It’s going to be a bumpy night.
Born on April 5th, 1908 and died on October 6th, 1989, Ruth Elizabeth “Bette” Davis was one of the greatest, if not the greatest actress from Hollywood’s Golden Era in a career spanning more than 50 years and 100 acting credits.
She was noted for playing unsympathetic, sardonic characters, and was famous for her performances in a range of film genres, from contemporary crime melodramas to historical films, suspense horror in her latter years, and occasional comedies, although her greater successes were in romantic dramas.
Bette Davis was also known for her forceful and intense style of acting. She could be combative and confrontational with studio executives and film directors, as well as with her co-stars. Her forthright manner, idiosyncratic speech, and ubiquitous cigarette contributed to a public persona that has been often imitated but certainly never bettered.
Her parents divorced when she was 10. She and her sister were raised by their mother. Her early interest was dance. To Bette, dancers led a glamorous life, but then she discovered the stage, and gave up dancing for acting. To her, it presented much more of a challenge.
After graduation from Cushing Academy, she enrolled in John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School and was the star pupil. She was in the 1923 off-Broadway play The Earth Between, and her Broadway debut in 1929 was in Broken Dishes. Late in 1930, she was hired by Universal, where she made her first film in 1931, called Bad Sister.
In 1932, she signed a seven-year deal with Warner Brothers Pictures. Her first film with them was The Man Who Played God (1932). She became a star after this appearance, known as the actress that could play a variety of very strong and complex roles. More fairly successful movies followed, but it was the role of Mildred Rogers in RKO’s Of Human Bondage (1934) that would give Bette major acclaim from the film critics. She had a significant number of write-in votes for the Best Actress Oscar, but didn’t win. Warner Bros. felt their seven-year deal with Bette was more than justified. They had a genuine star on their hands. With this success under her belt, she began pushing for stronger and more meaningful roles. In 1935, she received her first Oscar for her role in Dangerous.
For three years, Davis waded through routine or worse films at Warners until she could no longer accept sub-standard roles. She left for England and sued Warners to get out of her contract. She lost the suit, but was offered better films, most notably The Petrified Forest in 1936, reuniting with Leslie Howard, and That Certain Woman in 1937, co-starring her favourite actor Henry Fonda. Eventually, she was given the lead in Jezebel (1938), opposite Fonda again – the film that began her career-altering relationship with director William Wyler and won her a second Oscar.
Of the films that followed, many would bring memorable, iconic performances, demonstrating the remarkable range of her talents. No one more so than Leslie Crosbie in The Letter (1940), again for Wyler. For this film, he wanted Davis to tone down the trademarked mannerisms and wide-eyed stares for a subtler approach (he had her wear eyeglasses in many scenes). At first she resisted, but later admitted he was right. As a long-suffering, plantation wife, prim on the surface but yearning underneath, she is revelatory – it’s a controlled and beautifully underplayed performance, certainly one of her best, and earned her a fifth Oscar nomination. Her love for the man she had murdered was never better expressed in the way she passionately delivered her line – “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed.”
But she even managed to top this with her role as Regina Hubbard Giddens in William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941) which tells the story of the ruthless, moneyed Hubbard clan living in the Deep South at the turn of the twentieth century.
It’s an astounding performance where she earns her sixth Oscar nomination. The scene where she admits to her husband that she never loved him, and only married him for money, and the bitter, ugly words bring on a heart attack where he spills his medicine, and Regina sits, motionless, as he staggers to the stairs and collapses halfway up – it’s utterly compelling.
Davis always challenged herself to play against type, never afraid to be unlikable, or ugly in temperament and appearance. She tackled roles that other women might have refused to play.
Other great roles in this period include Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (1943), Kit Marlowe in Old Acquaintance (1943) and Fanny Trellis in Mr. Skeffington (1944).
The mid-to-late 1940s saw a dip in quality in roles and films but she roared back into top form in arguably her most famous role as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950).
Margo Channing is the role Davis was born to play. She might have been playing herself, some have said, but this was a woman Davis knew well and knew she could play, although it was first offered to Claudette Colbert. This is Davis for the ages, both camp caricature and genuine midlife crisis. It earned her a ninth Oscar nomination.
If the apogee is Margo, than everything else is post All About Eve. In the years after 1950, subsequent roles did not live up to the standards set by this extraordinary film, and her acting choices varied from noir villainess, to Elizabeth I (again), to Catherine the Great, to evil twins, to worn-down Bronx housewife, to Apple Annie. And then the forays into Grand Giuignol horror, the last resort for aged actors in the 1960s. But for Davis this was yet another triumph (and for Joan Crawford, too).
An all-out duel between sibling grotesques, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane ? (1962) was a critical and box-office success, earning Davis her final, and tenth Oscar nomination. This is a role she inhabits as she is captivating – just try to look away: the hideous makeup (her own choice), the boozed-up voice, the feeble singing, the joyful rages, the child freak dancing on the beach with ice cream cones. Weird and sad, sad, sad. Who among her peers could have set aside ego to play this woman ?
The follow-up Grand Guignol horror thriller in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) was arguably a better film although Davis was more subdued in her role.
Bette Davis remains still today the subject of debate and discussion, more so than most of her peers, whose careers have been given the certified stamp of approval, like that of Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Vivian Leigh, and Joan Crawford. Some may question her choices in the years after All About Eve, but those who do must remember that Davis was, for better or worse, a working actor her entire life, in theatre first, then film, then theatre again, and also television. But even the small screen could not contain her, nor diminish her commitment to acting.
While a few of her performances over the years may have veered into self parody, the incredible span of her career cancels out any dismissive commentaries or bad jokes. By all accounts, she was at times temperamental, opinionated, and, with age, imperious, but those are well-earned qualities for someone who was never going to win the hearts of audiences. In the end she was content to win their respect.
Every week my Mum in Auckland messages me re the tease for next weeks post and of course she knew who the topic was for this week. What I didn’t know was that Bette Davis is her favourite movie actress/star.
For me Bette Davis is a titan of cinema and arguably the greatest movie actress of them all.
There is no tease for next weeks post as this coming Saturday my wife and I will be flying out to Europe/UK for a 3 week plus holiday.
I was a bit tetchy a few days ago with my frustration of Internal Server Errors stopping me from posting which now seems to be addressed. So I’ll try to post some updates on our travels in the OT threads if and when time permits.
But to coin a movie phrase . . . I’ll be back . . . which may be a clue to the next post in November.