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Queer Icon:  The Cult of Bette Davis

Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis

Premiered in San Francisco on July 2, 2009, at the Roxie Theatre.

With expertly honed finesse, male actress Matthew Martin steps commandingly onto the stage in full Margo Channing or Baby Jane regalia and flourishes a single expression, which instantly evokes a cascade of all those treasured movie memories, all those familiar associations and allusions that confound mere cataloguing.  And the audience roars with laughter.

"Masquerade or Drag?" film scholar and Bette Davis specialist Martin Shingler has asked with regard to the Hollywood legend's on-screen femininity, masking as it does that anything but soft or submissive juggernaut, a virtual anti-vamp, at the core of her greatest roles

But Davis's sexual ambiguity is only one of the many interpretive challenges as regards her enthusiastic gay following. Does the exaltation of the vividly self-punctuating Davis represent no more than a travesty of the social charade of gender? Or are the hopelessly inadequate and yet all-encompassing twin tyrants Femininity and Masculinity charlatan avatars of the one true goddess . . . with icon worship evolving as a means to solidarity among sexual outlaws?

And if Bette Davis is the object of practically religious adoration, then what can be said of those actors in drag who impersonate her, entertaining gay audiences with farcical exaggerations of her most notorious mannerisms? How best to categorize their function in the subversion of sexual orthodoxy that is part theater and part liturgy?  

The disarmingly gifted Matthew Martin has been bringing Bette Davis humorously to life, primarily in San Francisco stage productions, for over fifteen years.  Like the late female impersonator Charles Pierce, Martin considers himself first and foremost an actor, with appearances on stage as other screen idols such as Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Ann Miller. But it is in those facial, vocal and bodily paroxysms by which he channels Davis that he approaches the unique role of high priestess, his incarnation of the Warner-Brothers-born goddess allowing him to attain a kind of ecclesiastic power.  Anticipating every defiant toss of the head or flash of emotion in flaring eyes, every hip-jolting strut across the floor or cigarette-wielding fling of the hand, or every nuance of that staccato-acid voice spitting out gin and contempt, devotees may not so much identify with the venerated star as find spiritual solace in these ablutions, dramatized rituals of gender rebirth and liberation for the initiated.  We are not mere observers, but acolytes keeping the candles lit, the faith sustained, the laughter attended to. And in that continually attended sacred image, on screen and on stage, there is more than a little mystery.  

This documentary examines the many aspects of the gay fascination with Bette Davis, featuring film clips of Bette's most iconic moments, juxtaposed with camp burlesques of her by Matthew Martin and others, including Charles Pierce and Arthur Blake; a profile of Martin highlighting his long identification with Davis; and interviews with fans, entertainers, and gay cultural historians -- Anthony Slide (Great Pretenders), Matthew Kennedy (Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory), Scott O'Brien (Kay Francis: I Can't Wait To Be Forgotten), Allan R. Ellenberger (The Valentino Mystique), Ed Sikov (Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis), and Darwin Porter (Guide to Gay and Lesbian Film) -- exploring the link between the gay community and Bette.  To be found in it all is a surprising variation on the Passion Play, full of punch lines and sight gags -- laughing together being the most sublime ceremony of all.


Peaches Christ, entertainer/filmmaker 
Vincent De Paul, Film/TV actor
Allan R. Ellenberger, film historian
Bernardo Espi, fan
Fernando Feliciano, fan
Michael Guillén, film journalist
Marc Huestis, producer
Matthew Kennedy, film historian
Matthew Martin, actor
Gentry McShane, filmmaker
Scott O'Brien, film historian
Darwin Porter, film historian
Ed Sikov, film scholar
Anthony Slide, film archivist/cultural historian
John Triglia, fan
Roy Windham, Photographer and Collector of Hollywood Photography and Memorabilia
Additional thanks to:

Mike Casso
Claudio Concin
Ken Mierow
Anthony Wesley

and Jimmy Bangley -- Bette Davis Super Fan   

  Additional Video Courtesy of Billy Clift, Joshua Grannell, Marc Huestis, and Jim Shippee