As a steady stream of acolytes lines up to celebrate the centennial of Bette Davis’ birth — after last weekend’s greatest hits rundown from the Cinematheque, a grand evening at the Academy and a series at LACMA commence in May — two studios have just released handsome if relatively incidental DVD box sets: Warner Bros.’ “The Bette Davis Collection, Volume 3,” with its Davis odds and ends (The Old Maid, Deception);and “The Bette Davis Collection,” a five-film set of her latter-day features, from Twentieth Century Fox. Of the two, it’s the Fox set that’s a more fitting tribute to the scrappy Yankee endurance that helped make Davis the “First Lady of the American Screen.” It kicks off with All About Eve, writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz’s purringly bitchy ensemble piece about the life cycle of the theatrical grande dame. The film features Davis’ last great romantic lead, a sort of fuckability swan song before she embarks on the cavalcade of ruined grotesques that marked her characteristically defiant, frequently brilliant cinematic denouement. The best of those reluctant crones speak directly to the isolation of women who have set aside a life in the real world (home, marriage, children) to pursue something loftier, only to find that that something is ephemeral at best and, at worst, a fantasy. To their perpetual surprise, the very pursuit has rendered them, in the eyes of others, warped and monstrous things. Davis feels for these women — the wasted Southern belle of Robert Aldrich’s Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte; the unhinged caretaker of Seth Holt’s underrated Hammer horror The Nanny; and the lonely monarch of Henry Koster’s otherwise ridiculous The Virgin Queen. She knows their pain and, even in movies that are often a shadow of her former material, she gives them her unyielding, determined best. (The Bette Davis Collection, Volume 3, Warner. Bros. $59.92; The Bette Davis Collection, Twentieth Century Fox, $49.98)
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