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Lauren Bacall Honors Bette Davis at BU

Words, work of “Baby Jane” on display at Mugar

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Michael W. Merrill, son of Bette Davis, and Kathryn Sermak present the Bette Davis Medal of Honor to legendary stage and screen actress Lauren Bacall at an awards ceremony Thursday night. (Below) Rex Reed shares his memories of Bette Davis. Photos by Vernon Doucette

Boston University rolled out the red carpet on Thursday, September 18, during a star-studded event that honored the 100th birthday of Hollywood legend and Massachusetts native Bette Davis. The celebration marked the debut of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center’s latest exhibition, A Retrospective Exhibition of the Life and Work of Bette Davis, and included appearances by two-time Tony Award–winning actress Lauren Bacall and Academy Award–winning actress Susan Sarandon, as well as New York Observer film critic Rex Reed.

“Bette Davis lives in our memories as a woman of colossal strength — a working girl until the day she died,” said Vita Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93), director of the Gotlieb Center. “She persevered in Hollywood during a time when Hollywood treated women as disposable objects, and that persistence paved the way for future actresses.”

The Bette Davis Foundation chose to award two of those actresses, Bacall and Sarandon, with the Bette Davis Medal of Honor and the Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award, respectively. Davis’ son, Boston lawyer Michael W. Merrill (LAW’76), and longtime family friend Kathryn Sermak presented the awards during a ceremony at the Metcalf Ballroom on Thursday evening.

“These two women share much in common with my mother,” Merrill said. “Like her, they juggled careers with motherhood and persevered to play strong, independent roles on-screen. And like my mother, they are also advocates for social change and justice.”

Bacall, best known for her roles in The Big Sleep (1946), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress, grew up idolizing Davis. “I used to cut class and sneak into movie theaters to watch her films,” she said. “I memorized every line from every movie she was in.

“There have been other great actresses, but no one else could ever touch her, and no one else ever will,” she continued. “I watch every one of her movies as though I’ve never seen them before, and I’ve probably seen some of them 40 or 50 times. She had a quality that you just couldn’t nail.” Davis made more than 100 movies over a career spanning more than six decades; nominated 10 times for an Academy Award, she won twice, for best actress.

Sarandon, who is arguably as famous for her political outspokenness as she is for her acting career, which includes acclaimed films such as Atlantic City (1980), Thelma and Louise (1992), and Dead Man Walking (1995), said Davis was an inspiration for all women. “She broke the mold, surviving in a system that was dominated by men,” she said. “More importantly, she retained her integrity in a business that can really break your heart and spirit.”

The awards ceremony coincided with the issuance of the U.S. Postal Service’s Bette Davis commemorative stamp. The 14th in the Legends of Hollywood series, the stamp was unveiled in the Metcalf Ballroom earlier that afternoon.

Painted by New Orleans artist Michael J. Deas, the stamp is a replica of a black-and-white still from the 1950 film All About Eve, in which Davis portrayed an aging Broadway star.

“Now every time I mail a letter, I can lick the face of Bette Davis,” Reed quipped.

Davis’ arrival in Hollywood marked the beginning of a new era in film, Reed said. “She filled the void on screen with a texture that was sorely missing,” he said. “Whether courageous victim or scheming vixen, she took up cinematic space with meticulous care.”

And her legacy endures. “Nearly 20 years after her death,” said Reed, “people are still writing books about her, girls are still imitating her in acting classes, and drag queens everywhere are still lighting cigarettes and declaring, ‘Fasten your seatbelts — it’s going to be a bumpy night!’”

Before introducing Bacall and Sarandon, Reed recalled that Davis had once cooked him scrambled eggs in her bare feet — and later “condemned him to journalistic hell” for quoting her criticizing President Richard Nixon. “She was fearless one minute and longing for acceptance and love the next,” he said. “Truly, she is the stuff legends are made of.”

A Retrospective Exhibition of the Life and Work of Bette Davis will be on display in the Frost Reading Room on the first floor of Mugar Memorial Library for the next year. The exhibition is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Lauren Bacall Honors Bette Davis at BU

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2008 at 9:29 am

    Betty Davis Stamp. This was

    Betty Davis Stamp.

    This was a fabulous event. Thank you for having it at BU. All the speeches were informative and brief. Seeing the stamp in bigger than life size was exciting as so was the life movie that was shown. Listening to Lauren Bacall for the finale was just amazing. Her story was real, entertaining and fun. Thank you for all of this and I must add purchasing the Betty Davis stamp for the closing was a nice touch and the Postal Workers were thorough and pleasant.

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