First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp

Then someone’s mother

Then you’re camp.

No truer lines were ever written about the life of a woman in show business than this Stephen Sondheim lyric for the Follies showstopper “I’m Still Here.” It’s become a cabaret staple for seen-it-all singers and could have been the theme song for TCM’s new documentary Stardust: The Bette Davis Story. The legendarily independent-minded star turned each of those role types — vamp, mom and camp — into the stuff of stinging performance, of Academy Award nominations, of movie history. It was definitely a “fasten your seat belts” kind of career.

Davis barged into screen immortality — her trademark pelvic-centered lope leading the way — as the cold-hearted, peroxided floozy in the 1934 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, and so memorably stole the picture from Leslie Howard that she garnered significant write-in votes for Best Actress when she didn’t make the Academy’s nominee list. Then, in her heyday at Warner Bros., Davis transformed the “woman’s picture” and proved adept at mothers both shockingly self-centered (The Little Foxes) and moving in their sacrificial surrogacy (Now, Voyager). And when her ferret-like sex appeal withered into cracked porcelain — leaving only the magnetism of those headlight eyes — she jump-started a brand of ’60s chiller camp with her infantilized sadist in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? — netting her Best Actress nomination number 10.

Was it the most dignified of twilights for this irrepressible movie star? No, but would she really have been comfortable going the sap route that Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond) or Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) took to win swan-song Oscars? As the TCM original documentary shows, disagreeableness — and the hidden vulnerability and neuroses behind it — was a currency of sorts for Davis, and sometimes it did her right, as when she fought Jack Warner hard for better parts, and sometimes it did her wrong, as four failed marriages attest. But there’s no doubt that Davis was a Hollywood firebrand whose unusual electricity onscreen was impossible to ignore, and whose string of commanding star turns over a 20-year period — including Dangerous, Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Mr. Skeffington, All About Eve — are very nearly unprecedented, their totality a sobering reminder that today’s dream factories seem oblivious to nurturing female originality when it comes to making stars or telling stories. (They also don’t make feuds like they used to. Back then, clashes were between titanesses of talent like Davis and eternal rival Joan Crawford; these days, we have to settle for the snits of dopey party-page gewgaws like Hilton vs. Richie.)

Early on, we learn, Davis — born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts — was energized by performing. One of the most revealing biographical tidbits was her emotional recall of a terrifying incident from her Maine childhood, when her Santa Claus costume caught fire from a tree candle in a school Christmas play. “I remember feeling with morbid pleasure that this was my moment,” reads narrator Susan Sarandon from Davis’ own words. “I deliberately groped around helplessly until the full savor of that moment was extracted.” A star was burned, and born.

But it wasn’t automatic. “Who wants to get her at the end of the picture?” Carl Laemmle famously groused about Davis in the early ’30s, during her first ingénue contract stint at Universal. It wasn’t until she pulled out all the sexual, bitchy stops in Of Human Bondage — when she was on loan to RKO from Warner Bros. — that her marquee value soared. And while melodrama was ultimately her forte, what really stood out about Davis, and what Stardust nicely stresses, is that her moments of quiet, wracked stillness — learning Henry Fonda’s Yankee banker has gotten married in Jezebel or freezing herself while hubby dies in The Little Foxes — were every bit as memorable as her more flailing ways with poison-tipped words. Davis could also poke fun at her mannerisms, as a memorable clip from a 1962 Jack Paar appearance shows, where she demonstrates how to “do” Bette Davis, from the cigarette puffing to the elbow gyrating to a clipped “Petah, Petah, Petah!”

As you might imagine, the clip-reel element is good television, from a pungent lick of suspense from her murderous spouse in The Letter or a boozy blip from the little-seen The Star to a charmingly crass appearance on The Dick Cavett Show from the early ’70s. And writer/producer/director Peter Jones, a seasoned pro at documentaries on Hollywood history, makes the most of his unprecedented access to the full swath of Davis’ personal archives, including arresting photographs, recollections and annotations in her own handwriting. He does a fine job highlighting the ups and downs of her career — her battles with Warner Bros. to break free from male-dominated pictures, her professional and private relationship with director William Wyler, the shock of a “situation wanted” ad she placed in the trades in the early ’60s asking for work — and elicits wonderful, sharp commentary from actors such as Gena Rowlands, Ellen Burstyn and Jane Fonda, who notes, “Just watching Bette Davis onscreen was empowering to women.”

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 Jane because 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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