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1989 Look Back: The Last Films of Two Hollywood Legends

Hollywood in 1989 was a far different place than it was in the studio system heyday of the 30s through the 50s. The Old Hollywood glamour that made stars like Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn once shine bright seemed like a distant memory compared to such blatantly sexual films as Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Trying to imagine Davis' Margo Channing or Hepburn's Holly Golightly appearing alongside the neon prints and leg warmers of the 80's is ludicrous. Except that both of these legendary Best Actresses happened to still be making films in 1989, decades after they had first achieved stardom. Sadly, 1989 would be the last year that both actresses would appear again on the big screen and what's worse, neither of their films (Wicked Stepmother and Always) would contribute much to their cinematic legacy.

more after the jump

Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn were never exactly contemporaries. By the time Audrey won her Best Actress Oscar for 1953's Roman Holiday, Bette had already received both her Oscars (for Dangerous and Jezebel) and garnered 9 of her eventual 10 nominations. Yet both were unquestionably legends (appearing atop AFI's list of the Greatest Stars at number 2 and 3, respectively) with distinct personalities that would define their celebrity. Their other-worldly qualities seemed to have also found their way into their swan songs; each film seems to be a nod to the actresses themselves. The innocent, gamine Audrey played the part of an angel and the brash, volatile Bette played a witch. (Hey, she had probably been called a lot worse...) 

Why exactly Bette agreed to appear in the hilariously awful Wicked Stepmother for horror director Larry Cohen, doesn't make much sense. But then, nothing about the film (which he allegedly wrote specifically for Bette after seeing her present at the Golden Globes) ever does. The plot about a yuppie, vegetarian couple that come home from vacation to find that their father has married a chain-smoking, mystery meat-cooking woman probably wasn't that coherent even before changes were made to account for the absence of Davis. After she leaves about a half-hour into the film, a half-assed attempt is made to salvage the plot, but it can never keep straight if Bette's Miranda now resides in the body of a cigarette-toting cat or her younger daughter Priscilla (played by Barbara Carrera) and sometimes she's in both at the same time. 

The reason Bette left the project in the middle of filming depends entirely on who you believe. She says that she left the production when she realized how awful the script was (you think she would've realized that before they started) and the harmful way she was treated on set (a special effect involving a self-lighting cigarette caused her famous eyes to be burnt). Cohen states that the 80-year-old actress' health was to blame. Claiming that her dental bridge broke, making it hard for her to recite her lines and that the strokes she had suffered had made her uncomfortable about how she looked in the dailies. He says she lied about her exit so that future film projects wouldn't be worried about hiring her. I'm inclined to think it's probably a little bit of both since Bette is frighteningly frail and sickly looking in the film with a reedy voice that seems to be struggling to remember lines. But she probably also realized that the film was actually terrible and wanted to get the hell out while she still could. 

She died only a few months after the film was released. 

Cohen probably meant well by her and she surely initially agreed because she loved acting and with a filmography of over 100 films was the kind of star who just kept working. The film also lovingly pays homage to Davis and other classic stars in different ways throughout the film. During one point, while searching for Bette, the camera zooms in on a mural painted on a wall in Hollywood of the actress during her Warner Bros days. Early on, mention is made of her new husband's first wife while photos jokingly reveal her to be rival Joan Crawford. Evelyn Keyes, who played Scarlett's sister, Suellen, in Gone With the Wind, also makes an appearance as the head mistress of a witch school. There's also a Wizard of Oz reference, though you'd expect that with a film about witches.

But the finished film, which seems like it should be for kids if it weren't for the random curse words and out-of-place sexual content (Bette brags about how fantastic her sex life is with her new husband), was never going to be the career comeback that Bette had hoped for. The other actors are appallingly terrible and it's not even campy enough to make it a So Bad It's Good perennial. It's just bad. If you don't believe me, see for yourself. If only Cohen had the decency to cut Bette out completely, allowing 1987's The Whales of August to have remained her last big-screen effort. 

Luckily, the angelic Audrey Hepburn fared much better in her final film appearance as Hap in Steven Spielberg's Always. The film was a remake of the 1943 movie A Guy Named Joe and starred Richard Dreyfuss as an aerial firefighter that dies in a mission. He's sent back to earth to help provide inspiration to another pilot (Brad Johnson) who happens to be romancing Dreyfuss' former girlfriend played by Holly Hunter. Audrey's part in the film is little more than a cameo as she only appears in about 6 minutes of the entire film.

Unlike workhorse Davis, Audrey Hepburn only made about 20 films during her career and after 1967 was in semi-retirement, moving to Europe to raise a family with her psychiatrist husband. She appeared in only 4 more films before her death in 1993. After Sean Connery turned down the part in Always, Spielberg asked Hepburn without actually thinking she would accept. She worked for a week on the film and donated her entire 1 million salary to the cause that was most important to her in her later life, UNICEF; she was just as saintly off-screen as she was in her final role.

Hepburn reportedly provided her own wardrobe for the film (white oversized, cable knit sweater and white capris - an homage to her signature style and variation on the look in Funny Face that she would make famous) and was still as radiant as ever. Not really playing much of a character, her natural warmth fits the part and she even makes a pretend haircut look not quite as hokey as it actually is. (Seriously, why don't her scissors even come close to Dreyfuss' head? She could have just as easily been using her fingers and gotten the same effect.) Although the film was not a typical success for Spielberg (it debuted in fifth place on its opening weekend), it was hardly the disaster that Wicked Stepmother was for Bette Davis. But if either film made new audiences seek out the past work of the stars, they were worth it. Even 25 years after their final film appearances as angels and demons, Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn are still two of Hollywood's greatest.

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Reader Comments (11)

An interesting post about 2 legends of cinema. I didn't see "Wicked Stepmother", but I have seen some of Bette Davis's later work most notably "Death on the Nile" She clearly loved to work, and like other aging thespians did not wish to go gently into that good night.

Audrey Hepburn aged gracefully both on screen and off screen, and when casting an angel who better than the gamine Hepburn? It was a nice grace note to end on, and fitting for someone so at ease with themselves.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I just watched Always and realised I miss Dreyfuss,Hepburns cameo was nice to see and her old fashoined style jelled with the film,i think Hunter was fab as usual,why did projects never materialise for her.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

I always loved Bette's campy delivery of the line "Something borrowed Something blue".

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

Thank you for this wonderful piece. Bette and Audrey are to of my all time favorites. They both were unique ladies--glamorous, vibrant, inimitable, iconic--and will never come again. I think it would have been fascinating to see them work together. They come from such different schools of acting and have such contrasting personas--the result would have been fascinating to see.

I have yet to see either of their last films, but I truly don't think I could sully my memory of Bette by watching this version of Wicked. Egads.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Nice article. Always was a fine way for Audrey to wrap it up. It's overlong which makes it a bit tedious by the end but her small part is well done by both she and Dreyfuss. It was great that she exited still looking like herself and exuding that effortless glamour and charisma that was her trademark.

I wish I could say the same for poor Bette. True Wicked Stepmother isn't the truly ghastly ending that Veronica Lake had in Flesh Fest and may even be a step above Joan's Trog, but only slightly. It's too bad she didn't let The Whales of August be her swan song as Lillian Gish did. It's not a great film but certainly a good one and a fine grace note to bow out on. Unfortunately we're stuck with this stinker which would be best forgotten.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

These women have two of the best entrance scenes in film history. Bette in All about Eve when she appears at the top of the staircase with the line: "Fasten your seat belts....." and Hepburn in the Louvre in Funny Face when she appears from behind Winged Victory (Every time I'm in Paris, I go to the Louvre just to see that staircase, the statue and relive the magic of that moment....I'm probably on some facial recognition warning list at this point.). It was a style of acting that made people want to go to the movies and dream of another life than the one they had. Nice piece. Thank you for writing it.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Is it wrong to LOVE Always? Because I do.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Loved this piece. Bette really was just a workaholic. I think the latest film of her's that I've seen is BURNT OFFERINGS.

It's funny though how this industry is one of the few where people don't understand "retirement".

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

starring in a spielberg film with three oscar winners? i predict big things for that brad johnson....

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

thanks for all the kind comments, everyone! loved writing about two of my favorite actresses and sharing some of their lesser known work. although neither film wold rank high in their filmography, it's great that both were still in love with their craft to still keep working - especially bette. i'm sure that still having her work made her live as long as she did.

cal - haha! anything that employs Audrey Hepburn AND Holly Hunter can't be all that bad...

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

What a great read.

It actually makes me wanna see both of these films (which previously sounded terrible)

August 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

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