The editor who asked for a feature story showcasing the cast's "pre-eminent dragsters" may have been forgiven guessing Bette Davis Ain't For Sissies to be a cross-dressing camp comedy instead of a solo show written, directed and performed by the multitalented Jessica Sherr.
Ironically, this error illustrates perfectly the misconceptions regarding the career of the Hollywood icon who vowed to make her legacy that of an actress, rather than a star.
Windy City Times: In the early days of motion picturesbefore anybody knew how to act for the camera, or photograph a scene so it looked real, or draw up a contract guaranteeing an equitable salaryBette Davis defied the studio bosses to take charge of her own career. You might say that she was always a solo act.
Jessica Sherr: Most people today only know Bette Davis for her role as the drunk madwoman in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, but she was so much more than that. I want audiences to see how she stood up for herself and changed the way Hollywood treated its artists.
WCT: The story in your show is set on the night of the Academy Awards ceremonies in 1940, when Davis would lose the Best Actress Oscar to Vivian Leigh. The Los Angeles Times had leaked the list of the winners before the start of the event, so Davis decided to leave the event and go home early rather than fake being surprised. Why did you choose this particular incident for your launching point?
JS: At first, I just imagined how Davis must have felt at not winning, but after I learned that the Times had announced her defeat prematurely, it added a sense of betrayal to her disappointment. As a playwright, I knew this would be an intriguing place to start the play.
WCT: How do you go about changing into Bette every night for the show?
JS: When I look in the mirror, what I focus on are my giant eyes, and that begins my transformation. As I apply makeup, I, Jessica, gradually disappear and the reflection gradually becomes Bette Davis. By the time my hair is pinned up, I see only Bette.
WCT: Where did you find that scrumptious vintage wardrobe?
JS: The red velvet robe I wear in the play comes from an Amvets thrift shop in San Diego. I didn't know then that I would be using it for this particular showonly that it was special. My Oscar gown came from an actual dress shop, but it was a size 12, so I called [costume designer Isabelle Color] to help me alter it and spruce it up to give it more depth.
WCT: You've toured the show all over the [United Kingdom] and the United States. Have you had any audience members come to the show dressed up as Bette?
JS: It hasn't happenedyet. I always thought it would be fun if a drag Joan Crawford showed up and sat in the front row.
WCT: What's the most unusual fan response you've encountered in your travels?
JS: There's a scene in the play where Bette does a pin-up photo shoot for Howard Hughes and she runs around posing at high speed. When I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I had a fan who brought me about 500 postcards of scantily-dressed pin-up girls. He told mein his heavy broguethat he'd found them at a yard sale and knew they were perfect for me. ( I was more curious about what a Scottish yard sale would look like. )
WCT: What's the hardest part of telling this story? What's the easiest?
JS: Bette had a full life, and that included a lot of loss. I've added some of that material to the show I do now, but the new content demands that I allow myself to be vulnerable and reliving that emotion every night is a challenge. The easiest part is the fun I have onstage when the audience is really there in the moment with me.
WCT: What do you want the audience to take home after the show?
JS: I want them to understand that Bette Davis was not perfectthat she was flawed, like all of us. I want them to go home and google her biography and to read all about her life. I want them to watch her early movies and in that way, keep her image alive for years to come.
Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies plays May 24-June 17 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Visit AthenaeumTheatre.org .