Leslie Goddard is a historian with a Ph.D. from Northwestern, a former museum director, an actress, and a storyteller. On Feb. 23, as part of the Levy Lecture Series, and in front of nearly 500 Zoom attendees, she combined all of her professional skills in a solo, one-act piece that she wrote and performed. Watching and listening to “Bette Davis: A Living History,” the audience saw Leslie Goddard become the legendary film star.
The set consisted of an imposing red velvet curtain draped as if to open for a performance. The actress stood in front of it in a 1940s-style dress made of a rich brown satin material with small capped sleeves and a large rhinestone brooch attached to the fabric on the wearer’s left side, close to the edge of the dress. She had one constant prop, a lit cigarette.
Bette came on stage with a swagger, nodded to the audience, and took another drag on the cigarette. She looked around the room and exclaimed, “What a dump!”
Bette explained that this was one of her standard “ice breaker” lines. She talked about her peripatetic childhood and how hard her mother, Ruthie, had to work to support her daughters, Bette and Barbara, after her husband, the girls’ father, left them.
Bette credits Ruthie for supporting her drive and ambition, and working countless jobs to support them. Ruthie’s selfless dedication to Bette’s future prospects was a source of motivation and inspiration for her. She promised herself that one day her mother would not have to work.
After graduating high school, Bette auditioned, and sometimes was hired, for regional theater roles. She made her debut on Broadway in 1929. The following year, Bette and her mother relocated to Hollywood so Bette could take a screen test at Universal Studios. She was beautiful, but did not have the “typical” glamorous look of a Hollywood would-be starlet, nor did she exude the sex appeal of one. In some ways she was still a shy and proper New England girl from Lowell, Mass.
The studio system was not sure how to use her. She was hired for short-term contracts and within one year had completed small parts in six forgettable films.
Ambitious and focused on her career, Bette was frustrated with the quality of the work offered to her. She and Ruthie were planning to move back to New York when their fortunes abruptly changed: George Arliss, one of the leading stars of the day, selected Bette as his co-star in the movie, “The Man Who Played God,” a 1932 release by Warner Bros. It was her big break, the one she had been waiting and preparing for since she was a child.
The movie was a success, she received great notices from the critics, and Warner Bros. offered her a five-year contract. She was on her way. She would remain with Warner Bros. for the next 18 years.
For almost an hour, Ms. Goddard seemed to embody the famously opinionated — some say difficult — actress. She dished on some of her co-stars and directors and talked about her tumultuous personal life including her four marriages — three divorces and one widowhood — and three children (BD, Margot, and Michael). Margot and Michael were adopted as infants. She would have loved to have had a long and loving marriage, but that did not work out for her, she said, adding, “No man was macho enough to be Mr. Bette Davis.”
She was candid about the quality of the roles she was offered and the directors who guided her. She knew she could be confrontational, but her beefs with the studios were always about the work. She wanted, and fought for, meaty roles with good directors. She was fearless and undeterred about accepting a role where her character would be made to look physically unattractive or have distasteful behaviors; she sought out those roles because they expanded the range of her skills.
After “Bette Davis: A Living History” concluded, Ms. Goddard returned to answer questions from the audience. Without question, Bette was at the top of her field, artistically and professionally. She received 10 Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Motion Picture — five of them in consecutive years, 1938-1942 — and won twice, for “Dangerous” (1935) and “Jezebel” (1938). Many of the movies in which she starred, including “Dark Victory” (1939), “Now, Voyager” (1942), “All About Eve” (1950), and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), represent iconic roles that still are associated with her performances.
In 1983, Bette was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two weeks after her mastectomy, she suffered four strokes that paralyzed the left side of her face and her left arm and slurred her speech. With intensive physical therapy, she mostly recovered from these health crises in spite of continuing to smoke 100 cigarettes a day. (Yes, you read that correctly. Five packs a day.) In 1985 she suffered another devastating blow: her daughter, BD, wrote and published a “tell all” autobiography, “My Mother’s Keeper,” in which Bette was depicted as a “bullying and alcoholic” mother.
Bette was devastated; she had had no knowledge of the book prior to its publication. The book was immediately compared to Christina Crawford’s “Mommie Dearest,” although BD never accused Bette of child abuse. BD’s claims were deemed inaccurate and meritless by almost everyone who knew the people involved. Unlike Joan Crawford, Bette had a chance to respond to the allegations, which she did in her second autobiography, “This ’N That,” published in 1987. She never spoke to her daughter again, and disinherited BD and BD’s children. She also refused to discuss the subject in interviews. She died two years later from cancer.
The Levy Lecture crowd enthused about Ms. Goddard’s portrayal of Bette Davis. One attendee observed, “Her presentation was engaging, exhilarating, and a trip back to my younger years. I waxed nostalgic.”
“Bette Davis: A Living History” was the ninth Levy Lecture Ms. Goddard has presented; she is the only speaker who has presented a program in each of the five years since the Levy Lecture Series began. Those interested may watch her performance on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.