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Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010

‘Bette Davis: Larger Than Life’

Schickel, Perry explore the mystique of a great star

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Judging a book by its cover could not be more gratifying than with a quick glance at the imposing coffee-table book Bette Davis: Larger Than Life (Running Press) by film historians Richard Schickel and George Perry. That imperiously sardonic face from All About Eve, gazing defiantly from a brilliantly colored cover at the unsuspecting browser, provides a tantalizing challenge. Just the briefest glance at the wondrous selection of color photos, largely from Hollywood’s genuinely “golden years” (1938-1946), compels the viewer to turn a browse into a purchase.

Distinguishing this latest addition to the Davis canon are the arrestingly brilliant studio stills, many rarely seen, and the Warner Bros. posters that heralded every new picture of the screen’s greatest dramatic star. The size of Davis’ name often dwarfed the title. In the poster for The Letter, the studio art departmentfails to conceal the imperious fatalism of her unadorned,unyielding persona or her unique look, forever resigned toa potentially hostile world. Poster art could not bury Davis with a glamorous airbrush.

This is not just a picture book, however. Perry gives a substantive biography of Davis’ career, including commentaries and photo art from each of her more than 75 feature films, brilliantly highlighted with background shots of the star at work. Schickel provides a superb introduction with one of the most perceptive analyses ever written of Davis’ mesmerizing effect on audiences. Schickel surprises by revealing that as a normal boy of his time, interested in Westerns, action flicks and baseball, he found himself unexpectedly intrigued by this unique lady on screen.

“Underneath the scheming and hysteria was a thwarted masculine will—struggling for autonomy as does every developing young boy. There was no one quite like her,” he writes.

Later Schickel will explain: “Davis was the most highly stylized leading actress in film history—the brisk way she clipped her words—the singular pauses between syllables—no one took command of the language as she did, bending it to her inner rhythms rather than submitting to its tyranny—the abrupt gestures as if she were brushing aside gnats of insincerity and indecision that beset ordinary mortals.”

Larger Than Life is less a testimonial to a famous star than a glowing perspective on film artistry at the height of cinematic magic. That so complex a star as Bette Davis, geared for sophisticated audiences, could exert an appeal so universal on that of an average young boy of otherwise typical pursuits remains one of the wonders of her mystique. Schickel never wants to lose her, he writes. Neither do we.

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