By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Jones’ tack on Davis’ personal life is mostly sympathetic — work was ultimately a more satisfying long-term mate than any man could be — but a bit more problematic when he relies on the widows of ex-husbands who obviously enjoy passing on spurious gossip. Genuinely touching, though, is the rare participation of adopted son Michael Merrill — his father was fourth husband Gary Merrill — who is honest about his parents’ torturous marriage and their obsessions with appearance, but expresses hurt that his half sister B.D. felt the need to write a vicious tell-all memoir when Davis was nearly felled by a stroke. B.D. didn’t participate, but Jones makes it clear where his sympathies lie in the estrangement between Davis and daughter when he shows one of born-again B.D.’s “proselytizing” pamphlets, and the heading is “AntiChristis a Homosexual.” You don’t throw that in unless you’re rallying Davis’ gay following to stand by their demonized diva.
And indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of Stardust is its acknowledgement of Davis’ stature as a gay icon, which elicits friendly comment from gay playwright/actor Charles Busch, while seeming to irritate friend/protector James Woods, who won’t watch Baby Janebecause he feels its legacy is so much gay kitsch and exploitation. We also get to see footage of Charles Pierce in drag as a Crawford-slamming Davis, and we hear from “confidante” James McCourt about how Davis’ Now, Voyager character — spinsterish, mother-dominated Charlotte Vale — is a stirring metaphor for gays who need to be reminded (as psychiatrist Claude Rains tells Charlotte) that their path to happiness rests inside them. (Not mentioned but more emotionally wiggly, perhaps, is the movie’s notion that standing up to Mom — coming out, in other words — might kill her.)
That’s all well and good, but I’m inclined to think her endless appeal to gay men very simply rests in Davis’ fiercely entertaining contribution to celluloid wickedness and unrepentant flamboyance, the sheer joy she took onscreen in telling people off, shaking characters (and us) out of complacency, and flaunting convention. (Brandishing that red dress in Jezebel? Now that’s a potent symbol for demanded acceptance.) In any case, it’s high time these TV biographies of screen legends that so assiduously try to put their careers in perspective take into account the long-marginalized but devoted fans whohave kept their names vital, their personalities mythic and their performances indelible. It’s to Davis’ eternal credit that no matter how many times we’ve heard an impersonator growl, “What a dump,” when we see the woman herself whip-crack that line in Beyond the Forest, she still has the power to put us in our place.
STARDUST: THE BETTE DAVIS STORY | TCM | Wednesday, May 3, 8 p.m., with repeats at 11:30 p.m. and Thursday, May 18, 6:30 p.m. TCM is also screening Bette Davis films throughout May.
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