FIT 728x90 Film Society of Lincoln Center

I Killed Bette Davis

By Larry Cohen

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A candid behind-the-scenes account of the final screen appearance by Hollywood's most formidable diva

Cohen and Davis

Alright, the title got your attention but this isn’t a confession of homicide. My crime is not punishable by law. But it did end the life of Hollywood’s greatest female star. I never meant Bette Davis any harm. Just the opposite. It began as an effort to help her resurrect her dormant career and ended with the final nail in the coffin of a legend.

Bette might have been luckier if I hadn’t seen her that night appearing as a presenter at the Golden Globes. If my heart hadn’t gone out to the outrageous lady with partial facial paralysis who limped on to stage. Certainly it was a shocking sight to behold. But once Bette started to speak, she was unmistakably the brilliant Queen of Warner Bros. As of that night, I was determined to create a project that would bring Bette back. And I wouldn’t give up until she agreed to do it.

My motive was to do good for someone who’d given so many generations of moviegoers such continued enjoyment. Instead, I made it impossible for her to ever work again. What occurred was even more tragic because Bette and I had grown terribly fond of each other. We loved hanging out together, and she gave me such pleasure with her anecdotes from her golden years. Months after Bette left the production of Wicked Stepmother because of alleged creative differences with me, she was required to testify under oath at a deposition so that the insurance company and the completion bond organization could accurately assign blame for the shutdown and delay of the film. And to her credit, she finally owned up to the truth and completely absolved me of any responsibility for her premature departure.

It wasn’t a Larry Cohen problem. It was a dental problem. Weeks before the film went before the cameras, Bette’s bridgework cracked. Knowing it would delay the picture, Bette tried to “fake it” and failed. She could barely get the lines out because of the necessary pauses to readjust the bridge with her tongue. For a perfectionist like Bette, this was pure hell. And yet she never leveled with me. If she had, I certainly would have closed down for a month and reshot the early scenes upon her return. When she finally had to withdraw, she attempted to lay the blame on her director, and I was willing at the time to take the rap. That was my final gesture of admiration and friendship. After all, I was to blame for getting her into this mess.

Why hadn’t I just minded my own business and let her alone? She never asked for my help. Bette Davis never asked for anyone’s help. That wasn’t her style.

Instead, I charmed her into signing on, got her a paycheck, and gave her cast approval. Everything to make her happy. And what happened made her miserable.

I only got a ringside table at the Golden Globes because I showed up with my sister, Ronni Chasen, one of the industry’s foremost publicists. When it was announced that Bette Davis would be presenting the next award, there was thunderous applause, which changed into waves of shock as she appeared on stage, dragging one withered leg behind her. Bette couldn’t have weighed more than 80 pounds, and she was clearly recovering from a stroke.

Many months later, I saw her on some talk shows and her condition seemed to have improved. Perhaps she was making public appearances in hopes that someone would take notice and offer her a job. She hadn’t made a theatrical feature in over 10 years, and her career had been relegated to parts in television movies.

Apparently, Bette’s strategy worked, because I read that she’d been cast with Lillian Gish in The Whales of August. She would be playing a blind woman confined to a wheelchair so she could remain more or less immobile. Soon afterward, her new book, This ’n That, came out. While reading it, I got the idea for a Bette Davis movie. The horrendous condition she was in would work for this comedy about a happily married young couple who return from a vacation to discover that the wife’s widowed father had gotten married in their absence. My God, he’s married Bette Davis and she’s already moved in—and even worse, she insists on being called “Mom”!

I imagined having to live under the same roof with a vitriolic Bette Davis, and from there the screenplay wrote itself. Within a week I had finished the script for Wicked Stepmother, which I promptly sent to Bette’s agent. It was instantly rejected. I later learned that Bette had never even seen it. Knowing my previous credits, her agents had assumed Wicked Stepmother was a horror movie and passed on it, unread.

I couldn’t give up, however, since there was no one else who could play the part. Months dragged on before my publicist, Milt Kahn, casually mentioned that he knew Robert Osborne, who not only lived in the same apartment building as Bette but was a confidant as well. Through Osborne, the script was resubmitted on an informal basis. Bette called just a few days later. I knew it was her because there was smoke coming out of the telephone. Her voice crackled over the line like sparks from a frayed old electrical cord. “Well, I certainly got a few laughs thanks to you last night,” she snapped. “Am I mistaken or did you write this especially for me?”

She was clearly flattered and was interested in meeting me personally. Would I drop by her place on Havenhurst for a cocktail? Naturally I jumped at the opportunity and brought along my agent, Peter Sabiston.

Hers was a large, sprawling condo in a pre–World War II building not far off Sunset. Contrary to expectations, there was no memorabilia of her career visible. No posters, no photos with celebrities, and no trace of the two Oscars she’d won.

On one wall I did notice a tiny charcoal sketch of a person most wouldn’t recognize. It was George Arliss, the noted stage star who’d made films for Warner Bros. in the Thirties. He had actually discovered Bette and insisted she appear in his movie The Man Who Played God. Warners had intended to drop her contract at that time and it was only through Arliss’s intervention that the studio relented. Within a few years, Davis would be the highest-salaried woman in America. She had never forgotten what Arliss had done for her.

I was also surprised to discover framed photographs of Bette’s estranged daughter, B.D. Hyman, prominently displayed—despite the fact that Hyman had written a scathing memoir painting her mother in the most unflattering terms. Taking notice of my interest in the photos, she quickly commented, “If your children like you, you can’t have been a very good mother.”

Joining Bette at our initial meeting was her assistant, Kathryn Sermak, a trim brunette who radiated efficiency. Kathryn had become virtually a surrogate daughter to Bette and would someday inherit half of her estate.

There was no question that Bette loved my script and wanted to do it. She indicated that The Whales of August had been an unpleasant shoot. The weather was horrid and she hadn’t gotten along with Lillian Gish. Many attached to the production would claim that Bette took advantage of the fact that Gish’s hearing was impaired, deliberately lowering her voice during their scenes so that Gish wouldn’t be able to hear her cues. Bette angrily responded to these rumors telling me, “It’s a total lie. Miss Gish was stone deaf. She couldn’t have heard the cues if I’d shouted them through a bullhorn.”

That first day, taking note of her furnishings, I focused on an embroidered cushion that lay on her sofa. The lettering read: “Old age is not for sissies.” Bette might as well have been a poster girl for this slogan. The two mastectomies and two strokes had certainly taken their toll. As soon as we’d left her apartment, Pete pulled me aside saying, “How can you even consider making a movie with a woman in her condition?”

I knew it was foolhardy but I just couldn’t let it go. After all, she would be playing a witch—a particularly appropriate role for a woman who had often been accused of being one (or something that sounded quite similar).

After we’d gone over the material at that first meeting, Bette had asked Kathryn to uncork a bottle of white wine. It was her tradition to offer a toast: “Let’s hope we like each other at the finish as much as we do at the start.”

We then relaxed together as she generously regaled us with tales of her career, particularly at Warners. How Errol Flynn‘s trailer would rock visibly back and forth as he entertained young starlets between setups. And how none of the actresses at Warners wanted to do love scenes with Edward G. Robinson. “He had those awful purple lips,” she said. She complained she never got to play opposite most of the great male stars. Jack Warner knew it wasn’t necessary to pay top dollar for a male lead when Bette could carry a movie on her own.

Bette couldn’t have been more affectionate as she walked us to the door that first day. But soon difficulties arose when her attorney and longtime manager, Harold Schiff, decided he wasn’t sure if he wanted Bette to appear in a Larry Cohen movie. I had no choice but to fly to New York and try to convince Schiff to change his opinion. I must’ve charmed the hell out of him because he completely reversed himself, and we quickly closed a deal for Bette.

I now had a binding commitment to pay Bette a quarter of a million dollars but no studio to finance the picture. I enlisted my pal, Robert Littman, to join me as producer. Bobby had important connections, one of which paid off. Alan Ladd Jr., who then headed MGM, agreed to finance our picture to the tune of $2.5 million.

The pre-production period with Bette was consistently amusing. She got into the habit of phoning me day or night with any thoughts that she might have at the moment, quickly stating an opinion then hanging up without even saying goodbye. For example, I’d pick up the phone and hear that unmistakable rasp: “Larry, I’ve decided that my character must have red hair rather than my normal color.” Click. And she’d be gone.

Bette's cigarette

She visited my home off Coldwater Canyon and took a liking to the place. Thereafter, she dropped by regularly, and I have the cigarette burn marks on the furniture to prove it. I considered the property damage to be a memento of our working relationship. It wasn’t until Bette finally reported for work on a full-time basis that I realized the extent of her cigarette addiction. She smoked 100 Vantages every day. Before she arrived, five packs would be broken open and their contents placed in cups. Wherever she went, Kathryn would follow Bette around with this supply of cigarettes. She was never without one. I suppose it took a lot of nerve to point out that all this smoking was bad for her. She replied, “Oh, Larry, I know. But if I didn’t have a cigarette in my hand I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

For some reason, Bette was extremely wary of my 19-year-old daughter, Jill. Each time she visited my home, her eyes would dart around and she would quickly ask, “Where’s Jill?” Somehow she sensed that Jill was out to provoke her. One day as she sat at my dining room table running lines, Jill approached. “Oh, Miss Davis, I’m having my birthday party here on Friday night. Will you come?” Those Bette Davis eyes flared. “No, Jill, I won’t.” There was no apology and no good wishes. Bette knew she was being bullshitted, and she put an immediate end to it.

On the other hand, when visitors dropped by our location, Bette gladly spent time with them, signed autographs, and seemed pleased to be in their company. Although she had an elaborate dressing room, she insisted on coming to the set early and having a chair placed in the midst of the crew who were balanced above her on ladders hanging lights. She usually situated herself in the most precarious spot.

A movie set can be a dangerous place. There are criss-crossing cables everywhere, and I was concerned Bette would trip over one of them. One day my worst fears were realized. The PA came running with the report that Bette had fallen in the yard behind the house. I hurried to the window and saw her stretched out on the ground, with Kathryn kneeling beside her. She refused to be helped up, and so several apple boxes were brought and placed next to her. Using them for leverage, she managed to struggle to her knees and then to her feet, virtually unassisted. I was about to step outside and get involved, but then I realized she wouldn’t want me to see her in this condition.

I remained out of sight—or so I thought. Bette had an eagle eye. Somehow she caught a glimpse of me and when I finally came to her dressing room to offer sympathy, she let me know she’d seen me “hiding” when she was in distress. I explained that I’d tried to spare her any extra embarrassment, and she finally agreed that had been the best approach.

At first Bette insisted she was from “the old school” and resisted any improvisation. But after a day or two, she came around to trying it my way, and actually seemed to enjoy it. Being extemporaneous was something new and challenging.

Still, it was clear to me that all through the first week, Bette was suffering. It wasn’t just the fall; she seemed genuinely uncomfortable, and her line readings were odd. She would take pauses in the midst of sentences that were uncalled for. She began begging me to see the dailies, and I resisted until one afternoon she beckoned me into an empty room in the house and burst into tears. I couldn’t believe Bette Davis was crying. Maybe this was just another tactic, but I couldn’t resist. I agreed to have dailies shown to her on Saturday.

Later that afternoon, she had another unfortunate accident with a self-igniting cigarette. One of Bette’s powers as a witch was to be the ability to light her own cigarettes without a match. To create this effect, a young special-effects wizard had to rig a cigarette attached to a wire that would run up Bette’s arm to a battery pack behind her. When the moment of ignition arrived, the wizard gave her such a paralyzing electric shock that she actually screamed. He couldn’t stop apologizing and begged for another chance—serving only to give Bette a second and even worse dose.

Now I was determined to cancel the effect entirely. “We’ll do this in post-production,” I suggested. But Bette refused. We tried a third take, during which the cigarette ignited with incendiary force. There was a flash of fire and Bette was clasping both hands over her right eye, which apparently had been scorched. The effects artist was instantly banished from the set. Minutes later, Bette recovered, never complaining about any further discomfort. But I was to hear more of this later.

Throughout the production, she demonstrated absolute respect for me as her director. There was a question of whether Bette should be standing or seated in one particular sequence. As I continued to debate the blocking with her, another actor, David Rasche, chimed in: “I think Bette’s right...”

That’s all he got to say. Bette turned on him in a fury: “Larry’s directing this picture, not you! Keep out of this!”

Another evening while we were trying to film in Hancock Park, the teenagers next door deliberately turned up their stereo so as to harass us. It would be impossible to record sound with all that racket coming from next door.

Bette approached me. “Want me to go over and tell them to turn it off?” she inquired. I could just see it—opening your front door to see Bette Davis standing there, ordering you to shut off your boom box. I thanked her, but chose to send a production assistant over with a crisp $100 bill. The music soon stopped. But I was amused at Bette’s willingness to pitch in.

Much of our downtime was spent in animated discussion. I asked her opinion of those who’d directed her in the past, and she had little good to say about Vincent Sherman or most of the other Warner contract directors. “I had to direct myself,” she insisted. She did remain enamored of William Wyler, an arch disciplinarian who made her descend a staircase for 45 takes during the filming of Jezebel. With Wyler she always knew who was boss.

Whenever a plane flew over the house while we were filming, ruining the take, Bette murmured “George Brent.” I asked her what she meant and she explained that Brent (who had been her lover in real life and leading man in so many films) had his own plane and enjoyed flying. When Jack Warner suspended him and barred him from the lot, Brent simply piloted his private aircraft low over the studio soundstage in Burbank, circling endlessly. No one could shoot sound while Brent continued his harassment and he was quickly rehired at full salary. Thereafter, every time a plane passed over our location I would shout “George Brent” and Bette would crack up.

Each day at the conclusion of her last scene, Bette would pooch out her lips in my direction, demanding our traditional goodbye kiss. Sometimes the AD would tell me that she’d signed out but had waited a full 20 minutes before leaving because she had to personally say goodnight. She did so on her very last day of production. I had no idea she’d never be coming back.

Unbeknownst to me, Bette had been having trouble with her dentures prior to the beginning of principal photography. Her bridge had cracked and she was acting while trying to keep her teeth in. When she showed up at the projection room that Saturday and saw how she looked in the dailies, she became very despondent.

There was wide speculation within the industry as to why Bette Davis left Wicked Stepmother. For a while, her attorney claimed that she’d been mistreated, citing the fall, the accident with the special effects, and even my direction. Contrary to what she’d claimed in the newspapers and on Entertainment Tonight and other programs, Bette eventually admitted the truth in June 1988, when she reluctantly gave her sworn statement to the attorneys for the insurance company that was covering the production.

After seeing herself in the dailies that Saturday, she’d rushed to New York to the one dentist she trusted. He informed her that several more teeth needed to be extracted and it would take weeks to create a new set of dentures. In her condition, she could never have faced the camera. But she couldn’t admit that publicly. To have left the movie for medical reasons might’ve made her uninsurable. Without insurance she’d never work again.

I’d spoken to her briefly when she called me to say she wasn’t coming back. “I made a terrible mistake, Larry,” she said. “I have to leave the picture.” She sounded terribly sad. On the edge of being apologetic. I didn’t argue or try to change her mind. I simply wished her well. The following week was spent negotiating with her lawyer while I continued to shoot scenes in which Bette’s character did not appear. Recalling how she’d walked off the set of The Little Foxes after a dispute with William Wyler but had dutifully returned nearly a month later, I thought surely I’d get her back...

But on June 1, I received the following note from Bette’s dentist: “Ms. Davis has lost approximately 15 pounds and now weighs 75 pounds and is therefore exhausted.”

At this point, I had no choice but to pull the plug. There was an effort to hire Lucille Ball as a replacement. But we found that Lucy was in the hospital herself, and near death.

I argued that with Bette the picture would have a life on video, television, and cable. I’d salvage the footage she’d shot and rewrite the script to accommodate her disappearance. Fortunately, Bette played a witch so she could transform herself into a beautiful young woman at will. Barbara Carrera appeared in the film as Bette’s daughter, but I’d switch it so she’d play the ravishing creature that Bette becomes. Everything else in the script could remain the same. We’d be back in production in 10 days.

Here was a way for the insurance company and the completion guarantor to avoid eating a $2.5 million loss. If they dumped the picture, all the contracts would be honored in full. I myself would have been paid my entire fee so I had nothing to gain financially. I simply wanted to salvage what I was certain would be Bette’s last screen appearance, and to save everyone concerned from financial disaster. I was trying to create order out of chaos.

Because Bette had worked only one week, she’d receive only one-fifth of her salary. The rest would be plowed back into the movie to cover the cost of additional special effects.

I hate to say it, but the best parts of Wicked Stepmother are those in which Bette Davis does not appear. The rest of the cast was excellent. But when Bette comes on screen, her physical condition is so shocking that the audience is in no mood to laugh. Still, it would have been a shame to toss her final performance in the scrap heap.

I did many interviews prior to the release of the picture after Bette went public about her reaction to the film (which she hadn’t seen). Though she fabricated stories about how I’d mistreated her, I spoke of her only with admiration.

While preparing for a tribute at Lincoln Center, Bette was quoted in a New York Times interview stating, “I have dealt with so many directors but [with Larry Cohen] I finally met my Waterloo.” I was in New York at the time so I sent her flowers with a card that read: “With love, from your Waterloo.” To which I received no response.

The following year I was in Tanzania on a safari when I heard a radio report that Bette Davis had died in a Paris hospital. Apparently her body was riddled with cancer. It later became clear that when she took the medical exam as required before appearing in any movie, she’d so bamboozled the doctor that he never actually touched her.

On the day of her memorial I spent the afternoon watching Bette Davis movies and wishing that I’d known her in her prime and had the opportunity to direct her when she was still in possession of all her faculties. But in all honesty I had to admit that at her peak, Ms. Davis would never have appeared in one of my pictures. It was a trade-off and I suppose I still got the best of the bargain.

Many perceived Wicked Stepmother to be a financial failure. Apparently not. I ran into the attorney for the insurance company several years back, who informed me that he’d just received a check for $780,000 in profits. The completion guarantor, Film Finances, got a similar amount. I’m sure they’ve been issued additional checks since, which means they’ve recouped their entire investment and are happily in the black. Had I simply thrown in the towel and collected my salary, the studio, the insurance company, and the guarantor would have eaten the entire budget.

Wicked Stepmother remains an entertaining little comedy. It’s far from the worst movie Bette ever made. In retrospect, even knowing what would lie ahead, I still would’ve made the picture with her. It was worth it for the memories.

The fact that she always positioned herself close beside me, held my hand, and planted those affectionate kisses still makes me believe that she genuinely liked me. But when her career was threatened, she thought nothing of damaging my reputation to protect her own. She was treating me like a character in one of her movies.

Publicly, I never disputed her version of what happened, but whenever anyone brought the subject up I would usually reply, “Everybody else gives Bette dinners. I gave her a job.”

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