Picks and Pans Review: Me and Jezebel: When Bette Davis Came for Dinner and Stayed...

updated 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Elizabeth Fuller

Bette the Bad is what you get in Belle Davis (Simon & Schuster, $25). One senses that Leaming, who previously chronicled the lives of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, started off admiring Davis but ended up regarding her as spoiled, pigheaded and self-deceiving. And oh, yes, hardly a feminist role model.

"Anxious as we may be to discover in Bette Davis's life the example of a woman's courageous struggle to expand the boundaries of her art and to demand the opportunities that have been unjustly denied her," Learning writes, "all we really find is an endless series of irrational, misguided, all too often self-destructive battles, to which the woman ultimately sacrificed her prodigious gifts as an actress."

Prodigious is right. Audiences responded enthusiastically to the vibrant and almost manic edge Davis gave her characters. This though many of her finest performances were in films that were little more than exceedingly glossy soap operas (Dark Victory; Now, Voyager and All This and Heaven Too). Learning perceptively examines Davis's considerable acting skills, arguing convincingly that her best work played on "the dissonance between word and gesture," as when her lips said yes-yes, but her gestures said no-no, and vice-versa.

Where Davis failed—compare her with Katharine Hepburn—was in choosing vehicles over truly challenging parts. She never tried Shakespeare or O'Neill. When, in 1961, she did Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana on Broadway, she hammed her way through it, throwing the whole play out of whack. Learning, in one of the book's stronger sections, shows that when Davis wangled her own production deal at Warner Bros, in the mid-'40s, she made only one film, A Stolen Life (1946), a hokey melodrama about twin sisters in love with the same man. She then disbanded the company and returned to the safe arms of the studio. So much for self-empowerment.

As for her personal life (covered extensively and better in, for instance, Lawrence Quirk's 1990 bio), Davis was wed four times, with each union more rancorous, culminating in a 10-year marriage to Gary Merrill, her All About Eve costar. A truly unpleasant pair, the two drank and fought ceaselessly, causing Learning to speculate that Davis "sought to provoke Gary to the physical violence she appeared to confuse with ardor."

Faithful fans will be interested in Me and Jezebel (Berkley, paper, $4.99), a sporadically amusing account by Fuller, a Connecticut housewife and writer (Everyone Is Psychic), of the 36 days she and her husband unexpectedly played host to Davis in 1985. The adventure started when Davis accompanied an old friend of the Fullers to their house for dinner one night. Next day the actress, then 76, called the couple to ask if she could stay with them for a night or two because of a New York City hotel strike. Fuller, a longtime Davis fan, was thrilled. She was less thrilled when Davis commandeered the family phone and made long-distance calls to Italy and France, accidentally set the living room curtains aflame with one of her omnipresent cigarettes and complained too often about the menu.

Fuller has tried to stretch a magazine article into a book. She and Davis both wear out their welcome long before Jezebel departs. A redeeming hoot, though, is provided by Fuller's son, Christopher, 4, who compliments his new best friend on her skill at crayoning: "Bette Davis, you stay in the lines real good!"

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