Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Q&A with playwright Elizabeth Fuller

Posted By on Tue, Apr 30, 2013 at 5:26 PM

Back in 1985, Elizabeth Fuller had the pleasure of welcoming Bette Davis to her Connecticut home for dinner. The following day, Davis called, thanked Fuller for dinner, and asked if she could stay over for a couple of days while the hotel strike in New York sorted itself out. What was proposed as a nice little visit grew into a month-long siege and invasion, chronicled by Fuller in Me and Jezebel.

Hank West as Bette Davis and Sheila Snow Proctor as Elizabeth Fuller in QCDTs Me & Jezebel.
  • Hank West as Bette Davis and Sheila Snow Proctor as Elizabeth Fuller in QCDT's Me & Jezebel.

Queen City Theatre opens the two-person show this week at Duke Energy Theater with Hank West dressing in drag to portray the Hollywood legend and Sheila Snow Proctor taking on the role of the playwright - a chore that Fuller took on in the original 1994 New York production. To find out more details about Davis' famous house occupation, it'd be best to chat with Fuller. Here's the lowdown:

Creative Loafing: Were you accustomed to entertaining celebrities and dignitaries of Bette Davis' stature before she came to dinner?
Elizabeth Fuller: I had some distinguished friends - artists and writers - but none of the Hollywood sort and certainly none of Bette Davis' stature.

What did you served for dinner? What do you think emboldened Davis to later call you and ask to stay?
I made barbeque chicken and baked beans. When she came to stay she commented on that dinner: "Brother, the chicken was so raw it nearly pecked me!"
I don't think there was just one reason why she wanted to stay. She liked and admired my husband who was a well-known writer. She also adored our New England cottage with the barn beams and fireplaces and spacious decks overlooking the river. She was a no-nonsense New England yankee, which she reminded us over and over again, [as a] source of great pride.

Bette Davis was well known for both her temperament and her piercing intelligence, so a lengthy visit could turn into a story akin to Tuesdays With Morrie, filled with insights and sage advice, or The Man Who Came to Dinner, filled with arrogance, withering criticisms, and towering tantrums. Will Jezebel take us in the wicked direction the title implies, or is there a balance between the two types of story?
The month Bette stayed with us was the same month that her daughter's tell-all book came out and Bette was quite broken over that. That said, she had the uncanny ability to kick everything into high gear at a moment's notice. We never knew what to expect.
She was explosive, intimidating, demanding, and at rare times sentimental and kind. She especially adored our son, Christopher, who was four at the time. It was mutual. One memorable incident happened when Chris went to Bette's room with his Mickey Mouse coloring book and crayons and asked if she'd color with him. I heard Chris say, "You stay in the lines real good Bette Davis," and she responded, "Keee-ryst these ears have nothing on Gable!"

In hindsight, were you naïve about not being subjected to the Jezebel side of Davis? What was your sense of the balance between her freeloading and her generosity? Did you have to pay for her cigarettes or was she reasonably aware that she was imposing?
I was just plain thrilled to have my idol camped in our guestroom. My husband wanted her out, and that caused a bit of friction, which I wrote about in detail in my book, Me and Jezebel. Bette was about as behaved as Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner and then some. Behave and Bette are two words that do not go together.
Whenever Bette sensed that John was getting fed up with her taking over our cottage, she would take me to lunch or John and me out to a great dinner. Yes, she paid for her cigarettes, etc. She also wrote three lovely poems regarding her stay.

Is it giving away too much for you to tell us what compelled Davis to stay with you as long as she did? Was she down on her luck, lonely, or was your home in convenient proximity to some ongoing project?
Maybe it was a little bit of all of the above. In retrospect, I think she liked being with a family who loved her. My son Chris started imitating her. One evening when the babysitter arrived, Chris greeted her at the door in his new crisp, curt Bette Davis, "Keee-ryst," Chris said, "I hope you know how to play Candy Land."

Hank West as Bette Davis in QCDTs Me & Jezebel.
  • Hank West as Bette Davis in QCDT's Me & Jezebel.

How do you feel about Queen City Theatre Company casting a male actor in the role of Bette Davis? Is it a first, or are female impersonators drawn to your protagonist like bees to honey?
Me and Jezebel is usually cast with a good male actor - not a drag queen - in the role of Bette. So many people ask why a man, and my only answer is that they can usually pull it off better than a woman. I think it's something about an intrinsic understanding of the depth of the character and the struggle and raw fight to get to the top and stay there.

With all this history between you, have there been ups in downs in your regard for Bette Davis, or has it been unabashed adulation all the way?
There are ups and downs with my husband and son for whom I would take the bullet for. Of course, I felt that way about my idol. When you see the play, you will see that I came very close to telling her that it was, "Time to Go!"
I first became a Bette Davis fan because my beloved grandmother, Old Ma, was a huge, huge fan. We used to take the bus to see Bette Davis movies and then we'd write her fan letters and then save and even trade the picture postcards that Warner Bros. sent us in response to the fan letters. My Old Ma was the most important person in my life. Just before Old Ma died she whispered, "Honey, when I get to heaven I'm going to send you a message that I'm still around." I never expected Old Ma to send me Bette Davis!
My only regret was my Old Ma never got to see Bette Davis in her granddaughter's house. But at the end of Bette's stay - on her way out the door to the stretch limo - Bette said, "As you know, Bette Davis only believes in the here and now, however in the event that there's more, say hello to your Old Ma for me." And with that, she handed me a beautiful letter which she wrote about her 32-day stay.

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