Monday, October 6, 2014

25 Years Later: Bette Davis and The 6th of October

Miss Davis with one of her many beloved dogs, Tibby.

As I look back on my life, the profound significance of October 6th is truly awesome. It all began when I was just over a a year old: although unbeknownst to me at the time, October 6th, 1982 was the commercial release date of Madonna’s first single, “Everybody”. I don’t think I need to detail the impact that the first rung on Madonna’s ladder would ultimately lead to in my own life

Exactly one year later was the more profound October 6th for me. That was the literally awesome day when I met my newborn sister Jennifer for the first time, just before she came home from the hospital. I've been blessed to share most of my life journey with her, for she truly became my first and most defining friend. 

On October 6th, 1991, our dog Frisky came into the lives of Jen and I, soon to be joined by her equally beloved sister Chloe. And they changed us both forever. 

In the interim between the October 6th milestones that saw Jennifer and Frisky become defining parts of my time here on Earth, there was the October 6th when the whole world lost an artist and a heroine and gained an angel and a Goddess. It is no exaggeration to say that my life would never be the same. 

I refer to the October 6th of 1989, and to the death of Bette Davis.

Looking back as an adult, and verifying my theories via a calendar for 1989, I can surmise that my family was spending Columbus Day weekend on Cape Cod. We took two cars to get there from where we lived at the time, and my Mom and my sister and I left after my Dad, who arrived at the house while we were still en route. I still remember my mother getting the call on the vintage car phone in our station wagon. It was my Dad, telling my Mom to tell me that Bette Davis had died. The news must have just broken, and I can imagine that that night it would have been all over CNN, which I remember him always watching. The next morning, there was a gorgeous photograph of her face on the front page of The Boston Herald when I came downstairs for breakfast. I vividly remember that moment of seeing that newspaper and, internally, making peace with the finality of her passing. And for nearly ten years, the photo that they selected was immaculately recreated in my memories, too. But I can no longer definitively recall which photograph it was, for I went on to become such an enamored fan that that part of my memory was eventually lost among hundreds of beautiful still photos of Miss Davis that I have since laid eyes on. I strongly believe it was either the most iconic photograph used in the promotion of William Wyler's The Letter or a publicity shot of Bette as Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve. I have trace memories of slightly longer hair, like Margo’s, yet with her face sparkling in that indescribable way it always did during the best years at Warner Bros. Either way, she looked utterly beautiful splashed across the whole cover of one of her hometown's two biggest newspapers.

I loved Bette Davis at the time that she died, which was why my father wanted my mother to be the one to break the news to me. But I had a narrowly focused way of showing idol worship at that age, for I was apt to be intensely fixated on only one era in a person’s career. In the case of Diana Ross, my favorite singer at the time, my obsession was all-consuming and yet relegated exclusively to her years with The Supremes. I worshipped Diana, but only as I would have in the 1960s, as if her incredible solo career had not even happened. (Thankfully, I got to enjoy the rest of her magnificent career many years later!) In the case of Bette Davis, I was fascinated and in awe of who she was in the 1980s, as opposed to any decades prior. This was based largely on the impact of being introduced to her via John Hough's infamous/brilliant Disney horror film The Watcher In The Woods. I had not only not been afraid of Bette Davis, as many traumatized members of my generation apparently were, but came away adoring her and apt to rewatch the film, and her performance, repeatedly. 

My adoration of Bette Davis was also based on her priceless talk show appearances. I gather that her ventures into late-night television were always legendary, but they seemed to take on a new air of importance in the 1980s, when she did not let her unbelievably debilitating stroke stop her from electrifying TV audiences with vivid recollections and a razor sharp wit. There was a relevance to the fact that the indomitable Bette Davis should come back from suffering a double mastectomy, a stroke, and a broken hip all within a year to still be the greatest star on the planet. The stroke dramatically affected her ever-copied persona, inhibiting her oft-imitated speech and limiting her defining use of body language. But she soldiered on, proving to the public that nothing could stop Bette Davis. She unconsciously formed a whole new set of mannerisms and speech patterns after the stroke, and it was this grande dame persona that I fell in love with as a child.

The place where I fell in love with Bette was, beautifully enough, Cape Cod, where her theater career blossomed at The Cape Playhouse. It was in Cape Cod where I have the most vivid memories of endlessly rewatching The Watcher In The Woods as well as seeing Bette on TV one afternoon thanks to a late-night TV appearance that my father taped for me the night before. (Like that fateful newspaper cover whose image has dimmed in my memories over the years, I cannot say with any certainty which Bette Davis interview(s) I watched as a child, because I have seen so many since.) And indeed it was en route to Cape Cod that I learned that the incredible life of Bette Davis had come to an end.

The Cape Playhouse, as photographed in 2010 for Cape Cod Today.

About nine months after Bette died, my family and I lost our beloved Grandma Mary, an “adopted grandmother” who had been as integral a part of my and my sister's childhood as both of our biological grandmothers. Grandma Mary’s death was the first loss to hit so close to home. Seven years later, my father lost his mother, and less than two months ago, my mother lost her mother. My sister and I have since found ourselves living in a world without the physical presence of the three matriarchs of our childhood and adulthood. These three losses in many ways are the defining signposts of my personal timeline up to this point. And the loss of Bette Davis preceded all three of them. 

I had already been fascinated with the concepts of life and death and differing perceptions of reality at an extremely young age. But the passing of Bette Davis was the first time my life was consciously affected by death. I was saddened and yet neither afraid of nor confused by the death of Bette Davis. Whether because of upbringing, intuition, or some profound spiritual influence, I put emotions aside and accepted the idea of life ending with death despite, or perhaps because of, a belief in the immortal spirit. My perspective on the sharp distinction between physical and spiritual death has never wavered. I do not feel guided in this by doctrine or delusion or fear, but rather by an internal understanding that has remained with me for as long as I remember being alive. I cannot say that Bette's death fully prepared me for any of the subsequent losses yet to be endured, but I believe that my actively accepting the notion of Bette Davis in spirit has absolutely guided me in the ensuing quarter century.

The back cover of the 1962 first edition of The Lonely Life.

I suppose you could say that I have always considered Bette Davis to be the standard-bearer for all of humanity. But it was not until a decade after her passing that I actually dove into her filmography. In 1999, I read her last book, This ‘n That, saw many of her classic films, and even wrote about Bette Davis (along with Madonna and Dario Argento) for an essay that apparently helped get me accepted into Emerson College. In the mid-2000s, a number of DVD releases reignited my interest in her career and prompted my finally reading her earlier autobiographies, The Lonely Life and Mother Goddam. I ADORED both books, but it was The Lonely Life that offered an unprecedented insight into the mind and heart of an individual who was far more like me than I could ever have realized simply by watching her films or even her dazzling interviews. I feel that I reaffirmed a deep spiritual bond with Bette Davis when I read The Lonely Life at the age of twenty-four. It has since become my favorite book, and based on what I have learned in the ensuing years, I believe it offers a very strong suggestion that Bette Davis was, like myself, an individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Bette's unrelentingly honest insights into her all-consuming drive, obsessive perfectionism, constant desire to work, and lifelong struggles with personal relationships were as relatable to me at twenty-four as they still are at thirty-two. These shared traits are also part of what  lead to my being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome/High Functioning Autism. There is much discussion online, thanks to communities like Wrong Planet and one of my personal heroes, Rudy Simone, about the nuances of ASD in individuals like myself and many female Aspies who "hide it" underneath a protective veil of feigned charisma. We may never know if Bette Davis was on the autistic spectrum, but based on evidence left behind, I believe she was. And I believe that that makes her an even greater role model to millions of people just like me.

Aside from being the greatest of artists and finest of human beings, Bette Davis epitomized Joseph L. Mankiewicz's notion of "a great star". I must admit that Bette has even eclipsed Madonna as my favorite star--but Madonna is, of course, a very close second! It really is something that Bette's best films, from any given era of her career, still entertain new generations of viewers in the exact same way that they did upon their initial release. And thanks to Bette's impeccable taste and domineering influence, her best films still hold up on artistic merits, too. In her work and in her life, Bette underlined the role that a brilliant mind plays in being "a great star" versus merely "a celebrity". I take stardom very seriously because of Bette Davis. And I would argue that every culture benefits from stars who break barriers and inspire masses, which Bette Davis did in spades both during, and indeed long after, her incredible lifetime.

Thank you for everything, Miss Davis. XO

1 comment:

  1. Hey Robert, really enjoyed reading this. Would like to know which are your favourite Bette movies? From Paul (BD Fanatic!)