BETTE DAVIS: A Biography by Barbara Leaming
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BETTE DAVIS: A Biography

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Strong, honest, vivid biography of a colossal egoist, by the author of distinguished lives of Rita Hayworth (If This Was Happiness, 1989), Orson Welles, and Roman Polanski. This is a rapid but rich full-dress portrait of a matchlessly magnetic actress whose chains of self-centeredness grew ever heavier as she aged and who finally withered into ""the sorry spectacle of a great talent pigheadedly wasted."" Knowledgeable readers will recognize that Learning has not seen and does not weigh the individual value of every film Davis (1908-89) was involved in. When she focuses on the major works, however, she does so thoroughly and settles finely on the star's acting. Learning does Davis the honor of seeking the heart of her work as avidly as she does the springs of a life made lonely by bottomless egoism and many adulteries and abortions. Davis's great character flaw apparently was inherited from a mother and grandmother who wanted to break into a male-dominated world and failed. Her self-sacrificing mother, who was deserted by her husband when Davis was seven, became a portrait photographer to support Davis and her addled younger sister. Young Davis was given to rages that seem both genetic and to stem from her fury at being imprisoned in apartment life while all her well-heeled friends lived in large houses with servants. These beginnings set the template from which Davis never wavered: She was a virago. A stage career led to films but she kept her temper in check until her role as the great bitch Mildred in Of Human Bondage released it and led her into endless battles with Warner Brothers, for which she made 51 pictures in 18 years. Learning makes clear that Davis's battles were always for money and power and sprang from quarrelsomeness. Excellent especially on Davis's tics and mannerisms and how they undermined her ferocious energy and greater possibilities.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1992
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Summit/Simon & Schuster