Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Fringe 2011 Review: Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies

Posted by metaphorical on 19 August 2011

Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies

1h 10m
VENUE #3: CSV Kabayitos
Performance seen: Thu 18 @ 5
Remaining Performances: Thu 25 @ 9 Sun 28 @ 4:15

Rating: 5
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

In the first minutes of “Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies” Jessica Sherr as Bette Davis sits down at a dressing table and, with very deliberate motions, removes her earrings and necklace, places them in a jewelry box, closes the box, takes off her evening gown, lays it over a chair, and lights a cigarette.

It’s all very careful and convincing. Except that Sherr smokes the cigarette like a nonsmoker. That wouldn’t be so bad in another show, but smoking was raised to an art form by Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and the apotheosis of smoking, the sine qua non of smoking scenes, takes place in a Bette Davis movie (1942’s Now, Voyager).

For me, this was exactly “Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies”—a show of a few hits and more than few misses. The hair? Perfect. The accent? Quite good. The use of language? Fine, until at about 10 minutes in, she says “you’re pushing my buttons,” a phrase that has zero instances in Google’s Ngram Viewer until 1972.

The show takes place more or less in real time, an hour of Bette’s life on the night of the 1939 Academy Awards. Bette has left the award show, but her mother is still sitting at the Warner Bros. table (nice touch of accuracy there; they still sat at tables in 1939) and updates her through several phone calls. Bette, nominated for “Dark Victory,” knows she will lose to Vivian Leigh in “Gone With the Wind.”

The show slips back and forth between Bette in monologue and her acting out her half of key moments in her life, such as arguing with Jack Warner, who won’t lend her out for “Gone With the Wind.” That argument is a bit of an odd choice, because Warner had his own scheme for getting Bette into the Scarlett role (a scheme David O. Selznick ultimately rejected in favor of one with MGM) but more importantly, these arguments can unfortunately never become real scenes, because Sherr gives us only Bette’s side of these scenes, with pauses for Bette’s interlocutor. The pace of the show suffers greatly.

The pace suffers as well because most of the scenes never rise in conflict. A three-way scene between Bette, Jack Warner, and Busby Berkeley, was a welcome exception.

There were some other things to like in this show, to be sure. Bette always seems to lose her arguments and then in the next scene we see she got her way; it’s all delightfully understated. Between phone calls from her mother, Bette idly rehearses a line from “Juarez”; not only is her focus on a single line engagingly funny, but that movie came out that June—it’s quite believable that she would have to be on the set early the next day, and generally speaking, the show seems very well researched. Finally, the ending of the show reverses the actions in the beginning (minus the bungled cigarette smoking) in a very satisfying way.

This portrait of Bette Davis well captures her look, her sound, her meticulousness, and her iron-willed determination. Too bad it couldn’t also mirror pace of a woman who made four movies in a single year or the rapid-fire dialogue that made movies of the 30s and 40s so enjoyable to those of us who love them.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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