Chicago Theater Review: BETTE DAVIS AIN’T FOR SISSIES (Athenaeum Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on June 16, 2017

in Theater-Chicago

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THE STAR WHO WAS A CONSTELLATION

“Stardust” was the name for what made Bette Davis shine. With playwright Jessica Sherr’s solo recreation of more than big eyes and flouncing cigarettes, the magic is back to cast a second spell—if only for 70 minutes. Reimagining as much as recreating the cinema idol’s feisty hunger and jerky grace, Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies (paraphrasing her famous remark about old age) is catnip for the cognoscenti. It’s a time-capsule treasure for once and future fans of the Tinsel Town icon who feuded with Joan Crawford and incarnated survival at any cost in All About Eve, Pocketful of Miracles, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and her last offering The Whales of August.

But that’s the latter-day Davis, when, less high in her strut, the survivor diva could join fellow star Olivia de Havilland in the self-mockery of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. No, look-alike Sherr presents the starlet turned supernova, present at her own creation: This is Bette at 31, having won the only Oscars she’d get. On the early evening of February 29, 1940, Davis has come home early and empty-handed from the Academy Awards show (honoring 1939, Hollywood’s most productive year, artistically and economically). This lover of the limelight refuses to witness the coronation of English-actress-turned-Southern belle Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind and the christening of a young Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.

It was, alas, not to be Bette’s night of glory for her uncharacteristically sentimental portrayal of a dying socialite in the tear-jerking Dark Victory. Well, fiddle-de-dee, in any case she must get up early the next day to play the spitfire Empress Carlota in Juarez, a Hapsburg princess who holds her own opposite Paul Muni in the title role. (I love how she tears into Claude Rains’ pompous Napoleon III, reviling him as a “bourgeois Bonaparte.”) Imprudently, the Los Angeles Times has already announced the Oscar winners—so why stay to look brave?

Instead we see Bette at home with her Oscars and, most of all, memories. She regales us with the plucky bravado that sets this New England firebrand apart from the anointed screen goddesses. Sherr relates how Bette was discovered by George Arliss—and not as a pretty poster girl (she was only 5’3”) of the Jean Harlow persuasion. No, this hip-flinging major minx was the kind of brainy, brassy iconoclast who had to play Mildred, the man-eating waitress in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

With flashing eyes and clipped delivery, Sherr incarnates the rebel with a cause who defied Warner Brothers to demand script control and better billing. In phone calls to her over-protective mother Ruthie we see Bette as a proud daughter of the theater who holds Hollywood’s dream factories in proper disregard even as she feeds its fantasies.

Along with the appropriate husband-bashing, we get juicy name-dropping and gossipy tidbits involving Errol Flynn, her bosom buddy de Havilland, and mentor and director William Wyler. (Future arch-rival Joan Crawford gets only passing mention.) Sherr impishly displays the various looks Davis cultivated to match her attitudes. As she does, countless films will come back to life for cultivated connoisseurs.

Considering this is celluloid dominatrix Bette Davis, Sherr’s one-act tour-de-force can only be a blast from the past, a seminal glimpse of a legend in full flux. It’s always a pleasure to watch from a safe distance a silver-screen sensation who’s exactly who she was meant to be. Anticipating the half-century to come, Sherr’s maid of the marquees channels her future self with a signature one-liner—not “What a dump!” from the long-forgotten Another Part of the Forest but, of course, Margo Channing’s immortal “Fasten your seat belts! It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

photos courtesy of Jessica Sherr

Betty Davis Ain’t for Sissies
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sat & Sun at 2
ends on July 2, 2017 EXTENDED to July 9, 2017
for tickets, call 773.935.6875 or visit Athenaeum

for more info, visit Betty Davis Ain’t for Sissies

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