This post was written for the Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by “In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.” Please visit the host blog to enjoy the full scope of this celebration of Bette’s life and career!
Published in 1974, Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis began as a straight-forward book detailing Bette Davis’ filmography and career, but became a unique treasure for classic Hollywood fans when Bette Davis herself decided to add a running commentary.
The book’s author, Whitney Stine, approached Davis after the book was finished, wanting her to read it before it was published. She decided to add in her own responses to certain quotes and passages in the book. These were published in red, and the book as we know it was born. Also born was a friendship between Davis and Stine which would continue to the end of her life.
With her own words jumping from the page in bright red hue, Mother Goddam offers a great opportunity for Bette Davis fans to gain insight into her own evaluation of her career, including roles she wished she could play, like Calamity Jane! Both Stine and Davis combine talk of her career with wider commentary on the evolution of Hollywood and its trends at various points throughout her several decades spent on screen. A few of my favorite bits from her commentary:
On her talents –
“I have never felt satisfied with my performances, but my head is high as to my discipline as an actress.”
On Hollywood’s ever-changing environment –
“I am often asked what the difference is between the Hollywood of yesterday, my Hollywood, and the Hollywood of today. In many ways there are not enough changes – too technical a discussion to go into here. As to kinds of films, an enormous difference. Theater and, of course, films reflect the times we live in, and the tastes of the public often reflect the world of the present. There is, however, one fatal change. Gone are the gamblers: Zukor, Goldwyn, Mayer, Warner, Cohn, Thalberg, Zanuck, and countless others. They gave us our careers – sometimes they won, sometimes they lost millions in promotion of a script and a star. People of my era – the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s – owe these men our careers. They were our fathers.”
On the fan mags –
“All of us were subject often to revenge by the press for some action of ours. We still are.”
On her favorite lines –
“[‘I’d love to kiss you, but I just washed my hair’ from The Cabin in the Cotton] is my favorite line of all time in any film – with the exception of Margo Channing’s ‘Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy night.'”
On Charles Laughton’s declaration of “Never stop daring to hang yourself, Bette!” –
“This became a credo of mine – in other words, attempt the impossible in order to improve your work. I was always sad I was not privileged to be in a film of Charles Laughton’s – one of the true greats in our profession.”
On the joy of “characters” and her role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? –
“I’ve always loved character parts. My joy in working was never just playing the heroine. It started with Mildred in Of Human Bondage, one of the first despicable heroines of the screen. I got the part only because no one else would play the bitch-heroine. Jane’s appearance, I felt, was fascinating – and just exactly the way she would look. I felt Jane never washed her face, just added another layer of makeup each day.”
On the “end” Hollywood after Jack Warner’s retirement –
“Sitting on the dais, looking around at all that was so familiar and dear to me, I thought, ‘This is the end of it. This is the end of all of it as I knew it. It will never come back.’ And I said my little private farewell.”
Stine’s portions, for their part, are quite well-researched, informative, and comprehensive, but Bette’s own commentary is the real draw for the reader, setting this book apart from similar “star filmography” tomes.
The book does, in fact, discuss every film Bette made, as well as her TV appearances and writing endeavors. There’s also a section at the end of the book listing Bette’s stage appearances — a treat for those of us who weren’t around to see Bette on Broadway or follow her stage career!
Mother Goddam is a book I’d certainly recommend to any Bette Davis fan, especially if read along with Whitney Stine’s other book, “I’d Love to Kiss You…”: Conversations with Bette Davis (which I have also reviewed). Together, the two books allow classic film fans to learn more about Bette’s career, her friendship with Stine, her perspective on life and her thoughts on Hollywood. Read these books, and more importantly, watch Bette’s fantastic films to celebrate her talent and her legacy as one of classic Hollywood’s best actresses.