Beatrice Vivian Divic, 1925-2013

By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid


Besedka Johnson, nee Beatrice Vivian Divic

Beatrice Vivian Divic was born in Detroit in 1925.  She eventually had aspirations of becoming a model and in her late teens she went to Los Angeles to chase her dream. 

I know what you’re thinking — Beatrice Vivian Divic is the birth name of some star who went to Hollywood and later changed her name to June Lockhart or Dorothy Malone or Angela Lansbury, all of whom were also born in 1925.  But no, Ms. Divic’s life in Southern California followed a more traditional path.

In her late 20’s she married a painter named Johnson — an artist, not a house painter — whose first name, alas, remains unknown. Together they had three children, Jim, Marc and Lloyd. They divorced about ten years later.

Los Angeles Times reporter Valerie J. Nelson said that after the divorce “Johnson took acting lessons as a sort of therapy,” but never had any visions of becoming a professional actress. She soon remarried but that union also dissolved after ten years.

Now known as Johnson, she became a successful entrepreneur, opening a dress shop called Besedka in Woodland Hills and eventually another Besedka in North Hollywood.  According to the NewYork Times, she practiced yoga for much of her life. She moved to the Bay Area for a period and managed a condominium in San Francisco, but eventually came back to L.A.  Like so many of the seniors Age Well serves, in her later years she developed knee problems and worked out regularly as a form of physical therapy.

We’ve all heard the story of how the actress Lana Turner was “discovered” while sipping a soda at Schwab’s Drugstore on Hollywood Boulevard.  (If you’re too young to have heard that story and in fact have no clue who Lana Turner was, trust me, that’s how it happened and Ms. Turner went on to have a wildly successful Hollywood career.)

Ms. Johnson, who had long since adopted the first name of Besedka, was also discovered, not at Schwab’s but working out at a North Hollywood YWCA when she was 85. In 2011, the producers of the independent film Starlet were two weeks away from beginning shooting and still had not found an older actress to play Sadie opposite 21-year-old Dree Hemingway, the daughter of Mariel Hemingway.  In what can best be described as serendipity, Shih-Ching Tsou, an executive on Starlet, was working out at the same time as Besedka Johnson.

“When I saw her at the gym, I was stunned,” Ms. Tsou recalled in an interview with the New York Times. “I thought, ‘This lady is who we are looking for.’ ”

Ms. Tsou asked Ms. Johnson if she would be interested in playing the role. She was flattered but skeptical, so she told her son Jim who is in the film industry. “Mom,” he said to her, “do you know how many waiters and waitresses have slaved throughout their lives for the chance to get to do what you’re doing? Do it!”

So she did.

The film is about a growing and not always harmonious relationship between 21-year-old Jane (Hemingway) and 85-year-old Sadie (Johnson) after Jane discovers a hidden stash of money inside an object at Sadie’s yard sale.

The reviews were very good.

“The relationship,” said Entertainment Weekly, “unfolds with a matter-of-fact integrity that accepts all personal quirks, weaknesses, and sorrows as human and worthy of love.”

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, a notoriously tough critic, wrote, “A model, Ms. Hemingway… has appeared in only a few films and is a spectacular find, as is Ms. Johnson, a longtime Angeleno making a true, piercing screen debut.”

Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars and wrote of Ms. Hemingway and Ms. Johnson, “These two women, so very different, are the film’s heart and soul, inviting us to decide for ourselves what’s beneath their seemingly obvious facades.”

Besedka Johnson reportedly was an extremely nice person who was sensitive to the feelings of others, but the character of Sadie required that from time to time she be mean and antagonistic. Starlet director Sean Baker told the L.A. Times that after a scene required her to be particularly abrasive to Hemingway, Johnson “would turn to Dree and apologize for the way she was acting. It was so sweet.”

By all accounts Besedka Johnson thoroughly enjoyed her relatively brief moment in the sun, speaking at showings of Starlet and traveling to film festivals in Mill Valley, Austin, Texas, and elsewhere. After the movie’s critical success, several directors approached Ms. Johnson with offers of other roles but unfortunately she fell ill from an infection.  In early April she died in a Glendale Hospital.  She is survived by her three sons and by thousands of ardent fans who last year at this time had never heard of Besedka Johnson. She lives on, however, in Starlet, which is almost sure to become a cult classic.

Coming up on the Age Well Calendar:

Monday, June 3: Clyde Wright Invitational Golf Tournament. Benefiting Meals on Wheels and other Senior Services. 11 a.m. shotgun start at the Aliso Viejo Country Club. Golf plus continental breakfast, box lunch, buffet dinner, and prizes for contests.  For more info, call (949) 855-8033.

Saturday, June 29: Casino Night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Clubhouse 5 in Laguna Woods Village. For $25, you get admission, $100 in play money, a bountiful snack table, and the opportunity to win some great raffle prizes. This is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Florence Sylvester Center, thanks to the generosity of many individuals and businesses and the outstanding support of Saddleback Kiwanis. Tickets available at the door and at the Florence Sylvester Senior Center.

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