuated was the very best. ... Working with Bette was ... an experience as happy and rewarding as any I have ever known.'' He called her ``the director's dream: the prepared actress.''
She was even prepared for the Kennedy Center Honors, as she gleefully explained. Kennedy Center sends out letters asking the famous in various fields for suggestions on who should receive the awards each year. ``Four of five years ago,'' says Davis, ``I sent mine back to Washington, and under the question who do you suggest for the honoree, I put `Me.'''
As George Stevens Jr., co-producer of the Honors show, admitted ruefully at a reception, ``It's always been our hope that Bette Davis would be one of the honorees, and ... she's been patient.''
Or at least full of anticipation: Now that she's finally gotten it, she says, ``It is a very, very exciting thing.''
At times during our interview she is perched on the edge of a chair in her hotel suite like a little girl behaving well at dance class. Manners and standards mean a great deal to this actress who invariably refers to the celebrities she 's worked with as ``Mr. Stewart,'' ``Miss Gish,'' ``Mr. William Wyler'' (her favorite director), ``Mr. Charles Boyer,'' (perhaps her best leading man, ``a fine actor and, of course, those eyes of his - you would melt.'')
She recalls, ``We had too much censorship in those early days, but [today] these people have noooo'' - she draws out the word like train whistle - ``censorship. So it's gone very far the other way. A happy medium would have been wonderful.''
But Davis thinks today's films are much too explicit and loveless. ``We all need romance and sentiment. That's what motion pictures used to be a great contributor of, to people. The most important thing in the world is love, isn't it? We have no more of that. Terrible! Too bad. That's why so many people look at the old movies - because they loved them.''
In Gene Ringgold's book, ``The Films of Bette Davis,'' critic Henry Hart wrote in a foreword, ``The secret of her success is being in tune with the Zeitgeist of the times. The part of our Zeigeist which [her] screen image subserved is feminism.''
Davis snorts at that quote. Her movies have always been enormously popular with women, and she has sometimes been accused of wringing the audience's emotions in soap-opera fashion. She mentiones casually that she almost decked a reporter who suggested that. Then she explains, ``Well, ... most of these parts have had to do with women's problems. In spite of that, I've also had a big male audience.''
Did she, as Hart suggested, represent ``the new woman'' in those films? ``Oh, ... I was born liberated. I always was.'' But she criticizes feminists for doing ``unfortunate things.'' Among them: ``They've sort of given the impression that they don't really need any men in their lives. Well, of course, that's absurd. They're very valuable in our lives.''
Davis, who refuses to discuss any of her husbands or her family, has been widowed once and divorced three times, the last time from actor Gary Merrill, whom she met on the set of ``All About Eve.'' She has three grown children and four grandchildren.
Davis raised her children in Maine and is herself a Lowell, Massachusetts-born Yankee. She was reared by a divorced mother who turned professional photographer. After a finishing-school education (when she worked as a waitress), she broke into acting with the Provincetown Players.
As a screen actress, she left her roles at the studio. ``If I'd taken some of my characters home definitely it would have been a very unpleasant household. Claude Rains's answer to that question about getting into a character was marvelous. He said he learned the lines and prayed to God. And somehow that's true.''
But she admits that sometimes tangible things help: the ugly eyebrows of the plain frump in ``Now Voyager,'' the ``horrible bleached wig and clothes'' of ``Baby Jane,'' which helped her get in character. ``So very often, it'll be costumes, ... the sets, the room, or the kind of home you're in. It's very important to your believing yourself doing a certain character.''
And of course the script is vital. ```In the beginning was the Word,' and you must not be tempted with a script just because you have a great part. You want a great role to play, but the whole - the whole - must be good. It'll never succeed if it's just the role you like.''
It was over scripts that she battled with studio mogul Jack Warner, demanding in a law suit she lost to be free of the contract system that made actors indentured serfs and kept her in mediocre roles. ``I lost the war, but I certainly won the battle. From then on, I got so many, many fine scripts.''
Words matter to Miss Bette Davis, and she's written two books to prove it, a 1962 autobiography, ``The Lonely Life,'' and the current best seller ``This 'n' That,'' which describes her courageous battle against and recovery from three serious illnesses.
Currently she is working with her assistant, Kathryn Sermak, on producing a Bette Davis video interview. And she has her eye on a plum of a role she'd love to play: cosmetics empress Helena Rubinstein. As Davis says with vigor, ``Lots of things are roaming around in my life right now.''