Edinburgh Fringe 2013
A one-woman show that brings to light the struggles and successes of Bette Davis during her Hollywood years. Written and performed by American Actress Jessica Sherr and directed by Janice Orlandi, this work of historical drama is the product of more than four years’ research and development. Following a successful run on the New York Fringe, Sherr brings her work to Edinburgh.
It is only just past noon and the Fiddlers Elbow, difficult though it may be to find, is packed. We are situated in a Victorian styled function room of sorts, with cream walls and gilded mirrors opposite the crammed spectators who are left with standing room only. The lights are bright overhead, and the stage is set before us – a simple coat rack to one side, and a table to the other, littered, tastefully, with cigarettes, flowers, and a magnificent crystal decanter.
As we wait for Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies to begin, it dawns on me that despite the fact that I have whiled many an afternoon watching Turner Movie Classics, I am not terribly familiar with the Bette Davis canon. I wonder if this will affect my enjoyment of the show. Suddenly Jessica Sherr bursts in as Davis, clad in a teal gown, heavily made up, having deserted the Academy Awards rather than face up to the fact that Vivien Leigh would be taking away the award for Gone With the Wind – a role that Davis had opted out of. The next hour is a mix of direct address and time travel through Bette’s life – her violent transition from Broadway to Hollywood, her battles with Warner Brothers, and the trials of her family life.
While Sherr herself is an accomplished actress, bringing to life such an icon is daunting work – but she manages to pull off the confidence of the bigger than life star, while plunging into the depths of the emotional turmoil caused by the slave-like conditions of the early film industry’s work life. Her transitions from moment to moment are seamless, maintaining the flow of the show, while the minimal tech (often incomprehensible sound clips from Davis’ movies), punctuates the show with moments from the past. These clips do a great job of setting tone but are occasionally intrusive. Another layer of sound (perhaps atmospheric music from the period) might have made them less so. The script, written by Sherr herself, strides the line between biography and action very well; although it takes a few minutes to understand where we are within her world. The majority of the text is delivered in direct address but we are given no cues as to who we are or what our roles might be. Are we assistants, besties, or is Davis just talking to herself? Despite these issues, it is clear that this is no novice’s work – the piece is full of personal references and fond reminiscence but we have no problem keeping up despite (in some cases) an almost total lack of knowledge about the star. It’s no surprise that Sherr spent two years on the research alone. Packed with history, Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies manages to stay entertaining while delivering dense historical material.
Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies offers us a beautiful window into the past from which we can see not only the beauty of the film days gone by, but the gritty underbelly of an exploitative industry that turned people into chattel (and still does). Davis struggled against an oppressive patriarchy that continually forced her into roles she found inappropriate and inadequate: empty, sexualised female characters, musical pap, and vapid two-dimensional roles. Despite her achievements (two academy awards and continual acclaim) she was trotted out like a show pony and made to sing for her supper. But though she refused to just accept her fate, though she spoke out against the system, even carrying the fight into the public spotlight, conditions for women (and indeed for most everyone) working in Hollywood remain much the same in many ways. It seems a shame that such a vibrant woman, uncharacteristically outspoken for her time, couldn’t bring about change for the better… Perhaps this play can help still.