Academy Award winner. Camp icon. Bitch. What hasn’t already been said about Bette Davis? Countless biographies – many long out of print – explore the life of the star and all have one thing in common: They tend to be heavy on words and light on images.
In “Bette Davis: Larger than Life,” a coffee table book by George Perry and Richard Schickel, it’s not the text, but the bountiful and stunning photographs that make this a must-own for fans of the film legend. More than 250 glossy pages bursting with photos in color and black and white — many that have rarely been seen — showcase the life and career of one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
After a predictable introduction written by Richard Schickel, the photos are displayed in chronological order, film by film with George Perry writing the synopsis of each movie and clever quotes by Davis sprinkled throughout. From her 1934 breakout role in “Of Human Bondage” portraying a slovenly amoral waitress, to her Oscar-winning turn four years later in “Jezebel” as a beautiful southern belle, her vast range is chronicled and amazing to behold.
The added treat of including the movie poster art is a nice touch. Any fan of Davis’ will squeal with delight in seeing a full-page movie poster for “The Letter,” in which she is famously holding a smoking gun with a look of subtle horror on her face, her eyes doing all the talking.
Alongside glamorous studio portraits and film character images are candid snapshots of Davis. Whether catching her in a playful mood during down time on a movie set, as a volunteer serving food to GIs during World War II, painting her nails at home or reading over the script for “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” with co-star Olivia de Havilland, these are especially insightful and a welcome contrast to all those serious and dramatic shots Davis is known for. Although Hollywood images dominate, photos of her personal life are included as well. Several pages are dedicated to her childhood, early adult life and her family – Davis had three children and four husbands.
For aficionados of the legendary feud between Davis and movie star contemporary Joan Crawford, a full page is dedicated in a section on “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” the only movie the two starred in together. The photos from this period are quite a hoot with an aging Davis in the character of the grotesque Baby Jane Hudson and Crawford mugging for the camera as Jane’s crippled and tormented sister, Blanche. Unintentional camp at its finest.
After taking the photographic ride of her entire illustrious career, to reach the end of the book and come upon the photos of Davis during the last years of her life is gasp inducing. Perhaps the most poignant photo in the entire bunch is on the very last page – a simple shot from 1989 of an unrecognizable Davis holding one of her trademark cigarettes. She appears as a shriveled shell of the dominating presence she once was, a victim of illness and a life of hard living. Her face is virtually expressionless, but at the same it says so much.
Her look seems to say, “I did it the hard way,” which is one of her signature quotes and is even engraved on her tombstone. In the background, and slightly out of focus, is an enormous portrait of her younger self in her career-defining role as Margo Channing from 1950’s “All About Eve.” The smoke from her extended cigarette wafts in the air in front of the portrait as it trails off and evaporates out of sight.