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Bette Davis & Hollywood’s Dream Factories

In the November issue of The Atlantic, literary editor Benjamin Schwarz reviews three Hollywood history tomes, himself writing incisive prose about a time in which the Hollywood studio system was king. In doing so, he finds that the studio system produced its greatest pictures during that era — just as it filled its stars and writers with great sadness and grief amid the momentary elation that comes with accumulating fame and money.

In a brilliant paragraph, Schwarz sums up what it was like to toil in Tinseltown when the studio system ruled the roost: "(N)o one was more unhappy than four-times married, two-times
Oscar-winning Bette Davis, an actress whose high-strung, spiky screen
persona famously matched her personality.
The unusually intelligent Davis suffered all the indignities and
frustrations the star machine could dole out. Put through some two
dozen movies in her first four years in Hollywood, she was done up as a
platinum-blonde flirt and a vamp. Even after she won acclaim, her
studio, Warner’s, seemed perversely unwilling to give her consistently
good roles. She refused a part assigned her, flamboyantly went on
suspension, and was forced to return. Warner’s then bought Jezebel
(seen here with Henry Fonda on YouTube) for her, the movie that made her a star and gave her her first
serious—and strict—direction (by William Wyler). But for every great
part she was assigned (dying finely in Dark Victory, loving the man she killed in The Letter, nobly self-sacrificing in Now, Voyager),
she’d get a rotten one. Her salary grew enormously and she was given
more vacation time, but Warner’s never granted her total control over
her roles (her greatest turn, in All About Eve in 1950, was as a freelance at the end of the studio era)."

I have to wonder how people survived within these choking confines.
Yes, the money, and at the end, long vacations from the system helped
Davis endure. And yes, at the beginning, she yearned for stardom. But,
for a long while, the system trapped her. It’s a tribute to her
humanity and her ability to survive and evolve that she lived proudly
through all the strain. Today, we see her great movies as memorable and
historic. But it’s important to realize what one must give up to become
a legend.

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