It was all about Bette on November 1, 1969, when the First Lady of Film was honored with a tribute at the 13th SFIFF. She brought the house down with her spitfire wisecracks and wistful reminiscences of old Hollywood.
By Miguel Pendás
Someone once asked movie mogul Jack Warner to define the term "movie star." He answered with two words: "Bette Davis." The larger-than-life movie star was nominated ten times for best actress, winning twice. In 1977 she was the first female to be honored by the American Film Institute with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1969, Film Festival artistic director Albert Johnson invited her for a tribute. "We want to do all that we can to impress upon you the joy of doing whatever is possible to emphasize your artistry, in appreciation for the pleasure you have brought to millions everywhere," he wrote.
"I’ve decided to come; I think it would be fun," she wrote back from her home address at "1 Crooked Mile, Westport, Connecticut." She added a list of suggestions for a clips program, peppered with her biting comments. They included Dark Victory ("my favorite—most like my dreams for it"); Jezebel ("My revenge against Cukor for not being cast for Gone with the Wind"); Whatever Happened to Baby Jane ("Discussion of horror films"); Watch on the Rhine ("Idiot part, but likable; my name made possible a play of Lillian Hellman’s to ever be on the screen"); and Beyond the Forest ("Only famous because of [Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of] Virginia Woolf; my biggest heartbreak in later years was that Warner’s did not let me play Martha; I would have killed for that role.")
The Festival was huge. Director Claude Jarman reported the attendance as 70,000. Director Stanley Kramer and stars Anthony Quinn and Virna Lisi were there for the Opening Night premiere of The Secret of Santa Vittoria, the New Directors series featured Gordon Parks, Susan Sontag and Haskell Wexler. And Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil closed things out. The 1969 Festival was a moment on the cusp: the end of the old and the beginning of the new. But no event drew a bigger crowd (2,300) than the tribute to Bette Davis on Saturday, November 1.
Davis came onstage in a leopard-skin print outfit and intoned her immortal line from Beyond the Forest, "What a dump!" The crowd roared its approval. "Miss Davis was at her best," wrote Jeanne Miller in the Chronicle, "joking, striding around the stage of Masonic Auditorium and even parodying herself.
"‘Do you want me to do Bette Davis?’ she said. When the crowd answered with a resounding yes, she took out a cigarette and proceeded to puff it melodramatically in the frantic style that has become her trademark."
At the end of the evening she added, "A person doesn’t have many enormous moments, even in 40 years. Your welcome to me today was one of those moments."