Bette Davis might’ve killed a guy. Specifically, her second husband, Arthur Farnsworth, a man whose name sounds like it was made up for a cartoon. He collapsed on a street in Hollywood, went into a coma, and died shortly after. Which I never knew about Bette Davis but learned from actress Jessica Sherr in her exquisite one-woman show, Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies.
You think you know Bette Davis because you watched the thing with Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange or you watched Whatever Happened to Baby Jane but you don’t know Bette Davis. You think she was a witchy curmudgeoness who abandoned her children and ruled everyone around her with an imperious disregard, that she abused and abandoned her children, and that she went through husbands like a hot knife through warm butter–and you are correct.
However, what is not common knowledge in the popular canon is Davis’s constant war against the studio system and, by its very nature, the stranglehold men had over the careers of even celebrated actresses. Under this system, the women were essentially slaves, a fact noted in Davis’ monumental lawsuit against her studio, which she lost.
We’re three graphs deep into this story and I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, but I haven’t talked at all about Jessica Sherr, the writer, producer, director, and undeniable star of the show who is so fully possessed by her subject that I automatically wrote the first half of this article about Davis. I left the show last night thinking about Davis. I watched this play in the side studio of the Atheneum and did not for a second think to myself Gee, Jessica Sherr is killing it, but instead, I thought, Holy s&^%, Bette Davis was made entirely out of brass ones.
If this five-foot three-inch stack of feist was a working actress now, she would be fighting the very same fight under a different name. Davis would probably have been the front line ninja of the Hollywood house cleaning that’s shut down so many handsy miscreants. Which is what makes Sherr’s show so remarkably timely.
Sherr is Davis from the moment she breezes into the room in vintage Oscar night drag, throwing herself onto a divan, and having a little bit of a chat with her two Oscar statues. There’s not a moment in the 90-minute show where she isn’t fully infused with the spirit and character of Bette Davis. In every second she builds on the audience’s suspension of disbelief as Bette Davis takes us through public and little known moments of her riotous career as she waits to see if she won the Oscar for her work in Dark Victory.
Sherr takes us into Davis’ headspace as she battles the stereotypical parts given to her by luminary directors and the head of Warner Brothers. But it’s a war room decorated in furs. As much as Davis fought for brainier parts, she also fought for the money to live a lavish and well-appointed life – money she deserved since it was her brilliant choice of roles, along with her talent and beauty, that made those studios mountains of cash.
There are moments in Sherr’s performance where the verisimilitude is stunning, where her invocation of Davis’s most private, most internal moments of righteous ferocity, of crippling self-doubt, and of heartbreak are breathtaking. Then, in a wink, she whips the narrative into a joke and punctuates that moment with laughter.
Which is another part of Davis we often forget in our kneejerk soundbyte recollection of her: she was hilarious, and so is Sherr.
If her dates in Chicago are anything like Sherr’s shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, buy your tickets now. At a venue where new acts rarely fill more than ten seats, Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies, was so wildly popular the Festival had to bring in more chairs and still couldn’t seat everyone.
So be quick, because Jessica Sherr is killing it.