Bette Davis blows by the cautioning hand of an executive secretary and opens the big door, marching straight to the desk of Jack Warner who glances up and says, “Bette, we don’t have an appointment today.”
“I just learned you don’t want me to play the lead in Of Human Bondage.”
Warner places his pen on the desk and says, “I’ve already made the decision to protect your career. RKO knows I won’t loan you for the role of Mildred Rogers.”
“That’s an outstanding part and will enable me to rise above the creative rut you’ve put me in.”
Warner stands, motions to a chair, and says, “Please sit down, Bette.”
“I really must have better roles.”
“You’re under contract.”
“I’ll find a way to break it,” she says.
“Bette, I’m not going to let you destroy your career. Several stars have already refused to play Mildred Rogers because she’d turn the public against them. Will you sit down?”
She places her purse on his desk before sitting.
“J.L., I wish they had more ambition.”
“Actually, Bette, they’ve considered the consequences of playing such a disreputable woman.”
Poised on the edge of her chair, she says, “They’re competent actresses but lack imagination. This is a great dramatic part.”
Warner picks up his pen and squeezes before tossing it back onto the desk.
“She’s a cheap little cockney waitress, Bette. Remember, Philip Carey will be played by Leslie Howard, a man most women adore. They’ll be rooting for him to overcome his clubfoot and rejection as a painter and go on to become a doctor. Let’s look at the script.”
“I’ve got everyone’s part right here,” Bette says, tapping her forehead.
J. L. opens a drawer and puts his script on the desk.
“I can’t stand the broad,” he says. “Philip offers her champagne, hoping it’ll make her ‘more friendly.’ And when he tells her he’ll never see her again if she doesn’t change, she says, ‘Good riddance to bad rubbish.’
“You’re only twenty-five and starting to be considered glamorous, in your own way, but if you act like that you’ll frighten men and alienate women.”
Pointing to Warner’s script, Bette says, “Philip’s ‘so in love with her’ he can’t study and fails his medical test. It’s my task to at once be adorable and hateful.”
“No one will like it when she rejects his proposal so she can marry Emil, a guy who has ‘very good money.’”
“Remember, J.L., Philip doesn’t treat Norah well despite her being sincere and loving. The moment Mildred Rogers shows up unannounced, after getting impregnated and dumped by Emil, Philip’s delighted to be with her. And when Norah asks why he hasn’t been to see her, he tells her he doesn’t care for her.”
“Leslie Howard, a major star playing an admirable character, can get away with behavior that a young actress playing a wretch cannot,” says Warner.
“There’s wonderful tension when people offer unrequited love.”
Warner says, “Mildred’s not a star. When she has the baby she turns it over to a nurse for care and runs off with Philip’s friend Harry and tells Philip she doesn’t want him.”
“That’s how things often develop, J.L. Philip’s no saint. He ignores another lovely girlfriend so he can help Mildred with her ‘hard times.’ That saddens me as does his decision to go to her apartment and bring her and the baby back to his place ‘just to help.’ At least, when Mildred asks what happened to his love for her, he tells her she disgusts him. I can’t wait to deliver Mildred’s response: I hated being kissed by you.
“Frankly, Bette,” Warner says, pushing the script away, “Lots of guys would’ve killed her if she’d torn up their apartment, cut up their paintings, and burned their stocks and bonds before walking out. Maybe that’s what Philip should do. I’ll discuss it with the screenwriters.”
Bette interlocks hands in her lap. “That’s reasonable, J.L., but if we let Philip murder Mildred, he can’t undergo successful foot surgery or get evicted from his apartment for failure to pay rent.”
“I think it’s unlikely Philip’s most recent girlfriend would still want him and even less likely her father would invite Philip to live with them and give him a job in a clothes store.”
“The audience will be happy Philip has help,” says Bette. “And I’m confident they’ll care when Philip learns Mildred is coughing and quite ill and her baby has died.”
“Frankly, I’m happy Mildred’s found dead in her apartment and Philip, having moved forward, plans to marry his very nice girlfriend. That’s the role I’d like you to play.”
“That’s a supporting role, J.L. I guarantee Mildred Rogers will make me a star, or, rather, I’ll make her one.”
“If you’re wrong, Bette, you’ll either end up in B movies or acting in obscure plays around the country. Incidentally, Leslie says you need a lot of work on your cockney accent.”