Geena Davis memoir shows how she learned to stand up for herself

Actor Geena Davis’ memoir “Dying of Politeness” tells the story of how her movie roles gave her the confidence to move beyond extreme deference.

"Dying of Politeness" by Geena Davis, HarperOne, 277 pp.

Judging by her movie roles, it’s hard to imagine actor Geena Davis as the excessively deferential child she describes in her memoir, “Dying of Politeness.” Still, the lesson she learned early on from her parents was, “don’t say something that could possibly be perceived as impolite.”

This mantra held, even when the family’s safety was at stake: She recalls a time as a child when her parents refrained from saying anything to a relative who was, potentially catastrophically, driving in the wrong lane while chauffeuring the family.  

Over-politeness did not serve Davis well when she began her acting career. But according to her absorbing and inspiring book, the “characters I’ve played have helped transform me, slowly, in fits and starts, into someone who can stand up for herself.”

“Dying of Politeness” provides engaging accounts of her childhood, Hollywood friendships, romances, and marriages, but the core of the book is about overcoming a debilitating politeness. 

Davis’ story begins in the modest-sized town of Wareham, Massachusetts, where her father helped her believe she could “do everything and anything.” By age 3, she’d already decided to be in movies. She eventually studied acting at Boston University, and moved to New York expecting to be quickly discovered through her modeling. And … she was! The studio producing the comedy “Tootsie” was looking for a model who could act, particularly in a scene where she would be conversing in a dressing room wearing only underwear. Her work for the Victoria’s Secret catalog helped her win this first movie role.

Dustin Hoffman, who portrayed Tootsie, became a mentor, and he was generous with advice for the inexperienced Davis – advice that extended to what to do if a male actor hit on her. It was a tip she soon needed when one of Hollywood’s most respected and famous actors did hit on her. (It’s worth noting that Davis mostly refrains from dishing some of the juicier details of her Hollywood experiences, although she does use some profanity.) 

Soon after “Tootsie,” Davis started winning TV and movie parts, with the momentum reaching a crescendo in the late 1980s with the comedy-horror movie “Beetlejuice” and with “The Accidental Tourist,” for which she won an Oscar.  In the early ’90s, she furthered her success with starring roles in “A League of Their Own” and “Thelma & Louise,” the iconic movie about the adventures of two women rocketing a 1966 Thunderbird convertible through the Southwest to escape the law.  

In film history, “A League of Their Own” and “Thelma & Louise” stand as significant movies in which female characters break loose from stereotypes and restricted ambitions. It’s almost disorienting to watch Davis, who is considered to be one of the most intelligent actors in Hollywood, convincingly portray a subservient housewife, before she goes into combat mode on the road. Davis credits Susan Sarandon (who played Louise) for demonstrating how to stand up for oneself in Hollywood. “She was … able to say exactly what she thought,” Davis writes. 

In “League of Their Own,” Davis portrays Dottie Hinson, the catcher on a women's professional baseball team during World War II. She writes, the “demands of the movie and the character spread out in a magical way into my real life. I was using acting to fill out the persona of someone confident in their abilities.”

Davis doesn’t hold back from mentioning the misogyny and sexual harassment to which women in Hollywood are routinely subjected. For example, when she was working with Bill Murray on the comedy “Quick Change,” she writes that Murray bullied her during production. But then when the two appeared together on “The Arsenio Hall Show” to promote the movie, “Bill flirts with me and paws at me. …  I giggle and go along with it, as if we’re great pals. ...  Like so many women in a situation like that, I didn’t know how to avoid being treated that way,” she writes. 

After her gutsy turn in the action-adventure movie “Long Kiss Goodnight” in 1996, she hit a wall, likely due to ageism (she’d turned 40) and because of the box-office failure of the pirate movie “Cutthroat Island” the year before. She did portray Stuart’s mom in the “Stuart Little” live action-animated movie series from 1999 to 2005. And she played U.S. President Mackenzie Allen in the TV show “Commander in Chief” from 2005 to 2006, before what she describes as network machinations brought down the series. 

Davis became involved with the issue of gender equality in the early 2000s, after she sat down one day to watch children’s TV with her then two-year-old daughter. Davis came to the critical realization that there “seemed to be far more male characters than female characters – in a show designed for the youngest kids!”

She took a detailed look at the numbers and found they weren’t good. For every three male characters in kids’ TV, for example, there was only one female. She started asking, she writes, “What message are we sending girls and boys ... if female characters are one-dimensional, sidelined, hypersexualized, or simply not there at all?” In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

“Media images are incredibly powerful,” she writes. And, “We can create the future through what people see.”

As for her own life in the spotlight, Davis says, “The roles I’ve played have taken me down paths I never could have imagined when I dreamed of becoming an actor. They have helped transform me … into someone of power. …  I went all the way from playing a soap star in her underwear … to the first female president of the United States…. Acting has changed me every single time I’ve had the great good fortune to do it.” 

One measure of a worthwhile book – and one with convincing messages – is that you want to read it again. Given that this reviewer is already rereading this memoir, savoring its Hollywood accounts and its advocacy for fairness and decency,  “Dying of Politeness,” is a success.

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