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Bette Davis: A Biography

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Drawn largely from conversations with her friends, lovers, fellow actors, and family members, here is the full story of cinematic legend Bette Davis (1908-1989). Leaming chronicles the Academy Award-winner's work in such memorable films as Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, Dark Victory, All About Eve, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, as well as her four unhappy marriages, her Drawn largely from conversations with her friends, lovers, fellow actors, and family members, here is the full story of cinematic legend Bette Davis (1908-1989). Leaming chronicles the Academy Award-winner's work in such memorable films as Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, Dark Victory, All About Eve, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, as well as her four unhappy marriages, her notorious legal battle with Warner Bros., and her struggles with both alcoholism and mental illness.


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Drawn largely from conversations with her friends, lovers, fellow actors, and family members, here is the full story of cinematic legend Bette Davis (1908-1989). Leaming chronicles the Academy Award-winner's work in such memorable films as Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, Dark Victory, All About Eve, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, as well as her four unhappy marriages, her Drawn largely from conversations with her friends, lovers, fellow actors, and family members, here is the full story of cinematic legend Bette Davis (1908-1989). Leaming chronicles the Academy Award-winner's work in such memorable films as Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, Dark Victory, All About Eve, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, as well as her four unhappy marriages, her notorious legal battle with Warner Bros., and her struggles with both alcoholism and mental illness.

30 review for Bette Davis: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Graceann

    Barbara Leaming certainly scoured the primary sources for her information on screen legend Bette Davis. She went through Davis' personal scrapbooks, letters, diaries and business documents for a fuller picture of the life of one of the premiere actresses of cinema's golden age. The biography is very slow to get going. Leaming wants to set a tone as to the matriarchal line, starting with Bette's grandmother, who refused her mother, Ruthie, an opportunity to work on the stage, thus "causing" Ruthi Barbara Leaming certainly scoured the primary sources for her information on screen legend Bette Davis. She went through Davis' personal scrapbooks, letters, diaries and business documents for a fuller picture of the life of one of the premiere actresses of cinema's golden age. The biography is very slow to get going. Leaming wants to set a tone as to the matriarchal line, starting with Bette's grandmother, who refused her mother, Ruthie, an opportunity to work on the stage, thus "causing" Ruthie to feed all her artistic dreams into Bette's career. There's a very convoluted and snail-like stretch of armchair psychology here, and elsewhere in the book, regarding motivations and behaviors, that grows quite tiresome. There are a lot of conclusions that Leaming draws regarding Davis' behavior, and the meanings of certain things in her scrapbooks, which made me think "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but whatever." The other problem I had with the book itself is the minute study of how Bette will curl her fingers in a certain scene of a certain film and how it harks back to something she studied in dance class ten years before. A bit of this is fine, but to go on for three pages regarding Davis' arm movements in one scene from "Jezebel" is just the tiniest bit ridiculous. However, I'll move on to what I learned about Bette herself. Unlike some who make up fantasies about what they'd like a person's life to reflect, write a novel and call it biography, Barbara Leaming really dug deep into the primary sources. When the primary source conflicted with an interviewee's recollection, or with Bette's memoirs, she used the primary source. Excellent use of materials, and marvelous cooperation from many of Bette's intimates, including two of her children, even though those children knew that they might not be seen in the best light. When Leaming gets into these documents, she really gets to the truth of Bette Davis' life and career. There was only one story that I flat out didn't believe, as it didn't seem to be backed up by anything other than Bette Davis' story-telling, and was completely opposite to everything I've heard regarding the other person in the anecdote, but otherwise, Leaming researched meticulously. The portrait Leaming paints is not a pretty one. Bette Davis, as written by Leaming, is not a woman I would have wanted to know or work with. Leaming sometimes refers to her as "mercurial," but in my reading I didn't find that to be accurate. Mercurial people are sometimes kind, which is what makes their unpleasant behavior surprising. Here, Bette Davis is unrelentingly selfish and mean. She's held up in interviews and history to be the "consummate professional," but studio records show her continuously staying home "ill" when things weren't the way she wanted them to be on her films. Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland would get flack for actually being ill many years later, but Bette was doing it in the 30s, simply as part of a very expensive temper tantrum. Yes, Bette founded the Hollywood Canteen, but she fussed and fumed, in writing, that Warners should pay her for her appearances on bond drives and other WWII-related philanthropic events, when other actors and actresses were giving up their fees, and even their lives, to do the work. She supported her family financially, but when she found out her new brother-in-law was a recovering alcoholic, she sent him two cases of booze as a wedding gift. She was a brat as a baby (and was never properly corrected in her behavior, but coddled as the golden child, to the detriment of her younger sister, Bobby), she was a brat as a teenager, she was a brat as an employee at Warners, and remained a brat into her golden years. Her behavior during the torturous production of Night of the Iguana makes for particularly unpleasant reading. She told outright lies as to the behavior of the people she hurt, which, given the copious amount of documentation to the contrary that she herself collected which showed the truth, is itself inexplicable. The saddest anecdote in the book had to do with Bette's final departure from Warner Brothers after 18 years there. Not a single person turned out to say goodbye and wish her well as she left the gates for the last time. She was quite hurt by this, and didn't understand why, after all her years at the studio, she was being ignored. Leaming posits that after all the years of tantrums, sick-calls, contract battles and lawsuits, her co-workers were simply happy to see her go, and I believe this. It is often the most ill-behaved people who are the most surprised when they are treated unkindly in return. Bette Davis seems never to have learned that her own behavior caused her loneliness. I learned a great deal about Bette Davis through reading this book. The book's sources are impeccable and thus, overall, I'm inclined to believe it. I wish I could read this book and say that this sad, vindictive, ugly person must have been the victim of a mean-spirited biographer, but I can't, and it's a pity.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Angela

    This book felt more like a roast than a biography. I appreciate the obvious research the author put into the book but it lacked depth and presented the actress as a pure villain, not giving space or time for dimension. The way the facts about her life were written was also kind of a listing of times that make the reading less interesting than it should have been.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Stacy Croushorn

    I really was looking forward to reading this book, but I was gravely disappointed. It starts off so s-l-o-w. And, it drones on endlessly about the movement of her hand or shoulder in specific scenes, and other needless and uninteresting detail that I just wanted to scream "Get to the good part"! But there was little good to be found. Davis was no saint to her family (or anybody else), but I am certain that somewhere along her 81 year long life she had to have done something nice for someone or s I really was looking forward to reading this book, but I was gravely disappointed. It starts off so s-l-o-w. And, it drones on endlessly about the movement of her hand or shoulder in specific scenes, and other needless and uninteresting detail that I just wanted to scream "Get to the good part"! But there was little good to be found. Davis was no saint to her family (or anybody else), but I am certain that somewhere along her 81 year long life she had to have done something nice for someone or said something nice about someone. But this is not shown. All you see is the bad stuff, and there is a lot of that to see, but I think Leaming could have added a few scenes from Davis' life that would have made her seem more human and a little less monstrous.

  4. 5 out of 5

    C.S. Burrough

    I've read five Bette Davis biographies and find it impossible to rate one higher than the others. Inescapably, many details are rehashed across all of them. This one I liked, not much more or less than the others I've read. However, if I were recommending which ones to include in your coverage (there are so many), this would make my list. All the fabulous comical caricatures have redefined our memories of this wonderful actress. Just watch her actual films, though, and you'll rediscover that she I've read five Bette Davis biographies and find it impossible to rate one higher than the others. Inescapably, many details are rehashed across all of them. This one I liked, not much more or less than the others I've read. However, if I were recommending which ones to include in your coverage (there are so many), this would make my list. All the fabulous comical caricatures have redefined our memories of this wonderful actress. Just watch her actual films, though, and you'll rediscover that she was nowhere near as over the top as you might have recalled, she had far greater dramatic subtlety and nuance than her impersonators have led us to believe. As a woman she was renowned for being earthier than her professional nemesis Joan Crawford and boasted of that, making her perhaps the more arrogant of the two yet no less adorable. I like to make my own mind up about the subjects of biographies and usually can. That Bette Davis was no saint becomes clear enough after covering a few biographies, that she was no monster either is also clear. She was a fascinating woman and a great, great star.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Zelia

    It provides a few things I didn't knew about Bette beforehand, but as a devoted Bette Davis fan I must say that it seems like the author is sympathizing a bit too much with B.D. Hyman, the ungrateful bastard, who in my opinion needs no sympathy whatsoever.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Helen

    I've been a big Bette Davis fan since my teens and like biographies. Through the years, I've read and heard much about her life. I didn't realize much about her upbringing or what a strong presence mental illness was within her family and even her. She doesn't come across as a very sympathetic or likable person and slept with most of her directors regardless of any marriages on either party. Still she was a brilliant actress, unafraid to stand against the mostly male Hollywood machine of the 30' I've been a big Bette Davis fan since my teens and like biographies. Through the years, I've read and heard much about her life. I didn't realize much about her upbringing or what a strong presence mental illness was within her family and even her. She doesn't come across as a very sympathetic or likable person and slept with most of her directors regardless of any marriages on either party. Still she was a brilliant actress, unafraid to stand against the mostly male Hollywood machine of the 30's and 40's and basically provided for her family her entire working career. I remember when her daughter wrote that deplorable book about her, especially considering Bette's age and health at the time. I think this book is biased against Ms. Davis.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Reds_reads

    This book is a fairly comprehensive biography of Bette Davis, unlike many biographies this covers the whole of her life in detail, there are no parts missing or skipped over and I welcomed this. The impression it gives of Davis is of a very difficult person indeed and given her upbringing it is not hard to see why. Her parents divorced when she was young and the combination of a pushy, needy mother and a distant and tightfisted father meant a stressful childhood for Bette. As well as covering the This book is a fairly comprehensive biography of Bette Davis, unlike many biographies this covers the whole of her life in detail, there are no parts missing or skipped over and I welcomed this. The impression it gives of Davis is of a very difficult person indeed and given her upbringing it is not hard to see why. Her parents divorced when she was young and the combination of a pushy, needy mother and a distant and tightfisted father meant a stressful childhood for Bette. As well as covering the whole of Bette's life in a balanced way, the book splits it's time well between her professional and private life. Both were fraught - Bette endured abusive marriages, had affairs with colleagues and fought her studio, there is no lack of incident. My main criticism of the book was that it made it very hard to sympathise with Bette or to warm to her and this can make a biography tough going. It is hard to have sympathy with someone whose husband physically abuses her daughter, but domestic violence victims often struggle to leave abusive relationships. Her relative wealth may have made it financially easier to go it alone, but it is still a hard thing to do for an emotionally damaged person. Towards the end of the book I began to wonder how Bette had managed to retain the few long-term friends that she did have. The author does not even hint that they were mercenary, but doesn't suggest why these friendships persisted -presumably Bette must have had some qualities as a friend, but these were not revealed. These criticisms do not detract from the positives though, this feels like a comprehensive retelling of Bette's life and I came away with a much better understanding of the actress and of Hollywood in it's heyday.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ally McCulloch

    Sort of quenched my thirst for all things Bette-related. Read this years ago (thought it was around 2006 or 2007, but I guess I marked it 2003). It had great perspective and is probably better than Bette Davis' own autobiography, as Leaming points out some contradictions and omissions that she clarifies in this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rei

    Bette was quite a selfish horrible person, but i guess that is how her mother raised her to be, and her poor sister Bobby had a sucky life... I didn't like that D.B became a born again christian... they always creep me out...

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    My first Davis biography and I was suprised I didn't know more about her. I never realized what a sad life she had and that she never was able to break out of her selfish ways. I followed along with IMDB and the book followed closely with her film career. I would recommend

  11. 5 out of 5

    Bar6ara

    I'd say its a good companion book to other Davis biographies. I particularly liked the focus on the acting, the scenes from films, that other books I read haven't discussed. I think with the other books it has given me a fuller picture of the complexities of this great star.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lucy Seda

    I enjoyed this book. Well written very entertaining. I think Barbara Leaming gave us a very good insight into Bette Davis life. She appeared much more likable that I'd remember. Overall I enjoyed the book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    bibliophile ⭐️

    It's an okay read but I didn't enjoy it. I think there's other books about Bette Davis that are better than this one.

  14. 4 out of 5

    A

    Read it in 2 sittings. Enjoyed it, give me such vivid insight to Davis and who she was to others.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Karla

    I doubt I'll ever need to read another Bette Davis book ever again. This one pretty much included everything, and in a balanced way too.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    She was awful.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ginnifer

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lorraine Byrne

  19. 4 out of 5

    Chris Bennett

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  21. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dee

  23. 4 out of 5

    Trueboardman

  24. 5 out of 5

    Robert

  25. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

  26. 4 out of 5

    Calvin Rhodes

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bob Cat

  28. 5 out of 5

    Virginia Simpson

  29. 5 out of 5

    Peggy Holland

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cher

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