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Meeting Bette Davis

Updated on March 15, 2013

The Later Years

I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting and working with Bette Davis in one of her last jobs: "Harvest Home", which was a mini-series for television. This lens is about that experience. I hope that you enjoy reading it.

Memoirs: Working with Bette Davis

by John N. Stewart

I worked in Hollywood for 25 years as a Scenic Artist. Scenic Artists get to paint any art that you can see through the lens. This might include the framed Picasso, a Spanish Mural, or the entire city of New York as seen through a window. It also included painting portraits, which brings me to a highlight in my career. In 1977 I was interviewed for doing some special art work for a mini series for Universal that was to be shot on location in Mentor, Ohio.

It was to be titled: "Harvest Home" or "The Dark Secret of Harvest Home", starring non other than Bette Davis, David Ackroyd, Rosanna Arquette, Rene Auberjonois, John Calvin, Norman Lloyd, Michael O'Keefe and many others. I was hired to paint and draw art for David Akroyd's character "Nick Constantine", who was a transplanted city to country artist. They needed 60 or so pieces of art and they all had to be by me, so that it looked like it was done by the same person. There were two special oil portraits, one of Bette as "The Widow Fortune" and one of John Calvin as "Justin Hooke", that needed to be done. Also pencil drawings of Norman Lloyd, Rosanna Arquette and other characters in the film. It turned into about nine weeks of work.

Scenic artists work closely with Set Decorators, especially on this kind of project, to keep the art appearing at the right time and place, when the shooting begins. In order to do the portrait of Bette, I had to schedule a live interview to sketch her and take photos etc. Since she was the star, it wasn't easy to get time with her, but she consented to let me have an hour with her in her dressing room. I was very nervous, being both new to the game and in awe of her "Celebrity" and I stammered something like "Good afternoon, Ms. Davis". She told me to be seated on the couch that was adjacent to her couch so that I could view her properly.

I remember thinking that we had a lot in common - we both smoked a lot, but I was too busy and nervous to smoke. She, however, had one constantly going and, as I busily sketched, she told me about all of the famous artist's that had painted portraits of her. That didn't help one bit. She did 90 percent of the talking and when I really looked closely at what I had drawn, I couldn't believe how bad it looked. I didn't show it to her, but instead convinced her to pose for some photo's. She wasn't in costume, and I needed her to be, so we arranged for further shots on the set. The photos that I shot of her were with my new Polaroid SX70, so I took those back to my Ramada Inn room/art studio and proceeded to work on ideas for the portrait. The oil portrait came out fine, and everybody was happy, and the painting ended up in the collection of the director, Leo Penn.

When we had our wrap party at the end of shooting, Bette was in the banquet room and I asked her for an autograph (for my eight year old daughter). She came unglued and screamed at me: "I'm no better than anybody else on the crew, and I don't want this party to turn into something like that.........". I felt really stupid and when dinner was over I went up to my room, wishing that I could retract my words somehow. Someone showed up at my door and handed me a brown manila envelope with her picture and personalized note to myself. What a lady!

What impressed me most about Bette, was her serious, professional, attitude towards her work. She was always the first one on the set, pacing back and forth, thinking about her lines. (She reminded me of Henry Fonda, in that respect.) She also had the attitude that she wasn't any better than any other crew member and had a definite teamwork mindset. In later years, I was saddened when I heard about her stroke and later physical problems. But what a legacy she left to us!

Bette's Mini Bio:

Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her parents divorced when she was 10. She and her sister were raised by their mother, Ruthie. Bette demanded attention from birth, which led to her pursuing a career in acting. After graduation from Cushing Academy she was refused admittance to Eva Le Gallienne's Manhattan Civic Repertory because she was considered insincere and frivolous. She enrolled in John Murray Anderson's Dramatic School and was the star pupil. She was in the off-Broadway play "The Earth Between" (1923), and her Broadway debut in 1929 was in "Broken Dishes". She also appeared in "Solid South". Late in 1930, she was hired by Universal. When she arrived in Hollywood, the studio representative who went to meet her train left without her because he could find no one who looked like a movie star.

An official at Universal complained she had "as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville" and her performance in The Bad Sister (1931) didn't impress. In 1932 she signed a seven-year deal with Warner Brothers Pictures. She became a star after her appearance in The Man Who Played God (1932). Warners loaned her to RKO in 1934 for Of Human Bondage (1934), in which she was a smash. She had a significant number of write-in votes for the Best Actress Oscar, but didn't win. She finally DID win for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938)). She constantly fought with Warners and tried to get out of her contract because she felt she wasn't receiving the top roles an Oscar-winning actress deserved, and eventually sued the studio. Returning after losing her lawsuit, her roles improved dramatically. The only role she didn't get that she wanted was Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Warners wouldn't loan her to David O. Selznick unless he hired Errol Flynn to play Rhett Butler, which both Selznick and Davis thought was a terrible choice. It was rumored she had numerous affairs, among them George Brent and William Wyler, and she was married four times, three of which ended in divorce. She admitted her career always came first. She made many successful films in the 1940s, but each picture was weaker than the last and by the time her Warner Brothers contract had ended in 1949, she had been reduced to appearing in such films as the unintentionally hilarious Beyond the Forest (1949). She made a huge comeback in 1950 when she replaced an ill Claudette Colbert in, and received an Oscar nomination for, All About Eve (1950).

She worked in films through the 1950s, but her career eventually came to a standstill, and in 1961 she placed a now famous Job Wanted ad in the trade papers. She received an Oscar nomination for her role as a demented former child star in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which brought her a new degree of stardom in both movies and television through the 1960s and 1970s. In 1977 she decided to do a Television mini-series called "Harvest Home" or "The Dark Secrets of Harvest Home" that was shot in Mentor, Ohio. It was based on a Thomas Tyron novel and had an interesting cast that included Norman Lloyd and Susanna Arquette. That same year she received the AFI's Lifetime Achievement Award and in 1979 she won a Best Actress Emmy for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979) (TV). In 1977-78 she moved from Connecticut to Los Angeles and filmed a pilot for the series "Hotel" (1983), which she called Brothel. She refused to do the TV series and suffered a stroke during this time. Her daughter Barbara Merrill wrote a 1985 "Mommie Dearest"-type book, "My Mother's Keeper".

She worked in the later 1980s in films and TV, even though a stroke had impaired her appearance and mobility. She wrote a book "This 'N That" during her recovery from the stroke. Her last book was "Bette Davis, The Lonely Life", issued in paperback in 1990. It included an update from 1962 to 1989. She wrote the last chapter in San Sebastian, Spain. When she passed away of cancer on October 6, 1989, in France, many of her fans refused to believe she was gone.

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      AngryBaker 4 years ago

      Great story... Bette Davis has always intrigued me... those eyes..

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Bette Davis was a wonderful actress. I love watching her movies. Thank you for your story about meeting her.

    • jnstewart profile image

      John Norman Stewart 6 years ago from Cottonwood, CA

      @anonymous: Hi Tipi: My late wife was an actress in Hollywood for almost 40 years and she thought it was silly to call women actors. Bette Davis was a little intimidating, but very nice and interesting to talk to. Have a great evening, J

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      What wonderful experiences you have had. Bette Davis has always fascinated me, what an actress! Oops, I guess it's more proper to call the ladies actors now too.