“Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies”
The Triad – January 12 & 13
Jessica Sherr, who enjoyed a sold-out run at last year’s New York Fringe Festival with her one-woman show about Bette Davis, has brought Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies back for a run in the clubs and has wisely chosen The Triad, with its small proscenium and retro look, as a venue. Written by Sherr, the play is a vividly imagined piece that takes place on Oscar night 1940, in which 1939 films were honored, when Davis was in the running for Best Actress for Dark Victory. Davis chose to sit out the ceremony, knowing she would lose to Vivien Leigh for Gone With the Wind (a film Davis had been considered for; her consolation prize for not getting it was Jezebel, which netted her the Oscar for 1938).
Sherr has Davis occasionally talking with her mother on the phone or addressing her two Oscars on the mantle, and also offers flashbacks of pivotal moments in her career leading up to that night. In a mere fifty minutes, Sherr efficiently brings us imagined conversations (based on fact) with a number of other people who shaped the Bette Davis career and legend at that pivotal time in her life. (After 1940, it can be argued that the legend overtook the actress and that many of her later films that earned her more nominations—All About Eve, The Star, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—were films in which she played over-the-top actresses.)
When Sherr first appears on stage, one’s immediate thought is, “Oh, she’s too pretty to be playing Bette Davis.” With her shoulder-length red hair, for a moment she almost looks more like Rita Hayworth. Then, when she opens her mouth, it’s easy to think, “No, the voice isn’t quite strong enough.” However, we have perhaps been so influenced by (mostly) drag performers giving mid-to-late-life Bette Davis impressions that we’ve forgotten what the real Davis was like in the late ’30s, when she was barely over thirty years old and had already won her two (and only two) Oscars. A look at Davis’s films from the era reveal that her voice was indeed higher-pitched than in her later years and had an emotional quaver in it. In this regard, Sherr perfectly captures her sound, complete with that faux-British theatre dialect that Davis put on. Similarly, her gestures and facial expressions (the ever-present scowl and the eyes that widen for dramatic emphasis) have a mesmerizing effect that pulls the audience in, without succumbing to the temptation to go camp.
What the show does most effectively is show how Davis was a trailblazer even at that young age. After auditioning for Busby Berkeley, she essentially told him, “I don’t think I’m the right actress for your kinds of movies.” She confronted Jack Warner about her wish to be lent out to RKO to make Of Human Bondage, and a couple of years later she walked out on her contract with Warner Brothers when the movies they’d been giving here were mostly drivel. A famous lawsuit ensued, and even though Davis lost, she established a precedent for actors’ rights and got better films for several years after that. Another scene has Davis nagging her then-husband, Ham, for being a stay-at-home good-for-nothing and living off the fruits of her labor.
One delightful segment portrays Davis in black corset and stockings, playing coquettishly with Howard Hughes, with whom she is rumored to have had an affair (at the same time that Katharine Hepburn was most likely also having an affair with Hughes, which is addressed in this scene). This allows us a glimpse of a Davis we’ve rarely seen, girlish and sensual.
The piece effectively shows why Davis had to develop a tough hide to overcome insecurities that must have plagued her, despite her success. “They call me the little brown wren” and “they say I have as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville,” she says. At the end of the play, Sherr has Davis deciding to attend the ceremony and congratulate Leigh on her award, ultimately doing the gracious and mature thing. Director Susan Campanaro keeps the pace moving quickly and makes the most of the simple set of a couch and end table, and a few basic costume changes.
Arguably, the piece could be expanded a bit. The ending comes too soon and the resolution is too simple for the drama that precedes it. A stronger sense of purpose undergirding the entire piece might give it more dramatic heft. The play misses that late denouement that could show us the emotional toll all of this might be taking on Davis in private. Other than that, Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies is a welcome addition to Davis lore, and Jessica Sherr, as an actress, is every bit as courageous as her subject.
About the Author
Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.