‘When Bette Davis Bids Farewell’ (‘El ultimo adios de Bette Davis’): San Sebastian Review

A poignant glimpse into the life of a fading Hollywood icon   

A documentary record of Bette Davis’ final days at Spain's main film festival, done with all due dignity and respect

Bette Davis’ final public appearance was twenty five years ago at the 1989 San Sebastian film festival in Spain, and her death, which she knew was imminent, followed shortly after in a French hospital. These events have given her a special place in the hearts of those Spanish film aficionados who were desperate for a little glamor after forty years of Franco, and When Bette Davis Bids Farewell works up the story of those few days into an affectionate, fun homage which is sometimes humorous, sometimes touching, and always respectful.

A bit of transitional business involving cardboard cutouts of San Sebastian apart, director Pedro Gonzalez Bermudez takes a straightforwardly linear approach, recounting in almost hour-by hour detail events from the actress’ arrival at San Sebastian airport to her final departure for France. He has done good work in digging out practically everyone who had any direct dealings with her during those few days, and some who did not, but who are aware of the cultural significance of Bette Davis’ last farewell.

Foremost among them is the affable former director of the festival, Diego Galan, who has told these stories a thousand times before: interestingly, Davis agreed to attend as part of a retrospective on James Whale, at which point the entire focus of the retrospective changed. Others include Kathryn Sermak, her personal assistant, who looked after "Miss Davis" with all the control she demanded. Strangely, but with a real sense of drama, Sermak recounts these historical events in the present tense.

The best value for money is the delightfully theatrical Jaime Azpilicueta, the festival’s set designer, a fine raconteur who has presumably been dining out on this for years and who has it down to perfection, imitating Bette Davis’ legendary way with a cigarette and nailing her in a single phrase when he talks of her mala leche preciosa — a Spanish phrase loosely translatable as "beautiful bitchiness."

Bette Davis was a star, and stars can be demanding: her cab driver from the airport had to be English speaking but was not, so a bystander was surreally commandeered into driving her to her hotel. One of her suitcases — there were an estimated 30-50 of them — went missing, and there was hell to pay. Her terrified makeup artist made herself up to look older when she met the actress, who has dismissed someone else earlier that day as a mere girl.

But when stars fade, the human being beneath shows through. Davis was genuinely moved by by adulation she received during her few days in Spain. Eager to maintain her mystique to the end, she refused to be photographed in her wheelchair. There were to be no photographers at her press conference, at which she told half of Spain that her love life has been a total disaster, and the precise number of steps which this frighteningly frail, defiant old lady would have to take had to be counted out in advance. She wore a wig, and her eyebrows were makeup.

Occasionally, the film moves beyond the anecdotal into wider reflection. Opposite the star’s hotel window was a huge model of Tim Burton’s Batman, which was playing that year. Davis found it "aggressive," in Sermak’s words, and the script takes the chance to contrast the old, glamorous Hollywood in its death throes with the new, technological Hollywood

Guillermo Farre’s string-based score is effective but overused, and strangely there are no film clips, but plenty of posed stills. There is some reflection from a couple of speakers about how whether what they’re remembering is the truth, or whether they’re just remembering their own retellings. But it really doesn’t matter in an openly hagiographic film like this, where nobody’s going to care very much if a good story gets in the way of the truth.

"Miss Davis," Diego Galan told the star on her final stage appearance, "ẁe all love you"; and the viewer walks out of this film with the touching sense that although Bette Davis may have died far from home, her final farewell at least took place among people who indeed all loved her.

Production company: TCM
Director: Pedro Gonzalez Bermudez
Screenwriters: Pedro Gonzalez Bermudez, Juan Zavala
Executive producers: Javier Morales, Juan Zavala
Director of photography: Raul Cadenas
Composer: Guillermo Farre
Sales: TCM

No rating
76 minutes