Today is the 109th birthday of Bette Davis. You have seen All About Eve, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, and maybe even Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and The Nanny. But have you seen Madame Sin, Return From Witch Mountain or her episode of To Catch a Thief? You must.
“But you ARE, Blanche. You ARE in that chair.”
BEST KNOWN FOR: Actress Bette Davis is one of Hollywood’s most famous leading ladies, whose raw, unbridled intensity kept her at the top of her profession for 50 years.
Ruth Elizabeth “Bette” Davis (April 5, 1908 – October 6, 1989) was an American actress of film, television and theater. Noted for her willingness to play unsympathetic characters, she was highly regarded for her performances in a range of film genres, from contemporary crime melodramas to historical and period films and occasional comedies, although her greatest successes were her roles in romantic dramas.
After appearing in Broadway plays, Davis moved to Hollywood in 1930, but her early films for Universal Studios were unsuccessful. She joined Warner Bros. in 1932 and established her career with several critically acclaimed performances. In 1937, she attempted to free herself from her contract and although she lost a well-publicized legal case, it marked the beginning of the most successful period of her career. Until the late 1940s, she was one of American cinema‘s most celebrated leading ladies, known for her forceful and intense style. Davis gained a reputation as a perfectionist who could be highly combative, and confrontations with studio executives, film directors and costars were often reported. Her forthright manner, clipped vocal style and ubiquitous cigarette contributed to a public persona which has often been imitated and satirized.
Davis was the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, and was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress twice, was the first person to accrue 10 Academy Award nominations for acting, and was the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Her career went through several periods of eclipse, and she admitted that her success had often been at the expense of her personal relationships. Married four times, she was once widowed and thrice divorced, and raised her children as a single parent. Her final years were marred by a long period of ill health, but she continued acting until shortly before her death from breast cancer, with more than 100 films, television and theater roles to her credit. In 1999, Davis was placed second, after Katharine Hepburn, on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest female stars of all time.
In 1964, Jack Warner spoke of the “magic quality that transformed this sometimes bland and not beautiful little girl into a great artist”, and in a 1988 interview, Davis remarked that, unlike many of her contemporaries, she had forged a career without the benefit of beauty. She admitted she was terrified during the making of her earliest films and that she became tough by necessity. “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you are not a star”, she said, “[but] I’ve never fought for anything in a treacherous way. I’ve never fought for anything but the good of the film.” During the making of All About Eve, (1950) Joseph L. Mankiewicz told her of the perception in Hollywood that she was difficult, and she explained that when the audience saw her on screen, they did not consider that her appearance was the result of numerous people working behind the scenes. If she was presented as “a horse’s ass … forty feet wide, and thirty feet high”, that is all the audience “would see or care about”.
While lauded for her achievements, Davis and her films were sometimes derided; Pauline Kael described Now, Voyager (1942) as a “shlock classic”, and by the mid-1940s her sometimes mannered and histrionic performances had become the subject of caricature. Edwin Schallert for the Los Angeles Times praised Davis’s performance in Mr. Skeffington (1944), while observing, “the mimics will have more fun than a box of monkeys imitating Miss Davis“, and Dorothy Manners at the Los Angeles Examiner said of her performance in the poorly received Beyond the Forest (1949), “no night club caricaturist has ever turned in such a cruel imitation of the Davis mannerisms as Bette turns on herself in this one”. Time magazine noted that Davis was compulsively watchable even while criticizing her acting technique, summarizing her performance in Dead Ringer (1964) with the observation, “her acting, as always, isn’t really acting: it’s shameless showing off. But just try to look away!”
She attracted a following in the gay subculture and was frequently imitated by female impersonators such as Tracey Lee and Charles Pierce. Attempting to explain her popularity with gay audiences, the journalist Jim Emerson wrote, “Was she just a camp figurehead because her brittle, melodramatic style of acting hadn’t aged well? Or was it that she was ‘Larger Than Life,’ a tough broad who had survived? Probably some of both.”
Her film choices were often unconventional; she sought roles as manipulators and killers in an era when actresses usually preferred to play sympathetic characters, and she excelled in them. She favored authenticity over glamour and was willing to change her own appearance if it suited the character. Claudette Colbert commented that Davis was the first actress to play roles older than herself, and therefore did not have to make the difficult transition to character parts as she aged.
As she entered old age, Davis was acknowledged for her achievements. John Springer, who had arranged her speaking tours of the early 1970s, wrote that despite the accomplishments of many of her contemporaries, Davis was “the star of the thirties and into the forties”, achieving notability for the variety of her characterizations and her ability to assert herself, even when her material was mediocre. Individual performances continued to receive praise; in 1987, Bill Collins analyzed The Letter (1940), and described her performance as “a brilliant, subtle achievement”, and wrote, “Bette Davis makes Leslie Crosbie one of the most extraordinary females in movies.” In a 2000 review for All About Eve, (1950) Roger Ebert noted, “Davis was a character, an icon with a grand style, so even her excesses are realistic.” In 2006, Premiere magazine ranked her portrayal of Margo Channing in the film as fifth on their list of “100 Greatest Performances of All Time”, commenting, “There is something deliciously audacious about her gleeful willingness to play such unattractive emotions as jealousy, bitterness, and neediness.” While reviewing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) in 2008, Ebert asserted that “no one who has seen the film will ever forget her.”
A few months before her death in 1989, Davis was one of several actors featured on the cover of Life magazine. In a film retrospective that celebrated the films and stars of 1939, Life concluded that Davis was the most significant actress of her era, and highlighted Dark Victory (1939) as one of the most-important films of the year. Her death made front-page news throughout the world as the “close of yet another chapter of the Golden Age of Hollywood”. Angela Lansbury summed up the feeling of those of the Hollywood community who attended her memorial service, commenting after a sample from Davis’s films were screened, that they had witnessed “an extraordinary legacy of acting in the twentieth century by a real master of the craft”, that should provide “encouragement and illustration to future generations of aspiring actors”.
In 1977, Davis became the first woman to be honored with the AFI Life Achievement Award. In 1999, the American Film Institute published its list of the “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Stars“, which was the result of a film-industry poll to determine the “50 Greatest American Screen Legends” in order to raise public awareness and appreciation of classic film. Of the 25 actresses listed, Davis was ranked at number two, behind Katharine Hepburn.
The United States Postal Service honored Davis with a commemorative postage stamp in 2008, marking the 100th anniversary of her birth. The stamp features an image of her in the role of Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950). The First Day of Issue celebration took place September 18, 2008, at Boston University, which houses an extensive Bette Davis archive. Featured speakers included her son Michael Merrill and Lauren Bacall.
In 1997, the executors of her estate, Michael Merrill, her son, and Kathryn Sermak, her former assistant, established “The Bette Davis Foundation” which awards college scholarships to promising actors and actresses.