God Damn You, Bette Davis

Posted by on June 14th, 2010 at 9:36 PM

The year: 1960. The place: the fabulous Huntington Hartford Theatre. The occasion: a preview of the Bette Davis legit theatrical vehicle The World of Carl Sandburg. (Which may be the strangest thing about this incident. Did she wear a wig?)

Bette Davis had been one of Hollywood’s grandest names when Lucille Ball was a mere ingenue stranded down in the rankings. But two decades had passed. Television and I Love Lucy had made Ball the best-known female actress in America. Meanwhile, Davis had become a middle-aged lady who used to be a movie star. Two years down the road and she would find Joan Crawford and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But that night, backstage at the Huntington Hartford, she found Lucy.

Robert Osborne, respected columnist of The Hollywood Reporter and a favorite Lucy squire, takes up the story:

We could hear Bette Davis screaming to George Seaton and his wife, “How dare you come! They told me no celebrities! This is a preview. It was a terrible show! You should have waited!

Osborne couldn’t see, but I believe that at this point Davis pulled her wig from her head and flung it to the ground.

We went in. Lucy, trying to solve a bad situation, said, “Bette, don’t worry about a thing. It was a wonderful show. We really enjoyed it.” And Bette said, “What do you mean, don’t worry about a thing? I thought it was a great show tonight!”

Well, damn. Osborne, known on the Hollywood scene as a gentleman, makes no mention of the following. But I believe that Davis punctuated her words by vigorously tugging her gray support hose down to her ankles, then unsnapped her prosthetic leg with a disdainful upward jerk of her chin. After which:

So Bette said to her, “Lucille, the last time I saw you, you were on a bandstand doing something with Kay Kyser. But you’ve done so wonderfully well!” This froze the room. Then Bette started talking. Lucille got out her compact and started powdering her face — the rudest thing you can do when someone is talking — and never said another word.

Verdict: Bette Davis was kind of a handful.

Around about this time, Osborne recalls, he and Lucy met Vivien Leigh, then went out to dinner. Lucy had something on her mind:

She was very depressed and just sat there and fiddled with her food. She said, “What I do is so meaningless, so unimportant. She is such a great actress. Look what she can do.” To cheer her up, I said, “But, Lucy, think of the millions of people you’ve affected. Could Vivien Leigh ever, ever affect that many millions of people like you do?” She turned to me and said, “Have you ever heard of a little movie called Gone with the Wind?”

Bottom line: Don’t try to cheer up Lucille Ball.

(Info from Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz by Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert)

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