Saturday, October 24, 2015

Wes Wheadon's WHEN BETTE MET MAE proves an original, exemplary hybrid documentary

Did you know that Bette Davis actually did meet Mae West -- and toward  the close of each of their legendary careers. TrustMovies didn't realize this, yet on the face of things, why wouldn't they have met -- and long before the evening that they finally did? Turns out they were fans of each other's work but chance and circumstance had decreed that they be kept apart until one autumn night in 1973 when... it happened. The film's director, Wes Wheadon, was present as this "creation" because he was a friend of both the cocktail party's host, Charles Pollack, a West Hollywood designer, Pollack's house guest, Ms Davis, and their guest, Ms West. And what a night it was -- even if, as it turns out, the (I am guessing) surreptitious tape recording Wheadon made ran out long before the evening did.

Mr. Wheadon, shown at right in present day (and  further below at the time of the event), has had the delightful and enterprising idea to hand us a very unusual combination of memorabilia and documentary using the actual tape for the audio along with acted/lip-synced visuals handled by a smart and well-cast group of actors portraying the folk who were present on this surprising, entertaining evening. His movie, WHEN BETTE MET MAE, runs only a little longer than that tape -- 63 minutes -- but for fans of both or either of these extraordinary leading ladies, the documentary will prove catnip indeed.

Shown above are, left to right the real  Davis, Wheadon and West, while below is the acting ensemble made up of Karen Teliha, Brandon Larcom and Victoria Mills, each of whom does a splendid job of  both impersonation and lip-syncing, while bringing to life these characters.

If the tape sounds a little grainy and heavy with background noise, so be it. The characters and the actors playing them soon win out over any audio defects present. And the conversation, though a little heavy on the oh-I-think-you're-so-wonderful stuff (I'm sure they did, but enough already!) eventually moves on to other more interesting subjects like work, career, men, children, acting and -- best of all -- being so popular that one is constantly impersonated..

The things we hear and learn about that latter subject are eye-opening (why West preferred  the work of Charles Pierce over that of Craig Russell, for instance), and why Davis had to put career ahead of husbands and children is another most interesting topic.

The evening -- and the movie -- is full of history and famous names, as well, so viewers may indeed learn something along with the fun of watching these two women go to town on their respective characters. Both Teliha (above) and Mills (below) have done impersonations of the respective actresses and are clearly quite gifted at it.

Narrated by whiskey-voiced Sally Kellerman, the film, as was the evening itself, is pretty much sui generis. I'm imagining that Wheadon had to wait until such time that no one else was still alive who could object and perhaps skewer the deal. But here it is at last: a meeting of minds and characters so redolent of Hollywood's heyday that I can't imagine there is not a very large audiences out there (in addition to the huge following of gay men to whom these icons mean so much) just ready to pounce on this piece of recreated, magic memorabilia.

When Bette Met Mae, is now available via Google Play -- to rent or to own. It is also expected to become available via iTunes this coming Tuesday, October 27.


Mark Desjardins said...

Wes Wheadon had the good luck as a young man to meet these two Hollywood icons. He harboured a dream of sharing the cassette tape of their candid conversation and waited until technology caught up to what he envisioned. Researching the life and times of Mae West myself I have heard many stories about her, most fiction. It is the revelations disclosed in this film that we see how human and real these two women were and the affection they had for each other. Thank you Wes!

James van Maanen said...

And thank you, Mark, for posting your commment! I think technology caught up with Wes' vision some time ago, but whatever: It's good to have this movie with us now, in any case.

Mark Desjardins said...

James, your point is well taken! A good story never grows "old" but waits patiently to be discovered by a new generation. While I know Bette Davis as an actress I was unaware of her singing ability. As a result of Wes Wheadon's documentary I have been delving deeper into her career. The paths taken by these strong women intersected often.

James van Maanen said...

Gheesh -- I was unaware of Davis' singing ability, too. What a surprise! It's difficult to imagine the musical sound that would have come out of that body and throat, but then, surprises often ARE difficult to imagine. Until we discover them.

Mark Desjardins said...

James, for big fun, check out Bette's lavish musical production number in the 1943 film, "Thank Your Lucky Stars" which I caught on television just this past week entitled "Their Either Too Young or Too Old." Plus her vinyl album recording "Miss Bette Davis" is available in CD format.

James van Maanen said...

OMG-- I watched that, too, last week -- but didn't manage to tune in in time for her number. Damn. Well, I'll have to try again next time TCM shows it. Meanwhile, I need to look into that CD. Thanks, Mark!