by Lawrence J. Quirk ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 2, 1989
Quirk (Margaret Sullavan, 1986; Norma: The Story of Norma Shearer, 1988)--whose father James founded, edited, and published Photoplay magazine--has plenty of peppery insider gossip and priceless research for writing the life of a great screen queen for whom he clearly has enormous sympathy. Also, he has been interviewing Davis' costars and bedmates for 40 years, getting the goods on her for this very book. The result tops her two autobiographies, The Lonely Life and last year's best-selling but superficial This 'n' That, and her semiautobiography with Whitney Stein, Mother Goddam. Quirk somehow manages to work in the homosexual Hollywood subculture as bedding for much of his story, and few biographies of female stars feature quite the number of chronic male masturbators and intimate penile detail as Quirk paints in. This paprika alone--along with bed-ratings for each of Davis' husbands, lovers, and would-be lovers--makes the book chart-worthy, but the tempestuous figure of Queen Bette rises above all. She was a frustrated, puritanic virgin until marrying Ham T. Nelson at 24. But even while a virgin she was caught by the camera giving Junior Durkin, the juvenile star in Hell's House, such an erection that two pivotal minutes had to be deleted from the film, much to her astonishment that she could cause such a reaction (the deleted footage traveled around Hollywood stag parties). Her anger at her long virginity, anger at early poverty and her deserting father, anger at Warner Brothers for insipid roles, and anger at Ham Nelson's dumbness in bed also gave force to her bravura anger at the heart of Mildred's character in Of Human Bondage, Davis' breakthrough film. A partial list of her lovers includes Howard Hughes, costar Miriam Hopkins' husband-director Anatol Litvak, George Brent, and would-be lover Warren William. Husband Ham blackmailed Hughes for $70,000 when he caught the couple in bed (Bette later paid Hughes back every penny). Quirk goes behind the scenes of each film for fresh dirt, thinks The Old Maid shows Bette's greatest mastery of character development. Once underway, gripping, earthy, and, all told, loving.
Pub Date: Feb. 2, 1989
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1989
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