'Stardust' Documents the Career of Bette Davis

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The documentary Stardust: The Bette Davis Story will premiere May 3 on Turner Classic Movies. Writer/director Peter Jones and actress Gena Rowlands talk about the film with Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Bette Davis said of herself, I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile and oftentimes disagreeable. I suppose I'm larger than life.

Actually, she was as big as the movies. Her stormy life story, on screen and off, has been made into a new program for cable called Stardust: The Bette Davis Story.

(Soundbite of Stardust: The Bette Davis Story)

Unidentified Man #1: Bette Davis was a master of the demonstration of the human spirit.

Unidentified Woman #1: She had a very strong sense of self.

Unidentified Man #2: The most psychologically acute.

Unidentified Woman #2: Fragile.

Unidentified Man #3: Dynamic quality.

Unidentified Woman #3: And childlike.

Unidentified Woman #4: She'll stun you into silence.

Unidentified Man #4: Bette never spoke.

Unidentified Man #5: There was good Bette and bad Bette.

Unidentified Man #6: She yelled.

Unidentified Woman #5: You didn't do it right.

Unidentified Man #7: She would say (bleep) this, or wow, what the hell do you want?

Unidentified Woman #6: Damn you.

Unidentified Man #8: You wouldn't hear Katherine Hepburn saying that.

Ms. BETTE DAVIS (Actress): I've heard more people tell me that you have exhausted me through these years. All of it doesn't seem to get much mellower as life goes on.

SIMON: That last voice is unmistakably that of Bette Davis. The others are people who tell her story in this new documentary film, which debuts May 3rd on Turner Classic Movies, and begins a month long celebration of Bette Davis's movies.

Joining us from the studios of NPR West is the writer and director of the film, Peter Jones.

Mr. Jones, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. PETER JONES (Writer/Director, Stardust: The Bette Davis Story): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Also joining us is actor Gena Rowlands.

And thank you for being with us.

Ms. GENA ROWLANDS (Actress): Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: Ms. Rowlands, let me begin with you. How did you meet Bette Davis? It was later in her career, I gather.

Ms. ROWLANDS: We were both hired to do a television picture about a mother and a daughter who didn't get along very well.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROWLANDS: And it played on Mother's Day. When I went over to meet her and discuss the script with the writer and the producers, my agents and I got into a traffic jam on the freeway. And Bette was a fiend about being prompt. So we walked in a half an hour late. And, oh, the frost was all over the place. And as I was leaving, she said to the producer, and she said it just loud enough so that I could hear it, Who picked that big, tall moose to be my daughter?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROWLANDS: And...

SIMON: Oh, you people in show business are filled with such insincere flattery, aren't you?

Ms. ROWLANDS: It just wasn't letting the bit of lateness go unnoticed.

SIMON: Mr. Jones, you spent a lot of time in this documentary sifting through fact and fiction in Bette Davis's life. And I've got to tell you, you pop a few balloons, beginning with the one, apparently she was never in anybody's mind to be in Gone With The Wind.

Mr. JONES: Well, except for one.

SIMON: Yeah? Oh, hers.

Mr. JONES: Hers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But she got away telling that story for years.

Mr. JONES: Everybody in Hollywood received the book, but no one bought it but David Selnick's script Kay Brown. But she kept saying that Jack Warner tried to lure her back when she walked out in 1936 with the promise of a part in a film called Gone With The Wind. To which she replied, I bet it's a pip, Mr. Warner.

Ms. ROWLANDS: She probably believed it.

Mr. JONES: You know what? I think a part of her would pass any lie detector test, even though she fibbed her way through a lot of her life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Marvelously though.

Simon: Mmm. Did she and Joan Crawford really detest each other, or just...

Mr. JONES: They hated each other, but they were both smart enough to know that they hadn't had a hit in several years. It was Joan's first picture in four years.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: And they were smart enough to know, we've got to get together and get along on this thing, because the shooting schedule is 21 days. And we can handle dealing with one another for 21 days.

SIMON: Of course the movie we're talking about is Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. The quote that is credited to Bette Davis on hearing that Joan Crawford has died, you know that one?

Mr. JONES: Yeah...

Ms. ROWLANDS: No.

SIMON: You should never say bad things about the dead. You should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: I believe those were her sentiments. I could never find her actually saying that. So...

Ms. ROWLANDS: But she had the funniest sense of humor.

SIMON: Really?

Ms. ROWLANDS: You really think of her, when I was growing up watching her, I was impressed with her dramatic things.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROWLANDS: I just never had thought about her having a sense of humor, until I started to work with her.

SIMON: Mr. Jones, for someone who was identified as one of the glamour queens of Hollywood, she did seem to make a specialty of seeking out roles, in which she could look frazzled, or a problem drinker, or a psychotic, or had grime on her face. I mean, she had a succession of roles in which glamour wasn't called for.

Mr. JONES: And she had absolutely no vanity when it came to the role. Ellen Burstyn says in the film, she says she was a movie star and she was an actor. But she was an actor first. She did what was best for the role. And in Of Human Bondage, which really made her a major star, she dared to look absolutely terrible, as this broken down, alcoholic prostitute. And stars in that era, 1934, did not allow themselves to look like that. Major stars turned down that role in the Somerset Maugham story, Of Human Bondage, because they didn't want to look as bad as the character was supposed to look.

SIMON: Mmm. Want to listen to another clip, where I gather, let's see, this is, speaking for myself, I think the role with which she's most identified, and that's Margot Channing in All About Eve.

(Soundbite of All About Eve)

Mr. GARY MERRILL (Actor): (As Bill): Looks like I'm going to have a very fancy party.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Margo Channing) I thought you were going to be late.

Mr. MERRILL: When I'm guest of honor?

Ms. DAVIS: I had no idea you were even here.

Mr. MERRILL: Well, I ran into Eve on my way upstairs. And she told me you were dressing.

Ms. DAVIS: That's never stopped you before.

Mr. MERRILL: We started talking. She wanted to know about Hollywood. She seemed so interested...

Ms. DAVIS: She's a girl of so many interests.

Mr. MERRILL: It's a pretty rare quality these days.

Ms. DAVIS: A girl of so many rare qualities.

Mr. MERRILL: So she seems.

Ms. DAVIS: So you've pointed out so often. So many qualities, so often. Her loyalty, efficiency, devotion, warmth, and affection, and so young. So young and so fair...

SIMON: The audacity of an aging actress in her early to mid 40s, at a time when people are questioning the length of her career to take on a role in which exactly those same questions are raised about that character, and to carry it off with, my God, such mastery, really.

Ms. ROWLANDS: Yes. She was stupendous. You know, she had an energy that I've seldom seen in anybody. She had a formidable energy. And when I worked with her, she was considerably older than when she did All About Eve. She still had, even after all of her illnesses at the end, and she would talk and argue. And she was not afraid to expose anything. In fact, I saw the picture that Peter has just done of her. And so many of the things that she quotes and says about herself, no one else would dare to say them. But she had a great self-knowledge, and was willing to put everything up.

SIMON: The way the business has changed, would someone like Bette Davis be able to exist and prosper today? I mean, the degree of publicity coming out of any films set and things on Page Six of the New York Post. And oh my gosh, People, Us, we could rattle them off. The degree of attention and there's no longer the ability of a major studio to control publicity. So could Bette Davis get away with being Bette Davis these days?

Ms. ROWLANDS: I don't see how anyone could stop her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: That's true. There was no choice in the matter, really, Scott. That's what I was thinking, the same thing, Gena.

SIMON: Thank you both very much for being with us.

Ms. ROWLANDS: Enjoyed it.

SIMON: That's Gena Rowlands, who appears in the new documentary about the life of Bette Davis. And the film is written by Peter Jones.

Mr. Jones, thank you, too.

Mr. JONES: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: The film is called Stardust: The Bette Davis Story. It debuts May 3rd on Turner Classic Movies.

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