Editorial Note: Due to technical difficulties, it was not possible to revise the video that accompanies this written statement.
The ABCs of Bette Davis aims to provide a star study of Bette Davis. Rather than examine her public persona, including publicity, scandals, biographies, and images, in addition to her film roles, I wanted to focus on the Bette Davis character constructed primarily through the films. I was partially inspired by Robert B. Ray’s book The ABCs of Classical Hollywood which details a classroom technique in which he has students write an ABC of an individual film, as a means of having them pay attention to details that would generate knowledge about the particular film, and also reflect on cinema in general. I liked the discipline and challenge of an ABC – how could you possibly limit yourself to one observation per letter and how could you come up with 26 different things? Beyond the appeal of the game, however, I also thought of the resonance of the ABC for a feminist analysis. I thought of Marlene Dietrich’s ABC which constructs an image of Dietrich the star via her alphabet of observations, and produces a meditation on female stardom as it does; and Marth Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen which uses the alphabet as a feminist tool of alienation. With these three texts as loose models, I aimed to draw out recurring details of Davis’ films to reflect on her persona, and on larger issues related to stardom, on the one hand, and twentieth century womanhood, on the other. Miriam Hansen’s ideas about vernacular modernism provided a way to think of Davis as transmuting and negotiating the affective experience of women in modernity.
To make the video, I ignored the “feud” with Joan Crawford, her contract dispute with Warner Brothers, her salty TV show appearances, and other aspects of her star image. Instead, I watched the films and took notes to see what themes, things, attitudes and actions would emerge.
I found the subjects for some letters easily, and had many options for some. Others, such as X, required more work. Admittedly, as Jenny Ollayon-Koloski says, I cheated with Bad, using posters rather than clips from films.
I approached the project as a kind of play, using different fonts and colors to match the letters, playing with dialogue from Davis’ films to engage the topic at hand. I did not provide film titles so that the viewer would engage in a game of trying to recognize the clips at the same time that she might be trying to guess the subject of the next letter.
I decided not to use any voiceover or offer explanations of most of the letters, but to let the viewer consider their meaning and import. For example, with M, I chose Mothering. In Davis’ star image, her mothering is tied to her daughter BD’s claims of abuse. However, in her films, she reflects an ambivalence about mothering. While the Davis character sometimes rejects mothering, opting for abortion or abandoning her child, she more often takes on a maternal role, adopting a child or serving as a caretaker. This latter form of mothering, detached from biological mothering, makes her peculiarly modern. The clips that I assembled show her rejection of mothering and questioning of her fitness for mothering and also her emphatic embrace of mothering, but does not proffer an analysis.
As Allison McCracken notes, some aspects of Davis’s image, such as her whiteness or wealth or queer readings, are not highlighted in the ABC, despite being crucial to many readings of her. I found that it was hard to show certain things with brief images from the films themselves and also, likely, took some things for granted. I was thinking about whiteness, and Davis’s frequent links to African American servants in her films, as well as her plantation-like homes, but could not convey the density of “whiteness” in clips, or found that simply showing Davis with African American servants did not get at the complexity of how she represents whiteness, or what makes her relations with servants different from any other 1930s white female star. This reveals a limitation to the mode. I was not thinking about wealth per se, or took it for granted, which reveals a limitation in my thinking. I did not choose Queer for Q but tried to convey a sense of queerness across the alphabet, through attention to Female Friends, Happiness Deferred, and other categories, as well as via camp. Rather than assert her status as a feminist camp icon, I tried to demonstrate camp in the clips I selected and enact a camp sensibility in the choice of clips and in the use of music, all melodramatic scores from her films. My sense of camp – detailed in my book Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna -- is not mocking, but simultaneously about identification and distance, love and irony; and I sought to produce both feelings by dwelling in the Davis archive.
I do not think that my alphabet is the definitive list, and would like for there to be questions, debate, and suggestions, all as a mode of engagement with the game. Hopefully, as Oyallon-Koloski suggests, such disagreements will encourage viewers to consider counterexamples and thus explore different facets of Davis’s image.