Today is a celebration of ginormous caloric consumption, male testosterone, car and beer commercials. It's fitting that the Super Bowl XLIII Halftime Show features Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen. The football field in Tampa, Florida will feature many would-be bosses, gladiators, and men-who-would be king of the 100-yard field. Only one team will hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy and only one quarterback will announce like Eli Manning did last year, "I'm going to Disney World!"
Women will watch the world championship of American football and likely enjoy it, but it's really a man's game: physical, aggressive, and brutal at times.
This is why I'd like to pay tribute on a day so male-oriented to a woman who could have been a man in manners and reputation. A self-described "Mother Goddam" to her children (which would come back to haunt her in daughter B.D. Hyman's hurtful My Mother's Keeper) and sassy actress whose six leading lady Oscar nominations by age 34 were recently eclipsed by 33-year-old British actress Kate Winslet, I'm talking of course about Bette Davis.
She was a most difficult and hard woman by reputation on a far different playing field. Jack Warner was said to just tolerate his bankable actress, though she was later dubbed the "Fifth Warner Brother" for her film successes. She was not one to shy away from the men in charge, even when she sued and lost to Warner Bros. to give her more challenging roles. A defeated Davis had to return from London to Los Angeles and lick her wounds. Years later and shortly after leaving Warner Bros., she would emerge triumphant in All About Eve.
Like the men on the football field, her talent was just as physical, if by that we mean a long stare, a stiff neck or Popeye expressions. Though just 5' 3" in stature, she swept across the room like a much taller woman. TCM carried several of her films this week, including The Petrified Forest and Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte. These films span almost thirty years and unlike many actresses of her day, Miss Bette Davis allowed herself to go from a bleached blonde under contract for 19 years with Warner Bros. to a decrepit old maid that young boys in the neighborhood taunted.
How many of us women would actually welcome revered eccentricity in our old age? As if being a mystery to neighborhood kids is such a bad thing! Bette Davis certainly wasn't afraid of it. Anyone who has ever seen her classic talk show interviews with Dick Cavett knows that she could not only hold a cigarette like no other but also hold an interviewer like Cavett in rapt awe. She loved to flirt with her leading men, even if they were, like Cavett, some 28 years her junior. She undoubtedly appreciated the energy that men had, their freedom to walk about as authority figures, which she as a woman couldn't do without being labeled bitchy or troublemaker. She did not suffer fools gladly, which should be applauded.
Joan Crawford, her MGM nemesis said in 1971 that "I'm the quiet one, and Bette's explosive. I have discipline, she doesn't. I don't know who suffers the most." Judy Garland called her "my idol." It was director Joseph L. Mankiewicz who suggested that her epitaph should read, "She did it the hard way." She did and it does.
Bette's retort to rival Joan, "She has slept with every male start at MGM, except Lassie." And about herself, she just said, "I'm the nicest goddamn dame that ever lived."
Tonight a superhero will emerge from the game, a Kurt, Ben, Larry, or Troy. I prefer to think about another superhero, Mother Goddam from Lowell, Massachusetts, raging with estrogen, whose spirit and fight I admire.