Drawing on dozens of taped interviews representing many conflicting opinions, Davis is able to build an initially confusing but ultimately complex picture of the naive young Texan who made her first film in 1939 at the age of fifteen. The Hollywood darling of the 1940’s, she is best remembered for her role in FOREVER AMBER (1947).
Davis’ underlying question is why a sweet-natured and compliant girl should have become a demanding, egocentric alcoholic. He shows how the typical American dream of Hollywood stardom during the Depression became a reality too soon for her. Her life was never her own. She was dominated at first by her hard-drinking, foul-mouthed mother and then by Darryl Zanuck and other studio bosses.
Darnell’s early inclination toward heavy drinking and verbal crudeness (echoes of her mother) is seen by Davis as a means of asserting her own personality in the face of so many pressures. In the 1950’s, just as she was achieving a degree of independence, Hollywood itself was in crisis and work was getting scarce. Her awareness that her greatest asset, her extraordinary beauty, was beginning to fade and that while she was a competent actress she would never be a great one, hastened her decline into alcoholism. A further source of unhappiness was her inability to have children; she had unsatisfactory relationships with her three husbands and her adopted daughter.
The author points up a final tragic irony—that this loveliest of women, in the hospital after being rescued from a fire at a friend’s house, was so cruelly disfigured that her adopted daughter could not bring herself to hold her hand before she died.