Bette Davis Was Not A Monster, Says Longtime Assistant

Also: The premiere of "Freak Show" brings out the glitterati.

Bette Davis became immortal to a whole new generation thanks to Feud, in which Susan Sarandon played the screen legend at war with rival movie star Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), not to mention with the rigors of aging in Hollywood. Well, there was a whole other potential battle royale in Bette’s life, but it turned out differently, as detailed in the book Miss D & Me: Life With The Invincible Bette Davis by Kathryn Sermak with Danelle Morton.

In 1979, when she was 22, Sermak was hired by Bette Davis as her personal assistant, a challenging position that ended up as a life-changing assignment. The two-time Oscar winner proceeded to instruct Sermak on how to shake hands (firm and confident, but not crushing), to eat a salad (don’t chop it in front of people), to avoid talking about home-related problems on a movie set, and even to not say the downscale word “okay.” (Every time Sermak said it, she had to put a quarter in a jar. She wasn’t, um, okay with that, but had to go along with it).

There were also instructions as to how to dress, stand, talk, and dance, plus Bette advised her assistant to make herself more distinctive by changing the spelling of her first name. She obediently did so, from Catherine to Kathryn.

But this didn’t turn into a real-life What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, mercifully enough. The only dead animals served were fully cooked and delicious. Along the way, Sermak increasingly developed admiration for Davis, who seemed to be clinging to a way of life that would soon be obsolete, but who could be encouraging and honorable in her own feisty way.

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By time Davis developed cancer and had a stroke, and also had to deal with daughter B.D. Hyman’s scathing book about her, the star and assistant had a tight bond that was quite touching in the way they virtually completed each other. And yes, Joan Crawford’s name is mentioned.

When the story comes up that Crawford once tried to sneak into a movie theater incognito, Davis doesn’t buy it and responds, “Joan came to the movie theater all made up and wearing fur and diamonds, the very opposite of incognito.” I bet they’re still feuding in the afterlife.


How Drag Queens Do Bette Davis

As long as we’re analyzing the allures and intimidations of the great Davis, I asked longtime drag performer Jimmy James—who’s imitated Bette even more times than Jinkx Monsoon has done Edie Beale—for his take on how to pull it off.

His response was so helpful I’m thinking of rushing out my impersonation to the nearest red carpet. Said Jimmy: “Whether you’re in a standing or sitting position, the cigarette comes close to the face. Otherwise, if you hold it away from you, it doesn’t look like Bette. The only time you can hold it out is when you’re walking. You can hold your arms out.”

The vocal inflection? “You use a lot of air and voice. It’s kind of smoky and gruff. Also, what’s so important is Bette Davis does the best side-eye. It’s like side-eye, side-eye, center. A sideways glance where she’s looking things over. She keeps her head straight, but her eyes go to the side. And you’ve got to blink. The eyes are almost telling another story. It’s almost like they want to speak on their own.”

The walk? “There is a swivel. It’s like a little bit of a palsy walk and a little bit of a swiveling shoulder. It comes from a Napoleon kind of thing. She wants to exude power, but she was just like 5 foot 2 or something. Behind the psychology of it is a 5’ 2” woman trying to give intimidation. Giving them side eye and looking them over—it’s very intimidating to the other person. They know you’re looking them over. It’s almost a feeling that nothing’s gonna get by her. It’s kind of, ‘Look, I’m smarter than you are’.”

Well, follow Jimmy’s advice and you’ll be getting looked over every time you rotate your wrist, flash your eyes, and emit smoke.

Fabulous Freaks and Glittery Geeks

A swell crowd—including drag queens and real movie stars—came out for the premiere of Freak Show at Landmark Sunshine Cinema, where director Trudie Styler said it was to be the last event there; ain’t no Sunshine anymore.

The attendees—there to see the sweet film based on James St. James’ book about a bullied queer student who runs for Homecoming Queen—made it feel like the place was just beginning. After the screening, Amanda Lepore told me she thought the film was cute and, as for one plot turn, she said that’s how school is—“and that’s why everyone dropped out!” (But it does lead to a haunting final image.)

At the after-party at Public Arts, Styler’s famous husband, Sting, chatted with trans club host Iman, who told the rocker, “I was a boy when you met me.” (Ages ago, she had gone to see Sting do an event on the pyramids of her native Egypt.)

At the peak of the bash, John Cameron Mitchell and Lena Hall did songs from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, while Denis Ferrara—late gossip queen Liz Smith’s old right-hand man who now writes his own bylined column for New York Social Diary—expressed dismay that that he hadn’t gotten to meet one of his favorite celebrities, Patty Smyth. She had come to the premiere with her husband, John McEnroe, who’s in the movie. And so is Bette Midler, Laverne Cox, Celia Weston…and with this crew, who needs Bette Davis?

And on Friday night, there was yet more rocking out and freak-flag waving when downtown favorite Raven O premiered his “goth-rock project” Raven O and the Pious, at that jewel-box-like den of decadence the Box, down on the Bowie-esque Lower East Side.

Assisted by collaborators Scott Meola and Kenyon Phillips (and other musicians), Raven appeared in a tattoo-revealing muscle T and sang darkly hypnotic songs wrapped in a wonderful wall of sound that punched up the room with glorious gloom. And he never gave side eye!

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.