BETTE DAVIS TRIUMPHS ON THE SMALL SCREEN: STRANGERS: THE STORY OF A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER ( 1979 )

“You think you can come back now and take over? well you can’t. You won’t even get it when I’m dead, do you hear me? when I’m dead.”

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Legendary actress, Bette Davis garnered success in all corners of cinema, but as she got older and her work in films became sporadic, Davis entered the forsaken territory known as the small screen, and proved that she was more than just a dimming light on television.

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Bette Davis was a force to be reckoned with. Her powerful screen presence combined with her fierce persona and indomitable spirit were among her famous traits that made her such a prominent figure. As a star of the first magnitude, Davis was never afraid to explore the unknown or appear unattractive or grotesque looking if a role called for it. When it came to challenging herself, Bette held no barriers. After-all, she was an actress who was always striving for perfection.

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Bette Davis continued to follow the road to success, but like most of her contemporaries she was struck by the hurdles of a career decline, and was fighting desperately to resurrect the triumph of previous years. Her next destination was the television medium, a risky venture that a large majority of stars refused to undertake, but Bette embarked on her next journey with absolute gusto and was determined to conquer the small screen.

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That was exactly what she did. The television medium rescued an array of popular stars whose motion picture work was floundering as their aged advanced. Bette Davis first made her foray onto the small screen when she realized that everything around her was beginning to crumble. Her beloved mother Ruthie had just died, her marriage to Gary Merrill was falling to debris, and with her film work diminishing, her only hope was television.

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Bette Davis’ first appearance on television was in 1955 on the 20th Century Fox Hour, but it wasn’t until she was cast as three different characters on the NBC Western Wagon Train that she realized that television could be her savior.

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Even though she had commenced acting work on television, Bette still accepted film offers and did not abandon motion pictures. In 1962, she starred alongside her rival, Joan Crawford in the classic horror film, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, and received her final Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of the demented and sinister Baby Jane Hudson. The picture was one of the years biggest money-makers, putting Davis and Crawford back on the radar.

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Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? boosted Bette Davis’ box office appeal, but it didn’t improve the quality of the scripts Bette was being offered. A large majority of her film appearances after this period were flops with occasional successes. Bette still had to fight to stay in the public eye, but in order to do this she had to endure the grueling demands of television, where she sometimes didn’t get a dressing room.

STRANGERS

Bette hardly called the television industry a picnic. Even though she often compared it to the luxurious treatment she received at Warner Brothers, she was still thankful that it provided her with a sufficient income, and allowed her to pay her bills and put food on the table. Her work in the medium would soon come to a head in 1979 when she attained an Emmy Award for her performance in the made for television drama, Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter, which starred Bette alongside Gena Rowlands.

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Directed by Milton Katselas and written by Michael de Guzman, Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter is a poignant tale that is infused with conflict, sadness and heartfelt sentiments. Headlining the production is Bette Davis as Lucy Mason, the embittered mother who is unexpectedly reunited with her daughter, Abigail ( Gena Rowlands ) after a twenty one year estrangement.

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After all these years, Abigail who is now terminally ill with stage four cancer has come home to make amends with her mother and try to regain her friendship before it is too late. At first tensions arise and sparks are flying, but through sheer determination, Abigail is certain that she will win back her mother.

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Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter is a realistic portrait of estrangement and the destruction of affection. Sadly, the scenario that is depicted in the movie rings true for a legion of people worldwide whose constant feuding and family quarrels fueled alienation. Like millions of others, Abigail became estranged from her mother after a string of arguments that mainly involved her father. The bitter separation forced Abigail to move to Boston where she secured employment and got married, but when she discovers that she is terminally ill with cancer, her only wish is to spend her final chapter with her mother and rebuild a loving relationship. Lucy, on the other hand feels that Abigail has only returned home to betray her and continues to blame her for the problems regarding her father.

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Although she never admits it, I feel that on the inside Lucy yearns to have that special connection with her daughter, but the bitterness and anguish from the rift is eclipsing positivity and blotting out any hope. The same can be said for a few people that I know personally. A family friend of ours has a son who left her years ago under acrimonious circumstances, and has never returned. Since he departed no contact has been made to his mother and now she doesn’t even know his whereabouts or whether he is dead or alive, which is extremely sad. I myself have also experienced a similar situation with my aunt who passed away on New Year’s Eve ( 2016 ). The story as some people would know is that my aunt and I use to be close. Despite the fact that we lived in different states we would telephone and message each other daily and talk for hours until one day when things turned sour. Years have passed since that quarrel, but I can now understand what inflamed the hostility. As it turns out my aunt had mistakenly blamed me for the childish actions of a crazed woman who has been dangerously obsessed with both my family and me for years. At the time of the argument I had recently seen her a few days earlier, and I messaged her to make another date, but because she had initially thought that I was the one prank calling and messaging her late at night, she telephoned me that evening and was incensed with anger. As you would expect the conversation was not a pleasant one. Instead of a general, friendly discussion, altercations arose when both my aunt and I became embroiled in a verbal dispute that would ultimately lead to a nine year estrangement. Fast forward to August 2016 when my grandmother delivered me the sad news that my aunt had stage four cancer and was only given six months to live. As soon as I heard that piece of news my heart sunk. I knew that I had to see her before the inevitable happens, and even my mother plainly stated that it was crucial that I fly over and make amends with her. Four months later I did just that. What proceeded was a gamut of emotions and a deeply moving story that started with me reuniting with my aunt who showered me with love, and ending with me sitting beside my aunt and lovingly caressing her as she died.

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My beloved Aunty Pat and me. This was the last photograph ever taken of my aunt – she died 11 days later. ( December 2016 )

As you can see my story closely resembles Lucy and Abigail’s story. The only difference is that I arrived to discover that the conflicts of the past were buried years ago whereas Abigail detected enmity and soon realized that Lucy had a hard time putting past altercations to rest.

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In 1985, Bette herself experienced a similar problem when her daughter B.D Hyman published a scathing book titled My Mother’s Keeper. Although Davis’ scenario is different in many aspects, part of it closely echos the synopsis of the film. In Davis’ case, estrangement came soon after she heard news of the books publication. Bette had severed all ties with Hyman, and the two would never meet again. It has been reported that Hyman is now inflicted with waves of guilt over her treatment of her mother, but whether or not this is true, Hyman’s cruel act of humiliation and heartbreak cannot be forgiven.

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Bette Davis with daughter B.D Hyman.  ( Circa, 1950’s )

Strangers: The Story of Mother and Daughter is not considered to be one of Bette Davis’ greatest achievements, but she’s still deserving of the Emmy Award nonetheless. In order to succeed at creating an authentic character study and delivering a totally moving performance, Bette had to follow a long road that was full of obstacles and harsh weather conditions that made the location shooting in Montecito in Northern California almost impossible to endure. The bitter cold inflicted illness among several crew members, including Bette, which caused delays with the filming schedule.

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The final result was a prestigious made for television movie that is constructed from a great script, which is tinged with fluid dialogue and narrative tension. At the heart of the story is Bette Davis, who adroitly crafted an emotional character arc and delivered one of her greatest performances from her later day career. The evolution of Lucy Mason is fascinating to watch. First Lucy is an embittered mother who is automatically thrown out of orbit when her daughter whom she hasn’t seen in over twenty years arrives at her doorstep. Due to lingering memories that constantly torment her, Lucy struggles to adjust to Abigail’s presence, but within a short period of time Lucy morphs into a compassionate person, who begins to understand her daughter and ultimately comes to enjoy her company.

“We had many talks, and I found her more objective about herself than her publicity would lead one to believe.”

( Gena Rowlands on Bette Davis )

Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter may suffer from a few flaws, but despite those minor problems, the film benefits from a myriad of worthy aspects. Both Bette Davis and Gena Rowlands create a solid and authentic chemistry that is appeasing to viewers. Off-screen, both stars forged an intimate friendship that touched personal and professional levels. It was not often that Davis developed a close rapport with her co-workers, but with Rowlands, an amicable relationship was looming from the moment production commenced.

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After her successful turn in Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter, Bette Davis continued to work in television and film. She would attain two other Emmy Award nominations, and was continuously recognized for her efforts she lent to these productions, but along with all her latest achievements came a series of tragedies that started when her beloved sister Barbara ( Bobby ) passed away in July 1979, and ended ten years later when Bette Davis departed this world on October 6th, 1989.

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CAST

Bette Davis: Born, Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5th, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Died: October 6th, 1989 in Neuilly, Sur Seine, France. Aged 81. Cause of death: Breast Cancer.

Gena Rowlands: Virginia Cathryn Rowlands on June 19th, 1930 in Cambria, Wisconsin.

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This post was written for The So Bad It’s Good Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Rebecca from Taking Up Room. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.

BETTE DAVIS

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2 thoughts on “BETTE DAVIS TRIUMPHS ON THE SMALL SCREEN: STRANGERS: THE STORY OF A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER ( 1979 )

Add yours

  1. This is an awesome review, Crystal! I liked that you wove Bette’s real relationship with her daughter and your story with your aunt–no wonder this movie resonated with you. Thanks for joining the blogathon. It was word the wait. 🙂

    Like

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