Picks and Pans Review: Fasten Your Seat Belts: the Passionate Life of Bette Davis

updated 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Lawrence J. Quirk

In 1986, when the late Bette Davis was 78 and Lillian Gish was 90, they made a movie together called The Whales of August. One day, after someone on the set had complimented Gish on a particularly well done close-up, Davis hissed, "She ought to know about close-ups. Jesus, she was around when they invented them!"

Davis was always full of piss and vinegar and, in the course of her nearly 60-year career, her acidity level only rose. Professionally, she spent her life battling for good parts against actresses who were more beautiful or compliant. Davis could act circles around them and many of her co-stars, and sometimes—without a strong director reining in her tendency to overact—that's exactly what she did.

In her restless personal life she failed badly, running through four husbands (musician Harmon Nelson, New England aristocrat Arthur Famsworth, artist William Grant Sherry and actor Gary Merrill) and many lovers (including directors William Wyler and Anatole Litvak and co-stars George Brent and Franchot Tone).

Quirk, a film historian, wrote a previous Davis book (Bette Davis: Her Films and Career) and has long been a fan of the actress, through good pictures (Now Voyager, The Little Foxes) and bad (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bunny O'Hare). More importantly, for 43 years he has been asking questions about Bette of actors, directors and screenwriters who worked with her. His new biography of Davis is balanced, well documented and only rarely gushy. Factor in the book's profuse doses of prurient gossip (including gross Davis comments on Clark Gable's genital hygiene and allegations that Miriam Hopkins and Joan Crawford lusted after her), and we're talking lively read.

The book's title, of course, comes from Davis's warning line in All About Eve, "Fasten your seat belts—it's going to be a bumpy night." Ah, but what a ride. (Morrow, $21.95)

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