Film historian Sikov (On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, 1999) steps into the ring with battlin’ Bette of Warner Bros.
Like many of her biographers, friends, ex-husbands, directors, costars and everyone else within shouting distance of Bette Davis, Sikov finds the diva a tempest. Indeed, the turbulent currents of her personality at times drew the author to “brooding darkly.” Nonetheless, his passion for her films prevailed, the focus of his book becoming not her life, he writes, but her work. And that he greatly admires. He combs production records of her films, particularly the classics she made at Warner. His penchant for nailing down who did exactly what on her films at times slows momentum, however vital the details are to a full record of the star’s career. What surprises are the number of bad films—and bad performances—Davis delivered. (Anyone for Deception with Claude Rains?) That she remains justly regarded as a major screen artist attests to the talent and tenacity Sikov describes. He makes it clear Davis often had good reason to fight for better scripts, directors and costars, even if doing so meant suspension and financial loss by the hand of Jack Warner. Sikov vividly limns Davis’ work in classics such as Dark Victory, Now Voyager and All About Eve. But his critiques, alas, are not as full as those of biographer Barbara Leaming (Bette Davis: A Biography, 2003). Perhaps, despite his best intentions, Sikov ended up distracted by the star’s abusive marriages, self-destructive habits and boorish behavior—enervating topics all.
Sikov’s focus is not always as sharp and as deep as expected, but he captures the punch of an actress who succeeded in spite of—and because of—herself.