By Kia Standard
When God created movie stars, Bette Davis was nobody’s ingénue. She was more like a dame, a flawed, brazen, wise‑cracking storyteller with saucer‑shaped eyes that burned straight through the film screen. The story of her rise to fame is the stuff of legend. How nice, then, to find Ms. Davis alive and well in “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies.”
It is the evening of the 1940 Academy Awards, and Best Actress nominee Bette Davis has stormed out of the ceremony. Why bother with all the pomp and circumstance when the Los Angeles Times has already leaked the winner? Vivian Leigh would win the coveted prize for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.” In fact, the blockbuster “Gone with the Wind” would sweep the Oscars, taking home quite a few of the gold statuettes. Although Bette Davis doesn’t win an Oscar for “Dark Victory,” she already possesses twin statuettes from her Best Actress wins for “Dangerous” and “Jezebel.” Ms. Davis returns home alone to console herself with a cigarette and a bottle of scotch, as she begins studying her lines for the film “Juarez,” which would begin filming the next day. She looks forward to playing the Empress Carlota and putting this year’s Oscar loss behind her.
Her good friends Humphrey Bogart and Olivia de Havilland both call Bette from the Academy Awards to console her; Davis’ mother Ruthie, who is also in attendance, urges her to return to the ceremony. As Bette dishes with her pals and her mother, the story of her rise to fame reveals itself like a juicy tell‑all. She talks about being discovered by a talent scout in her first Broadway show, and being recruited to Hollywood, where producers called her “not sexy enough.” She gives insights into her failed marriages, and her affair with movie mogul and billionaire Howard Hughes. Then she speaks candidly about her tug‑of‑war with Jack Warner over her ironclad contract with Warner Brothers Studios. Her life and career seem to be a bumpy ride.
Writer and actor Jessica Sherr is a dead ringer for young Bette Davis. She is kinetic energy crowned in pin curls and draped in a fitted evening gown. Ms. Sherr channels the voice and mannerisms of Davis without distorting the star into a caricature. Her writing and portrayal of Ms. Davis presents the iconic movie star as a fully fleshed out three‑dimensional character; the audience not only witnesses Davis’ strengths, but we also catch glimpses of her vulnerabilities. This play is a fresh take on the life and times of Bette Davis; it blends drama and humor, with a bit of sass. Throughout the rises and falls of her life, Bette Davis proves to be a consummate fighter, and the captivated audience roots for her every step of the way.
“Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies” was previously presented in Chicago and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. However, Jessica Sherr recently made changes to the script prior to its New York run to reflect the current climate in Hollywood. The Time’s Up and Me Too movements have spotlighted the misogyny that continues to plague Hollywood’s film and entertainment industries. But this is a battle Bette Davis fought many decades ago. Bette Davis never backed away from a challenge. She stood up to movie executives for better roles and better wages; she fought ex‑husbands over alimony; she battled embittered actresses; and she even survived a stroke and cancer, for a time. Bette Davis faced adversities with honesty, irreverence, and a bawdy laugh. She never lost sight of who she was, nor lost her sense of humor. In fact, her star continued to rise decades after the Hollywood system tried to age her out. But Bette Davis was a first‑class dame, a force to be reckoned with. And “old age ain’t for sissies.”
“Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies”
Written and Performed by Jessica Sherr
December 12, January 19, February 13, March 2, 2019 at 7:30pm
The Actors’ Guild
1 East 29th Street
New York, NY
KIA STANDARD is a writer and musical theater performer, who has appeared in regional and international productions of “West Side Story,” “The King and I,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” She received an MA in Creative Writing/Nonfiction from The Johns Hopkins University, and has published articles and profiles for various talent magazines. Ms. Standard is currently working as a musical playwright.