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Stardust: The Bette Davis Story

The format of the feature-length biography documentary is always formulaic when it comes to big-screen stars. Though it could be said of all biographies — outside of the most famous biography of all — everyone who gets one is born, does something remarkable, and then dies. But ones about celebrities tend to be exceptionally weak, as in almost all cases the art is more interesting than the artist, and most revolve around the gossip that surrounded their lives. And when it comes to actors, it's more shocking if one of them wasn't a libidinous philanderer, though it's a little less fun — there's no denying the gossipy appeal of hearing who slept with whom. Credit should then be given to filmmakers Peter Jones and Mark A. Catalena for making Stardust: The Bette Davis Story (2006), an engaging tour of Davis's life and career, as narrated by Susan Sarandon. Davis was groomed by her mother to be a star, and after a tour of Broadway she was picked up in Hollywood, at first by Universal. But since the studio didn't know how to use her, she made her way to Warner Brothers, and eventually found her home as one of the oddest starlets ever to rise in the ranks. Never seen as a beauty in the same way contemporary and rival Joan Crawford was, Davis worked hard her in her roles, and her beguiling mixture of sass and uncertainty made her a popular leading lady. But for every good movie there were numerous clunkers, and Bette had to fight for quality control, often battling with studio head Jack L. Warner over better scripts. A virgin until her first marriage, her career in Hollywood led to numerous affairs, often with her directors, and in one case with rival Miriam Hopkins' husband. But as friends and colleagues Jane Fonda and James Woods attest, for her work was everything. Also highlighted is her tempestuous but rewarding career with William Wyler, and 1950's All About Eve, the picture that may be her finest on-screen work. But as with all documentaries of this nature, the third act marks a steady decline, and the film puts on as happy a face as it can on the final third of her career, when she became an explicit camp icon (Davis's tearjerkers already earned her a gay following) with such efforts as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. She also had to face the stinging effects daughter B.D.'s book My Mother's Keeper. Like the films that made her famous, what is so appealing about Stardust is that Davis creates a flawed but ultimately sympathetic figure to root for. It's also fun to see someone like James Woods — who was a friend of Davis's — talk about her work. Stardust: The Bette Davis Story is only available in Warner Home Video's The Bette Davis DVD Collection: Vol. 2, but for those with only a passing interest in Davis, this is definitely worth checking out. The film looks good in its original Academy aspect ratio (1.33:1) with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. No extras, keep-case.

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