Bette Davis. A name that is synonymous with the film industry.
Queen Bette is a one woman show that tells the story of the movie icon, portrayed by Jeanette Cronin, and her journey from bright-eyed stage actress to groundbreaking movie star. Many would be familiar with her work, but not all are familiar with her fighting power against the Studio System.
The show has been developed by performer Jeanette and director Peter Mountford, and has already seen highly successful seasons at past festivals. The script has been devised by interview transcripts by Bette herself over the course of her life. I had a chat with Peter about his process working on the show ahead of its Melbourne Premiere as part of the Midsumma Festival.
Why do you think Bette’s story is so special?
She was a real trailblazer. Devoted to her craft, from a very early age, and always put the work first throughout her career. It’s such a cliche to say someone didn’t suffer fools gladly, but all the evidence points to the fact that she led the way in that respect! She fought all her life for recognition as an artist, primarily. There was a softer side to her, however, especially in her relationship with her mother (which we explore), and there is a definite feel of a smalltown girl who made good. There are so many great quotes from her, and the difficult part for us as theatre devisers was what to leave out.
What inspired you to create this show?
I remember watching ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ on TV late one night with my mum, and was blown away by the gothic horror awfulness of it all, and thinking even then what a phenomenal and risk-taking actor Bette Davis was. Completely unafraid to show the (very) dark side of a character.
Fast forward some 35 years: I was browsing through the NIDA Library sale and came across a (signed) copy of ‘The Lonely Life’ – the first of Bette Davis’ autobiographies, originally published in 1960, which became a great starting point for developing our show. And it only cost me 5c! Then, in the foyer after a show I had directed, I was introduced to Jeanette Cronin. If you see the show, you will agree that she is a dead ringer for Bette, and following a few tentative discussions, we came to the conclusion that we had to make something about her together, both as a tribute and as an exploration of the power she had as an artist.
Could you tell me a bit about the development process?
We made a decision very early on that we were going to tell Bette’s story from birth but that we would stop around 1959, which happened to be a pivotal year for her. Her mother had died a couple of years before, which she was deeply affected by, and she was struggling to regain confidence as an actor. Just around the corner was ‘Baby Jane’ which many consider her most iconic role, and served as the start of her (third) big comeback.
How has the show changed since its first iteration?
The initial development was back in 2014, and Jeanette has performed the role over 75 times since then. Each time we return to the show, things have sunk in a little bit more for us, and we either discover something new, which we will add to the script or there will be little tweaks that only time between runs can reveal. There is always a joy to return to the rehearsal room with her (and Jeanette of course).
I honestly feel that it will change a little every time we go back to it. It’s a living, breathing entity.
What can audiences expect from Queen Bette?
Expect the unexpected! Whatever you thought you knew or didn’t know about Bette Davis, our version of events will surprise you. The greatest compliment we get from audience members (especially those with little awareness of her before they enter the theatre), is that they want to go home and research her further, and watch the movies! Her story really seems to resonate with people.
Queen Bette opens at Gasworks Arts Park on January 21st and is running to Sat 1st Feb.
Tickets and more information are available at the Midsumma website.