Cronin has many such glittering anecdotes at her disposal, gleaned from Davis’ autobiographies, which she and director Peter Mountford drew on for Queen Bette. She has the passion of an enthusiast and admires the fighter in Davis.
‘‘Anyone who runs their own race is a gift to play. She’s so intelligent and when you watch interviews with her, you see that she runs them, and when they try and get her to say something nasty, she just says, [in perfect Davis delivery] ‘Oh, you’re trying to make me say something bad about Joan are you’?’’ Joan Crawford was Davis’ offscreen rival. The lurid details of their careers were exhumed as recently as 2017 in the television miniseries Feud.
Queen Bette depicts Davis from childhood, when her beloved mother, Ruthie, encouraged her onto the stage, through silent films and onto the talkies, a few career restarts and the many films she made from the 1930s to ’60s. Cronin shows us that in the span of 80 years, there is much more to the Bette Davis story than the arch, sardonic reputation. Reports of being demanding always threatened to overwhelm the actor’s performances – even while she proved to be one of the more professional screen stars, someone who never feared playing unsympathetic or unattractive roles. Not that she always had a choice, while she was contracted to Warner Bros. and in its iron-clad grip.
Icons are often reduced to one fixed image, and for Davis it’s her monstrous former child star in 1962’s macabre Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? . The performance – all lace, ringlets and gruesome layers of make-up – is indelible, as Baby Jane creates a domestic realm of terror for her trapped, wheelchair-bound sister, played by Crawford. Yet in Cronin’s reading, Davis ‘‘was full of joy; she always pushed things in a positive direction’’. She acknowledges the actor had a reputation for being tough. ‘‘She often said she wasn’t interested in making friends. She wanted people to deliver what they had to do.’’
In a 1983 interview, Johnny Carson asked Davis how she’d liked to be remembered. ‘‘As a good worker,’’ she replied with grit. ‘‘I adore the work.’’
Cronin knew that in the great mass of Davis arcana, she had to find something close to the true voice. ‘‘She’s much appropriated and there are all kinds of views on her – there’s Feud, there’s the gay icon, there’s the view of her as arch bitch, the actor who overdid it in horror movies. But I think when you play someone, you go back to them. Her first book is our bible. She wrote two volumes of autobiography and much of what she’s said is in the public domain. We’re trying to do Bette on Bette, not what others thought of her.’’
Cronin knows all about where public perception collides with reality, having played Lindy Chamberlain in a stage production in 2018. ‘‘Lindy giggles all the time. One woman in the audience asked me afterwards, ‘why did you giggle all the time?’, but Lindy is full of laughter.’’
While Cronin knew she had the Bette Davis look ever since she was a girl, it took a long time for the obvious stage or film role to come along. Mountford saw the opportunity instantly. ‘‘The initial idea was to do a stage version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but Warners still have the rights. Then I found the autobiography, The Lonely Life, in the NIDA library sale for 5¢ and it was signed by Davis – to Frank Thring. So that was a massive sign for us to do this show.’’
There was one earlier incarnation in Sydney, just before work began on Queen Bette in 2014. Cronin played Davis on stage in John Misto’s Dark Voyager.
‘‘It was a completely different take on Bette, with Joan Crawford, [gossip columnist] Hedda Hopper and Marilyn Monroe. So I’d done a lot of research and vocal work for that,’’ she says.
Davis respected writers and in Elizabeth and Essex, the poetic lines from Maxwell Anderson’s original script raise the film above melodrama. Davis’ lonely queen is a poignant figure. ‘‘A queen has no hour for love … events crowd upon her,’’ she says wearily. She hears no lover’s voice – only ‘‘the dry rustle of the papers of state’’.
Inevitably, there’s a Russian doll aspect when an actor plays an actor. Mountford says the pair had ‘‘many conversations about the parallels that haven’t disappeared for female actors, wanting to have their voice heard, fighting; it was similar to Jeanette’s life in theatre’’.
Davis won two Academy Awards, had many more nominations and at one point made five films in a single year.
‘‘She had a huge fight with Warners,’’ Cronin says. ‘‘They kept throwing her work she thought was garbage, as she was under contract, so she walked out. She got herself on an ocean liner and went to England and they came after her and took her to the English courts and they won. Yet she leapt over every obstacle. She’s so funny and so intelligent and she’s a great person to be with for a hour.’’
Queen Bette is at Gasworks, January 21-25. midsumma.org.au