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Bette Davis Smoking Over 'Stepmother'

January 03, 1989|NINA J. EASTON | Times Staff Writer

One Friday night last spring, Hollywood legend Bette Davis left the Los Angeles film set of "Wicked Stepmother" after one week of shooting to undergo some dental work in New York. She never returned.

Now, eight months later, the true story behind that departure is the source of a heated dispute between the 80-year-old Davis and "Wicked Stepmother's" 41-year-old director, Larry Cohen.

Cohen says Davis did not return because of her health, particularly the severe weight loss she experienced after dental surgery. But the relentlessly feisty Davis blames Cohen for her decision not to return. She sharply criticizes his directorial style and says he refused to heed any of her advice.

With "Wicked Stepmother" tentatively set to open Jan. 27, Davis is anxious to distance herself from the film--even though audiences will see her starring in scenes during the first half-hour. "I would be ashamed to have people think I sanctioned something like this," Davis says.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 11, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 8 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
The film "Carrie" was written by Lawrence D. Cohen, not "Wicked Stepmother" director Larry Cohen, as reported in Calendar Jan. 3. Larry Cohen was credited incorrectly in a film reference book.

Davis has not seen the completed film, but she did view the first week's footage before she left for New York. "People will be horrified at the footage on me," she says. "I think that for the good of my future career I honestly had no choice" but to go public with the story.

Despite an acting career already spanning more than half a century, Davis' "future career" is much on her mind these days. In 1983, after undergoing a mastectomy, followed nine days later by a stroke, Davis was terrified that she would never again be able to act. She wrote in her book "This 'n That" that, "I wouldn't want to live if I could never act again."

Today, Davis is back on her feet, with a chatty autobiographical book and a starring role in the feature film "Whales of August" behind her. During a recent interview in her Hollywood apartment, she looked resplendent and elegant in her tailored red-knit dress and diamond-laced jewelry. But as Davis settled into her armchair, reaching for her trademark prop--a cigarette--it was obvious that while she has recovered from the stroke, she will never recover from her intense need to work.

"I lah-h-h-v my profession," says the ever-so-theatrical voice, deepened by years of tobacco smoke. "I would n-e-e - e-ver stop. Relax? I relax when I work. It's my life."

That need to go on acting, regardless of her age, is what prompted Davis to go public with her side of the "Wicked Stepmother" story--and to voice her criticism of Cohen's direction. "I'm not a vain person," says Davis. "But at 80 years old I don't want to look the way I looked (in the "Wicked Stepmother" footage). It seriously could be the end of anybody ever hiring me again."

There is also an unspoken concern here: Studios are reluctant to hire actors, particularly older actors, with publicized health problems. A key reason is the steep price of obtaining cast insurance, which covers a studio's losses if an actor dies or falls ill during production. In Davis' case, according to Cohen, the insurance company paid out a $1-million claim to cover the costs of her departure from "Wicked Stepmother."

But, as Cohen notes, Davis' dental problems should not make her any less employable because they weren't related to her age or health. "This could have happened to anybody," Cohen says. He adds that Davis passed the physical that is required before obtaining cast insurance.

Cohen--who launched his own career writing such films as "Carrie," and has made his mark as a director of horror offerings like "Q," "The Stuff," and the "It's Alive" series--wrote the "Wicked Stepmother" role specifically for Davis.

He recalls the story of Davis' departure this way: Soon after the actress flew to New York last spring, it became clear that her dental problems were more serious than anyone had anticipated. She stayed in New York several weeks, undergoing surgery and experiencing severe weight loss. (Davis herself says she dropped from 88 to 75 pounds.)

Several days later, her business manager contacted Cohen and began raising objections to several aspects of the production. "Her manager came out and said there were problems with the set," says Cohen. "She had fallen on something. . . . (At another point) a special effect cigarette prop had exploded and hurt her."

Cohen contends that Davis' representatives were paving the way for her decision not to return for the two more weeks of filming required in the original script. By then, he says, he had received a letter from her doctor saying she was unable to return anytime soon. As production stalled and costs escalated, Cohen says he considered hiring a replacement.

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