The magic and acclaim of Jessica Sherr's 'Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies'

FLINT, Michigan — New York native Jessica Sherr, writer and performer of the critically acclaimed play Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, and I laugh at my comment of Sherr channeling Davis’ attitude as to why she’s late for our Zoom meeting. “Who knew I was such an actress,” she says sarcastically as we jokingly banter back and forth. However, the truth is Sherr is that good of an actress.

“New York is very grounded, and people do good work here,” which shows having spent years perfecting her craft. Critics laud Sherr’s play and performance as “worthy of an Oscar,” “captivating,” and that audiences “will fall in love with Jessica Sherr and Bette Davis (again).”

Sherr vividly recreates Bette Davis’ life for me as “a young fiery trailblazer” through meticulous research and dissection. As our conversation continues, she tells me about the people who’ve stopped her on the street or subway to say,” you look like a young Bette Davis,” and during our talk, her voice shifts ever so slightly that it feels like I am talking to a young Bette Davis.

However, this play extends beyond something traditional as Sherr explains how Kathryn Sermak, Davis’s former assistant and co-executor of her estate, gave her advice and presented her with Davis’ scarf, handkerchief, and gloves, all worn in the show. Flintside caught up with Sherr in her New York home to talk about inspiration, contemporary issues, and the magic of acting.

"You do all your homework, do all your research, and then throw it out the window and say, this is what I’m going to bring to the table." - Jessica Sherr

Flintside: What inspired you to do a one-woman play about an iconic figure like Bette Davis?

Jessica Sherr: “I always joke that maybe she picked me because I wasn’t a big Bette fan before this all happened. I feel like sometimes she chose me to choose, and I fell in love with the younger Bette. Originally, this occurred because I was in New York where I live, and I was on the street, and people would stop me and say, you look like a young Bette Davis. But then I was in a class and created the Bette Davis character, and it took off, and all of a sudden, things were working out. That’s why I believe in synchronicity in the world, especially as a creative person. Like, the universe was [saying] 'recognize there’s something here.' So that’s when I decided that I had to do something epic.”  

Flintside: The show’s title, Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, is quite peculiar. We think of modern culture and how the term 'sissy' is used derogatorily towards men. But, it seems on par with Davis’ personality during that era. What are your thoughts?

Jessica Sherr: “Bette Davis gave it to me cause she has a famous quote where she says, 'old age ain’t for sissies.' I was in the gym, I used to be a personal trainer, and working with one of my clients. I was like, I gotta think of a title, and we were doing bicep curls. She’s got this quote about 'ain’t for sissies,' and I was like, Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies!, and we were like 'that’s it.' I felt we needed to have a title where Bette was in it — I needed to feel her. She’s feisty and would say things. We’ve had so much to that word that I think it’s different than when she was using it, but still very controversial.”

Flintside: How have you come to embody Bette Davis so well?

Jessica Sherr: “I mean, that’s part of the actor’s magic. You do all your homework, do all your research, and then throw it out the window and say, this is what I’m going to bring to the table. I think there’s moments where who she was is so in me that it just comes out. [But] I’ll never be Bette Davis, and I think I fight people on this. Wynn Handman taught us as actors; he used to say, 'you agitate from the essence of being of who that person is.' [So] you have to agitate and bubble inside and then bring it out on stage. But a lot of it is you do your homework, read your books, and watch her.”

Flintside: Davis’s life in Hollywood seems tumultuous and inspiring simultaneously. She dealt with an industry that didn’t value or respect her. Yet, she still won 2 Academy Awards. As an actress yourself, do you find your journey as colorful?

Jessica Sherr: “I mean, hers was epically colorful! I’m amazed at all those actresses and actors of that time. And part of it was because the studio system smartly created these larger-than-life personalities — they [made] stars. There’s who she was, Ruth Elizabeth Davis, and there was Bette Davis. In my play, I show people both. It’s made me aware of how much I love performing, and the reality of this is life. Life isn’t always high heels and makeup. It is more so, you know, low flats, and you’re late for your Zoom call. I’m pretty grounded. I don’t choose to be on all the time. Exercise makes me way [happier] than buying an expensive purse.” 

Critics laud Sherr’s play and performance as “worthy of an Oscar,” “captivating,” and that audiences “will fall in love with Jessica Sherr and Bette Davis (again).”
Flintside: I juxtapose Davis’ life to contemporary issues. Women have advanced tremendously, but we think of recent things like the #metoo movement and the push in Hollywood for all women writers, production crew, and directors. What’s the importance for you to put on this production?

Jessica Sherr: “I think the ethically interesting thing is Bette warned us 60 years ago. She was like, 'help us out here!' but there was absolutely no platform for her. It was the point where the studio system had so much more money they could blacklist you. Jack Warner, at one point, was a friend, and then he’s your best enemy. So it was interesting, the psychological dynamic. But also, she’s in a seven-year contract. She was fighting because she was being paid $400 per week, and in the beginning, that’s great. But then you [become an] Oscar-winning actress, you’re five years into your contract, and you’re [still] being paid $400. So I mean, we’re still far from what it should be.”

Flintside: Do we have to know Bette Davis to enjoy the show for those in attendance?

Jessica Sherr: “I think during COVID, I realized how important us being together is. I was doing a lot of performing on Zoom, and it’s different — it’s not the same. I had a show a few months ago, and everyone was wearing a mask, but I could hear laughter, and it was so cool to hear. I always like it when audiences allow themselves to go on the journey. Allow yourself to know nothing about [Bette Davis]. Come to the show, know nothing, with no expectations, and you’ll be entertained. It’s an original story that I wrote, and it’s not what they’ve seen because nobody knows this story of her. It’s not me mimicking Bette. It’s a real story about a woman fighting in Hollywood, and that’s inspiring.”

Flintside: What last impression do you want to leave with readers who may be on the fence about coming to see the show?

Jessica Sherr: “I mean, don’t procrastinate. Don’t stay home and watch Netflix. Come see a really good theatrical performance, which will make you feel alive and want to be better in your life. Theater people are fascinating folks. They’re not like any other audience cause they’re there to support the arts. So I feel, you know, don’t be lazy. Buy a ticket in advance, dress up, come looking good, and watch the show.”

For more Jessica Sherr, visit her website. In addition, her critically acclaimed play, Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, arrives at The Capitol Theatre in downtown Flint at 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 10. Tickets are on sale now.

Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.