Saturday, October 11, 2008

Whitewashing History's Dustbins

Roger Ebert looks at the new Bette Davis stamp and asks about her missing cigarette:
Depriving Bette Davis of her cigarette reminds me of Soviet revisionism, when disgraced party officials disappeared from official photographs. Might as well strip away the toupees of Fred Astaire and Jimmy Stewart. I was first alerted to this travesty by a reader, Wendell Openshaw of San Diego, who wrote me: "Do you share my revulsion for this attempt to revise history and distort a great screen persona for political purposes? It is political correctness and revisionist history run amok. Next it will be John Wayne holding a bouquet instead of a Winchester!"

The great Chicago photographer Victor Skrebneski took one of the most famous portraits of Davis. I showed him the stamp. His response: "I have been with Bette for years and I have never seen her without a cigarette! No cigarette! Who is this imposter?"[...]

Look, I hate smoking. It took my parents from me, my father with lung cancer, my mother with emphysema. They both liked Luckies. When my dad's cancer was diagnosed, they played it safe and switched to Winstons. When my mother was breathing oxygen through a tube, she'd take out the tube, turn off the oxygen, and light up. I avoid smokers. It isn't allowed in our house. When I see someone smoking, it feels like I'm watching them bleed themselves, one drip at a time.

So we've got that established. On the other hand, I have never objected to smoking in the movies, especially when it is necessary to establish a period or a personality... Two of the most wonderful props in film noir were cigarettes and hats.
I likewise object, but I also can't believe that (so long as they were Photoshopping) they didn't change the pose of Davis's hand. It wouldn't have been hard to do just her face and fur coat. I'm guessing some higher-up had a last-minute crisis of courage, else they would have picked a different portrait or done a retouch that makes sense before sending the stamp to print.

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