Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr.
When you enter the hall for Jessica Sherr’s show Bette Davis—Ain’t For Sissies, you hear the famous track of Bette Davis singing “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” from Thank Your Lucky Stars and you may expect a show about Bette Davis’ life and all the songs associated with the movies she made. However, Sherr’s show, which was a favorite in the 15th Annual New York Fringe Festival and was one of the three shows chosen for the Fringe Make-Up Series at the Laurie Beechman, is essentially a monodrama and now has a new director, Susan Campanero. It has been re-written with new scenes by Sherr and was performed to a packed house of fans at the Triad on October 10 and 11.
Ms. Sherr appears in a beautiful strapless gown and we learn that she has just walked out on the 1939 Academy Awards ceremony where she is nominated for Best Actress for her performance in Dark Victory. 1939 is the year of Gone WithThe Wind and she knows, because it has been leaked to the press, that Vivien Leigh is going to win. She has left her devoted mother, Ruthie, at the ceremony and there are repeated phone calls from her mother during the play.
Her excuse for leaving is that she is shooting her big scene in Juarez the next day and Sherr performs that wonderful aristocratic Hapsburg line about the little Napoleon bourgeoisie with many variations during the evening as the soundtrack music is played.
Suddenly Davis is transformed to the young actress playing Hedwig in The Wild Duck with her idol, Blanche Yurka, on Broadway and getting a standing ovation from the audience. Yurka, graciously, allows her to take the final curtain call. Appearing in another play on Broadway, she is visited by a Universal talent scout, who sends her a contract. When she and her mother arrive in Los Angeles, no one greets them and when they go to the studio no one knows who they are. Davis finally begins to work as the partner of several male actors making their screen tests making passionate love to her. She feels as if she’s being gang banged by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Humphrey Bogart, and several others who set up mirrors behind her head to see how they look as they play passion! She is working in programmers and hears Laemmle, the head of the studio, disparage her as having as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville, a hick comedian on contract. Just as she is about to pack up and leave for New York, she gets a telephone call from Mr. George Arliss which she thinks is a prank, but he persists because he wants her for the ingénue lead in his next big movie, The Man Who Played God. She signs a seven year contract with Warner Brothers.
She receives another phone call from Ruthie. Her dear friend, Olivia de Havilland, is heartbroken because she has lost in the supporting category to Hattie MacDaniel. She tells her mother to tell de Havilland to give a brave performance.
Major sections are devoted to her battles with Jack Warner wanting to get better parts. She begs him to loan her out to RKO for the part of Mildred in Of Human Bondage and he finally relents. We hear the famous “Every time I kiss You, I wipe my mouth!” scene, but when she returns to Warners, she is still cast in programmers.
There is a long session of her berating her husband, band leader Harmon Nelson, because he doesn’t work, just lives off her. She wins her first Oscar for Dangerous and her second for Jezebel (she talks about the grueling direction of William Wyler making her do scenes again and again) but after that win she is assigned a lumberjack movie. She tells Jack Warner she wants to do Dark Victory. Davis is put on suspension and goes to England where she signs to do a film there. Warner puts an injunction on her doing the film and Sherr delivers the passionate speech before the judge on how the studio doesn’t give her quality movies. Despite that riveting testimony (Sherr is stunning in her forcible delivery) Davis lost the case and had to return to Warners. Jack Warner did give her Dark Victory but she lost the chance to do Gone With The Wind.
Recalling what Wyler told her about how always to make a stunning entrance, Sherr as Davis, re-dresses in her Academy Award dress, and goes to the Oscars to congratulate Vivien Leigh, stating “Congratulations! I’ve already got two, two you know.” Leigh thanks her and says she hopes to one day make a film with Davis. (Ironically, though not mentioned in the play, Vivien Leigh was one of the choices to replace Joan Crawford in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. And Davis’ later triumphs in All About Eve and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane are not mentioned.)
Bette Davis—Ain’t For Sissies sticks to confining the action to that one night in 1939 and Sherr, although smoking (tobacco-less cigarettes) in Bette Davis gestures, is not giving a Bette Davis imitation. She is performing a human being and her research has been extensive. When and if she does Bette Davis—Ain’t For Sissies again I would suggest all fans of good theatre go see it. Highly recommended.
Jessica Sherr’s website is www.JessicaSherr.com