All About Praxis

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Part 2: Connecting me to Margo, through Bette Davis

1. The first Bette Davis film I ever saw was not All About Eve—that was third.  The first was Burnt Offerings (a title I’m still not sure I understand), a 1976 gem with Karen Black and Oliver Reed as a married pair who rent a gorgeous Victorian house from creepy Burgess Meredith and Oscar-winner Eileen Heckart.[1] I was nine years old, and stayed up past bedtime to watch this flick, on Channel 9’s Sunday night movie, after the late news and Siskel & Ebert, at 12:05am.  In an era without or Netflix, I knew nothing about this film (other than the tantalizing fifteen-second commercial that had aired a day or two earlier—with ominous music and Bette Davis, looking old and chipper, in the back of a car, approaching a creepy Victorian manor much like those in my New Hampshire neighborhood).  It seems inconceivable now that I would be more attracted to that house than to Bette or the camptastic Karen Black, but, truth is, the house sucked me in.  The house provided me a sense of continuity of place to my own life—a holding environment that Bette Davis would later provide for me.  The film, alas, is forgettable—Karen goes bonkers and “becomes” Burgess and Eileen’s dead aunt, while the rest of the family is killed off in dull manner.  Bette dies early—I don’t even remember how, just that it seemed rather unceremonious that this woman—this famous Bette Davis—was dispatched in such a blasé style.

2. Davis and Eileen Heckart appeared together again in the 1980 TV movie, White Mama, in which Davis is an old lady who lives in a black neighborhood and takes on a maternal relationship with a young child, with some fallout.  The nuns showed it to us in Catholic grade school; it strikes me now as incredibly daring, but it was certainly an improvement over the usual fare, like Space Camp or The Neverending Story.  Heckart played a bag lady.  The film is not available on video or DVD anymore, though I am sure there is a petition for that purpose somewhere.

3. Eileen Heckart was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting work in The Bad Seed, for which she had won the Golden Globe and was the favorite to win the Oscar.  Alas, in one of those Oscar campaigns that defy explanation, she lost to Dorothy Malone’s breathy, camp performance in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind.  Malone’s final screen performance was as Hazel Dobkins in Basic Instinct, a film that baffled me.  I did not see it in the theatre, for in March, 1992 I was sixteen years old, and the South Willow 7 was strictly enforcing the R rating—and I didn’t dare ask my mother to go see Basic Instinct.  Malone’s character is the patron saint of the film—hyperblond, cool, and maternal to the hypersexed lesbian pair of Sharon Stone’s Catherine and Leilani Sarelle’s Roxy.  The film’s only non-blonde, Jeanne Tripplehorn’s police psychiatrist, Beth, is also the one female lead who ends up dead.  Bette was already dead when the film was made, but she would never have fit in—her brand of glamour is antithetical to blonde.

4. Bette’s performance in White Mama lost the 1981 Emmy to Patty Duke, playing the Anne Bancroft role in a TV remake of The Miracle Worker.  (Patty’s co-star, Melissa Gilbert, mysteriously submitted as a lead against Patty and Bette, joins Bette in the Loser’s Circle).  Patty’s original performance as Helen Keller in the 1962 theatrical version won her the Supporting Actress Oscar, beating one of the great screen performances in history—Angela Lansbury (at 36, playing mother to 34 year old Laurence Harvey) as Mrs. Iselin in John Frankenheimer’s legendary Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate.  My dad and I watched The Manchurian Candidate in a hotel room at a Hilton in Mobile, Alabama on the night before my test and interview for the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament, in November, 1989.  We had jambalaya and gumbo at dinner—probably one of the last “meaty” meals I ever ate; after reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, I became a vegetarian on New Year’s Day, 1990.  Dad still remembers the trip as one of the best weekends of his life—just him, me, Alex Trebek, a failed test, and sharing a common love of that creepy, fantastic thriller (albeit he prefers Sinatra and I prefer Lansbury—insert your own conclusions here).

5. For most years of my adolescence I watched Lansbury play Jessica Fletcher on CBS’s long-running Sunday-night mystery drama Murder, She Wrote.  Oftentimes this was because after-dinner coffee had dragged on too long at my grandparents’ Sunday family dinner, and my grandmother (who fancied herself to look like Angela Lansbury) would insist we all stay and watch (the program with) her.  My grandmother’s erroneous beauty beliefs notwithstanding (she far more resembled Oscar winner and Reagan ex-wife Jane Wyman than Lansbury, but since we never visited on Friday nights, it was impossible for us to watch Falcon Crest with her and compare resemblances), it became a Sunday ritual for me.  Eventually Mom admitted to me that she, too, was addicted, and it became a shared guilty pleasure in those distant days of my adolescence.  (Years later, as the show began an interminable run on A&E in reruns, my mother would continue to watch, but to test herself to “remember” who did it, rather than deduce it for herself).  Mom loved how many stars of yesteryear appeared on the series, particularly Steve Forrest, who seemed to play a different guest role every season, and whom my mother thought “a handsome older guy.”  Given her dating patterns after my parents were divorced, I probably could have traced her tastes back to those incomprehensible comments about Steve Forrest, and seen each successive boyfriend as an ersatz Steve Forrest, playing a different guest role each season.  Among the zillion falling stars that guest starred on the series over its thirteen year run, Bette Davis was not.

6. Lansbury was nominated for an Emmy each year for her performance as Jessica Fletcher, and each year she lost.  She has been nominated now twenty times without winning—thirteen consecutively for Murder, She Wrote.  Her losing streak was likened to that of daytime diva Susan Lucci, who was nominated eighteen times for her over-the-top work as the world’s shortest fashion model, Erica Kane, on All My Children before finally winning in 1999.  Lucci often lost to rival Erika Slezak of sister soap One Life to Live (Slezak has won six times over three decades for her performance as regal heiress/newspaper publisher/multiple personality disorder sufferer Victoria Lord).  Recently Victoria Lord was presented with a long-lost child (her second, for those keeping track).  My mother always insisted that I watch ABC soaps for reasons she’s taken to the grave, and so I’ve watched One Life to Live and the others since in utero.  I was born with Ryan’s Hope blaring in the delivery room.  When Viki birthed her last child in 1986, Allison Perkins, a creepy coed and member of a local cult, stole one of the twins (don’t ask how Viki didn’t remember giving birth to two of them!) for reasons never quite established when the story was presented to audiences sixteen years later.  Poor Allison was then in a coma for those interim years, during which she was presumably visited by her mother, Ruth—as played by Eileen Heckart.

7. Heckart was nominated for a Daytime Emmy in 1986 for her limited arc as Ruth Perkins on One Life to Live.  One of her fellow nominees was Celeste Holm (like Heckart in White Mama, playing a bag lady on Loving), Bette Davis’s co-star on All About Eve.  Holm and Davis didn’t much care for each other.

8. All About Eve was nominated for fourteen Oscars—the most in Hollywood history (if later tied by the technical wonders of Titanic).  It won four—including Best Picture.  None of the women in the film won, although many were nominated.  Davis and Anne Baxter faced off in Lead (the first time in Hollywood history two actresses from the same film competed together in that category); Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter were both up in Supporting.  Baxter and Holm had both won in Supporting in recent years (Baxter in 1946 for The Razor’s Edge and Holm the following year for Gentleman’s Agreement), and Baxter likely felt this was her opportunity to “move up” to the leading lady category.  James Spada’s biography of Davis includes a quote from Joseph Mankiewicz on the Oscar situation: “Bette lost because Annie was nominated.  Annie lost because Bette Davis ditto.  Celeste Holm lost because Thelma Ritter was nominated, and she lost because Celeste ditto” (286).  Easy for him to say—he won two Oscars that night (for Direction and Screenplay).  It’s the stuff of legend to point out that Davis’s and Baxter’s legendary performances—as well as the legendarily weird work of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard—lost to Judy Holliday who played the quintessential “dumb blonde with a heart of gold” in Born Yesterday, a film that’s as dull as the Melanie Griffith remake is bombastic.

9. It’s only happened four times since that two women from the same film have been nominated for Lead Actress at the Oscars: 1959, Suddenly, Last Summer, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor; 1977, The Turning Point (an Oscar record 0 for 10 that night), Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine; 1983, Terms of Endearment, MacLaine (again) and Debra Winger; 1991, Thelma and Louise, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.  In all cases there was debate over whether one actress should go supporting in an effort to prevent a repeat of the Davis/Baxter debacle; all lost except MacLaine (part deux), who was largely rewarded for putting up with the legendarily “difficult” Winger (and gossiping all over Hollywood about their many on-set fracases during her aggressive campaigning for the prize).  Winger is also the only one of the group to have never won an Oscar.  Although Susan Sarandon narrated the documentary Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, Bette Davis never made a film with any of those seven women.  Still, they all share an Oscar night.

10. I live less than two blocks from Susan Sarandon. Recently, after unsuccessfully flirting with her longtime partner, Tim Robbins, in the Drama section of our local Barnes & Noble, I walked out at the same time as Robbins & Sarandon, and headed home two paces behind them.  They discussed whether to see Little Children and where the kids were.  I did my best to seem uninterested, lest there be cameras on us.  When they turned onto their block, Susan Sarandon looked back over her shoulder—perhaps to see if I was still quasi-stalking them.  I wasn’t, Susan.  Sorry about that.

11. I’ve never believed the opening scenes of All About Eve—when we are introduced to the “star-struck” stalker Eve Harrington, and only Birdie, the faithful dresser, smells a rat in Eve’s sob stories.  I suspect that an actress knows who is watching her—and particularly if the watcher is the striking Anne Baxter (drab rain coat and fisherman’s hat notwithstanding), stalking her every performance.  Margo Channing and Bette Davis have too much cunning in them to be so easily swindled.

12. Bette starred in the first season of Hotel, which I rarely watched Wednesdays at 10pm on ABC, but was a huge favorite of mine.  This was because ABC moved Dynasty to 9pm to accommodate the lavish companion series and since my bedtime was at 10pm, the new schedule allowed me to finally enjoy Fallon’s bed-hopping antics and Alexis’s bitchery.  All thanks to Bette!  Coincidentally, Bette fell ill early in the run of the series, and was forced to take a sabbatical.  Eve Harrington replaced her, and Bette was not asked to return when she recovered.

13. During the second week of October 1989, many mourned the death of Bette Davis.  She appeared on multiple magazine covers that were prominent in the Media Center (aka library) at John Stark Regional High School, but the cover that caught my freshman eye was People: Bette Davis, in an aubergine, off-the-shoulder gown, with the headline: “Defiant, dazzling.”  It would be years before I did the mental math to realize that this was the dress she wore in the famous “Fasten your seatbelts!” scene of All About Eve, but I was utterly transfixed by the sight.  At the tender age of fourteen, the only Bette Davis I knew was an old lady in mediocre-to-bad films: White Mama, Burnt Offerings, The Whales of August (which I had not seen at that point in my life but had watched clips of on Entertainment Tonight, particularly as Leonard Maltin on that program campaigned successfully for an Oscar nomination for Ann Sothern in supporting—she lost to Olympia Dukakis for Moonstruck, which pleased me since I was working as a campaign aide for Michael Dukakis at the time).  The vision of this Bette—defiant, dazzling Bette—compelled me to take action, however illicit.  The sound of a tear, a rip, would shatter the precarious silences of the Media Center—and Mrs. Amidala was a classically vigilant librarian, guarding the treasured silence with the zeal of Medusa.  So, the next best thing was to photocopy the cover—but the rendering of Bette in black-and-white did not sate my nascent adoration.  And so, with the stealth of a SCUD missile, I extricated the People from its protective library wrapping, and pocketed the magazine.  It became a treasured possession, and a naughty reminder.

14. The day I stole Bette Davis from the library was a Friday, and I had a dentist appointment or something banal that required my mother to retrieve me early from school.  My mother was tightly strung; my parents had been surreptitiously fighting during that Indian summer.  They had recently reunited after a six-month separation—just in time to purchase this new house in a new town, which resulted in me being a total stranger in my new high school.  They were not happy together, and I was not happy, in general.  There was a cornucopia of reasons for their current sparring, but one concerned my upcoming test for Jeopardy!  In the prior year, we had gone, as a family, to Philadelphia.  My proud parents purchased me a Lorus watch with an octagonal face at the Main Line Lord & Taylor while I took my test at WPVI (it has long been broken, but I’ve always kept it as a memento of my first screen test).  My mother shed some tears when I passed the test, and the entire ride back to New Hampshire was lined with praise and positive reinforcement.  As I was inexplicably not selected in 1988 for the show, the new school year brought a new letter from Jeopardy! and after much sturm und drang, my father and I were slated to fly TWA to Mobile (changing planes in Memphis), without Mom or the boys.  Given how much closer I was to my mother than my father during their first separation, I was skittish and angry about this decision—I couldn’t fathom that my mother would not want to go with me, and leave me with my father, who’d become such a stranger during their separation (he lived off éclairs and KFC—it seemed unimaginable).  And on that Friday, squiring me to some dental appointment or something, the tension was high between me and my mother.  The tension of Margo and Eve…

15. Instead of rushing home to watch One Life to Live, which neither of us would consciously miss during those halcyon days,[2] we stopped at the local grocery store to pick up roast beef, Swiss cheese, and Nissen Canadian brown bread for a lunch for two.  Stopping at the grocery store with Mom for cold cuts often meant a détente was in the air.  While in the register line, my mother saw People in one of the magazine racks and commented on how sad it was that Bette Davis was gone, and how much she loved her acting style.  My mother had acted in high school—commendation received for comedic timing at New England regionals—but had given up the craft to support her mother and siblings by working at the local box factory.  Given the way she lit up when discussing her commedia dell’arte triumphs, and the inevitable sadness that followed, I don’t think she ever quite got over her early abandonment of her avocation.  My parents always claimed to be proud, but as I entered high school, my penchant for the limelight brought out their envy, as if each couldn’t let go of his/her glory days as an actor, or a star student, or an athlete with dreams of “the pros.”  It’s hard to blame either; it’s never easy to admit that your life is littered with regretted choices, let alone (re: Gloria Swanson / Norma Desmond) that the limelight has burned out.

16. With characteristic desire to please—at the risk of being exposed as a thief—I showed Mom the copy I had of People, which she noted had the return address of the high school.  She asked if I had taken it.  My head lowered, but after a moment, I returned her gaze, defiant and dazzling: “So what if I did?”  She may have wanted to say “the right thing” as parent to child, but she chortled with belly laughs.  She seemed to admire my moxie—perhaps even covet it.  There was conversation and laughter that followed, but the important part, the reifying moment of the star, was when we went next door, to Video Library, and checked out All About Eve—the first of many Bette Davis films to get me through my adolescence.  I laughed much harder than my mother, and watched with less bemusement and more study—of the bitchery, of the expressions, of the mannerisms.  My mother wasn’t good (when sober) at showing her reactions or her emotions, favoring a detached and deferential style that masked her naked ambitions and seething anger and rage (masks which dissipated once she’d supped enough box wine).  I’ve been the acid-tongued aging star for most of my young life—like Margo, so vulnerable to men, so vitriolic to my competition.  At that moment of reconciliation—when I understood that she wasn’t abandoning me with Dad (in Alabama, no less)—we also established how our imagined roles in that classic drama would mirror our own in life.  When Mom tried to slap me eight years later at Disney World, I caught her arm and actually told her, “You’re too short for that gesture.”[3]  Poor Mom was too much an Eve—trying passively to coerce and manipulate, never forthright enough in her desires or her manners.  Her attempts at sincerity had an outré residue, like the green stains left by her ersatz QVC jewelry.  I gave her a copy of All About Eve for Christmas a few years ago, but among her personal effects found in the days after her demise, that movie remained wrapped in plastic.  If only she could have seen it the way I see it—as the Margo, not the Eve.  I said many things to my mother’s lain-out corpse that August, 2006, but the last thing I left her with before her body left us was a crumpled People magazine cover.  She needed it more than I did.

17. I finally passed the Jeopardy! tests (just before Mom’s last birthday), and she was so excited by the possibility of finally watching me on the long-running series, after so many years since those Teen Tournament dreams had gone bust.  Though I lost spectacularly, the real goal was to shimmer in high definition—defiant, dazzling to the core.  Moments of conventional stardom come and go, but true stardom is Bette Davis, sucking on a cigarette, older than God, plugging some TV movie on Johnny Carson, totally aware that she is being watched, adored, and listened to.  I try to shimmer every day. 

Notes to Part 2

[1] Heckart won her Oscar for 1972’s Butterflies are Free, playing Edward Albert’s overbearing but loving mother, who interferes in his relationship with ditzy Goldie Hawn.  Heckart had lost the Golden Globe to Shelley Winters, for her spectacularly campy work as overweight swim champion Belle Rosen in my favorite childhood disaster film, The Poseidon Adventure.  One reason the absurd flick was so favored was because of Winters’s uncanny vocal and physical resemblance to my maternal grandmother, Helen Dunfey, who also seemed slurred and blurry to me throughout my childhood.  I imagined her looking like Winters in her youth, and often when I watch Shelley Winters’s films today, I see my grandmother—being mean to Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue and being drowned by Monty Clift in A Place in the Sun.  I try not to hold any of this against Eileen Heckart, especially since all of them are quite dead now.

[2] In the days following Viki and half of Llanview being locked in the underground city of Eterna, Viki “remembered” her first child, Megan, being born there, decades earlier.  It was can’t-miss, high camp television.

[3] Yes, it’s George Sanders’s line, but he is the one character in the entire enterprise that gets exactly what he wants—and on his own terms.  If lapsed Catholics can be pick and choose à la “cafeteria” about picking and choosing from the tenets of that zany religion, then I can be a cafeteria mimic when it comes to stealing from All About Eve.



Rob Faunce teaches at Stony Brook University as a member of the Program for Writing and Rhetoric and the Gender & Women’s Studies department. His dissertation, A Semester in Purgatory: At the Intersections of Queerness, Mourning, Pedagogy, and Interpellation, is a memoir on loss, a meditation on queerness today, a manifesto eschewing demagoguery in the classroom, and the first autobiographical dissertation filed at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is a regular contributor to the Chronicle for Higher Education, has an article on teaching Genet in the composition classroom forthcoming in Pedagogy, and is at work on a book on fag hags, masculinity, and the 20th century.

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