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BETTE DAVIS by David Thomson Kirkus Star

BETTE DAVIS

By David Thomson

Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-86547-931-9
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The stars shine bright in this series of brief biographies of four of classic Hollywood’s most enduring icons.

Eminent film critic Thomson (The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, 2009, etc.) brings a historian’s acumen and poet’s sensibility to his portraits of Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman (ISBN: 978-0-86547-934-0), Humphrey Bogart (ISBN: 978-0-86547-933-3) and Gary Cooper (ISBN: 978-0-86547-932-6). The author seeks to identify the mythic essence of each of the star’s cinematic personae, and the ways in which key films and carefully managed public perceptions shaped those ideas. Davis enjoyed a long reign as Hollywood’s top star in the era of great stars, despite and because of her variable looks, peppery temperament and air of starchy New England superiority. Bergman was the “natural” country girl, beautiful and virtuous, whose selfish passion for her career and compulsive promiscuity both fueled the love fantasies of her audience and ultimately led to international scandal and disgrace. Bogart, the sensitive tough guy, was hounded by insecurity and a host of other personal demons, his upper-class background lending an innate dignity and honor to his fabled menagerie of wisecracking gangsters and gumshoes. Cooper is presented as a hapless, weak-willed adulterer whose lean body, rugged handsomeness and preternatural stillness translated on camera as a quintessentially American rectitude and heroic stoicism. In clean, allusive prose, Thomson assesses the filmographies of these titans, offering surprising judgments and insights—he despises Cooper’s beloved Sergeant York (1941) and the Davis classic The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)—and defining the magic of a vanished kind of stardom, an orchestrated mystique that made these men and women dream figures for a mass audience. The books are full of fascinating tidbits of gossip regarding his subjects’ sexual peccadilloes, financial maneuverings and studio politicking, and Thomson is wickedly funny and startlingly poetic in his observations. On Davis: “Blonde, with eyes like pearls too big for her head, she was very striking, but marginally pretty and certainly not beautiful.”

Indispensable additions to any American film library.