Bette Davis Is Back, Thank You, and Will Not Be Going Gentle into Anybody's Damned Good Night

updated 11/02/1987 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1987 01:00AM

As usual, Bette Davis knows what she wants, even the manner of her death. "I think I would like it to be a terrible shock," she says. "I would hate to pass on after a long, lingering illness. It should be something sudden. And I don't want anyone sending money to any little charity instead of flowers. I want flowers at the service. I want millions of flowers. I want it to be ludicrous with flowers." Even from beyond, she intends to haunt her audience. "I have chosen a song I want played. It has been one of my favorites, I Wish You Love. Hopefully, it will make everyone who loves me weep. I want everyone to weep. Cop-i-ous-ly."

If Bette Davis knows how to make an entrance, she can orchestrate an exit as well. Of course, being Bette Davis, she doesn't plan to play that final scene for some time. Although Sunset Boulevard is just a block away, the ambience in her West Hollywood apartment is a far distance from Billy Wilder's poisonous portrait of the artist in autumn. In the same sun room with her two Oscars and one Emmy lies an embroidered pillow that reads Old Age Ain't No Place for Sissies. "That's the most important thing I own," says Davis. "All sorts of things happen to you when you get old. And there's nothing you can do but just take it."

With her latest movie, Davis, 79, proves otherwise. In The Whales of August, a meditation on age, Davis rages and roars as Libby, a blind woman who spends her summers in Maine with a gentle sister, played by Lillian Gish. Although the movie's action pivots simply upon the installation of a picture window, the critical reaction pivots upon the pairing of these two legendary actresses, who are polar opposites in terms of technique, temperament and cinematic heritage. The New York Times christened the movie "a cinema event...it's as moving for all the history it recalls as for anything that happens on the screen." Ever ornery, Davis has her own opinions. "I would have liked the sisters to have a little bigger problem than whether they changed the window. A little bigger issue, yes."

For Davis, Whales is part milestone, part millstone. As her 100th film, it marks a long-awaited return to moviemaking after a 10-year tenure on television—and it has already sparked predictions of an Oscar duel between Davis and Gish. As her first feature since her devastating mastectomy and stroke of four years ago, Whales has prompted speculation that cantankerous Libby is really an unreasonable facsimile of the actress who plays her. Those comparisons make Davis, well, cantankerous. "It's an attack!" says Davis. "An attack on me, on my work, on why I am working. I become another character. The character is not I."

Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Bette Davis. When she greets you framed in the doorway of her apartment, there is a cigarette in one hand. The other, of course, is on her hip. Dressed completely in black, she is wearing an orchid on her chest and a fur cap, like some sort of Hollywood halo. Davis' stride, but little else, has been slowed by the stroke. The famous diction still turns every syllable into an elocution lesson. The rail-thin body may look fragile, but the spirit is more than willing—it's willful. "This whole bit about life beginning at 40, that's perfectly ri-dic-u-lous," she says. With characteristic contrariness, Davis has fashioned her own ironic revenge on her advancing years. The smaller she has become physically, the larger than life she is in every other respect.

Like the lady herself, the apartment is a combination of Yankee austerity and Hollywood veneer. The furniture is the sort of mismatched collection that delineates a lifetime. An oil seascape hangs over the mantel, and family photos cover a table. But even without the portrait that dominates, this would be Bette Davis' living room: cigarette containers claim every end table. She can still make a daytime drama out of a single smoke. Settling into a chair near the window, she lights up by striking a match on the side of the table. No wonder the American Tobacco Institute once issued this gag testimonial: "No one swings her butt the way Bette Davis does."

Except for allusion to her movies, the past does not govern the present conversation. She has no intention of cataloging the catastrophes of recent years. As a condition for conversation, she will not discuss My Mother's Keeper, the stinging indictment written in 1985 by her once-beloved but now-estranged daughter, B.D. Hyman. Nor will she entertain queries about her health. "No, no, no. That's all four years ago. It isn't anything you should discuss anymore," she says. "Quite obviously, having made films and sitting here, I'm well."

Well enough to conduct one of her celebrated skirmishes, this time with the Whales filmmakers. To their dismay, she has choreographed her own publicity campaign for the movie. "It's simply a matter of self-preservation," she says. It did not go unnoticed that the N.Y.C. premiere, which she did not attend, was held on Gish's 91st birthday. Nor did she attend the L.A. premiere, even though she was expected. For one thing, the party was held on a sound-stage. "A soundstage!" she says. "There is so little taste left in the world."

Despite the current controversy, filming on location in Maine proceeded apace for eight weeks. Davis did break one long-standing rule: She attended the nightly screening of rushes. According to Whales co-producer Mike Kaplan, Davis was very concerned about how she looked on the big screen for the first time since her illness. Adds Whales director Lindsay Anderson of Davis' competitiveness: "It's clear from Bette's career that she finds it difficult to share. Her triumphs have been her own."

For Davis, the Maine location was a melancholy homecoming. During her 10-year marriage to her fourth and last husband, All About Eve co-star Gary Merrill, she had enjoyed a rural existence on Cape Elizabeth. During the filming, she says, "I would look across the bay, and there was the land where Gary and I brought up our family. It made me very homesick for all my children when they were very young." She once wrote that Merrill was "my last chance at love and marriage." Now she says, "I should be very surprised if I ever fell in love again. I consider that totally out of my life."

These days her company consists mainly of Kathryn Sermak, 31, who functions as assistant, adviser and audience for Davis. Miss D, as Kathryn always calls her, dedicated her recent best-seller, This 'n That, to Sermak, who stayed for weeks at a time in Davis' New York hospital room when she was ill. They met in 1979, when Davis was looking for an assistant. The actress credits Sermak with keeping her alive. Although Sermak lives primarily in Paris these days doing publicity work, they assume a sort of ad hoc mother-daughter relationship when together. "In the hospital," says Davis, "I was talking very sharply with the nurses one day, and they said, 'Oh, we must get her a tranquilizer.' Kath said, 'You'll do no such thing. She is getting well. That is how she behaves.' She was so glad I was getting disagreeable. What a riot!"

Edging toward 80, Bette Davis is a constellation of contradictions. Her name is synonymous with self-confidence, but she has never sat with an audience to see a film of hers. "I'm terrified that people will say something terrible about my performance," she admits. Although she professes to pay little attention to age, this is a woman who put a funeral wreath on her door for her 70th birthday. And while she is often introduced as a screen immortal, she is now looking for work like a newcomer.

Since venturing off-Broadway recently to see Driving Miss Daisy, a play about a bigoted Southern woman and her black chauffeur, Davis has harangued the producers about the lead role in the movie version. "I'm just going to keep pestering them," she says. "It's a great part for me."

Tributes and testimonials do not embarrass her. In December she will receive one of the Kennedy Center honors. "It's about time," she snaps. "One year they sent me a letter asking me who I thought should get one. I wrote back, 'Me.' " The Oscar talk about Whales leaves her unconvinced, though smiling. "Well, my dear, we will see."

Her mortality makes her angry. "I'm mad because I feel I'm going to miss something. I want to see what happens to my four grandchildren and Kath." She suddenly sounds like the wrathful Regina in The Little Foxes: "I don't want to go!" she says.

It is twilight in Hollywood now. Outside the autumnal sky swirls with pastel pinks and purples, and in the panorama from her apartment, the artificial lights of Los Angeles flirt with the dusk. As if on cue, from another room intrudes the insistent ticking of an antique clock on the wall. In the shifting shadows, Bette Davis lights another cigarette. As always, the woman knows what she wants.

"Just one more good script," she says. "Next year I've got to have a good script."

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