Bette Davis, Hollywood First Lady
Often referred to as "The First Lady of the American Screen," Bette Davis changed the way that Hollywood and the movie industry looked at women. She created a new kind of screen heroine and in an industry hitherto dominated by men she opened the door of liberation for others to follow.
She was known as an actress who could play a variety of difficult and powerful roles, and because of this she set a new standard for women on the big screen. Independent off-screen as well, her battles with studio bigwigs were legendary. With a career spanning six decades, few in the history of film rival her longevity and appeal. She received 10 Oscar nominations, and in 1977, she was the first woman to be honored with the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also the first woman to be president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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. A remarkable woman indeed.
Hollywood Actors and Actresses
- James Cagney, More Than A Gangster
One of Hollywood's most famous male stars and the cinema's quintessential "tough guy." Cagney was also an accomplished song and dance man and easily played light comedy. In 1999, the AFI ranked him at No. 8. among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time.
- Rita Hayworth, Hollywood Love Goddess
Starring in movies for nearly four decades, Rita Hayworth became one of the all-time great Hollywood legends but the careful exploitation of her as the ultimate in Hollywood 1940s desirability brought her fame and wealth, but little happiness.
- Gregory Peck
Among the names of the Hollywood great and good, few are as well-respected and universally adored as Gregory Peck. For more than fifty years, he was a major presence in the theater, on television, and most importantly, on the big screen.
- Judy Garland, The Complete Entertainer
Born into show business, Judy Garland became one of classic Hollywood's most popular musical entertainers and actresses. She was only 47 when she died in 1969 but she had already created for herself a legendary status which has increased over time.
She was born Ruth Davis on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Just before her tenth birthday, Bette's father, Harlow, left the family. Although she had little money, her mother, Ruthie, sent Bette and her sister to boarding school and then encouraged her interest in acting by taking her to New York in 1928 where she made her acting debut in 1929 in "Broken Dishes." By this time she was known as Bette (from Balzac's novel 'Cousin Bette').
In 1930, on moving to Hollywood she failed her first screen test with Goldwyn Studios, but passed on her next attempt at Universal. However, upon meeting her, Carl Laemmle, the Universal studio head at the time said, "She has as much sex appeal as Slim Somerville.... I can't imagine any guy giving her a tumble." Luckily, Bette wasn't put off.
Her first film was BAD SISTER (1931), which also featured Humphrey Bogart, but her first big success came with George Arliss in THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD (1932). It was this film which propelled Bette on the path to stardom. She was a smash when she was lent out to RKO for the role of Mildred in "Of Human Bondage" (1934), her first critically acclaimed hit. The following year she won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in "Dangerous", the first of ten times she would be nominated.
Despite her success, Warner Brothers continued to offer Bette unsatisfactory roles and in 1936 she challenged the studio by going to England to make pictures. Jack Warner sued her, and she was forced to honor her contract but upon her return the studio acknowledged her grit and talent and she was offered an improved contract and better roles. In 1939, Bette won her second Oscar for "Jezebel". She was to receive Oscar nominations the next five years in a row.
Davis became famous and often imitated for her clipped diction and distinct mannerisms (especially her extravagant cigarette smoking), and her popularity continued to grow with successes such as ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO (1940), THE LETTER (1940) with Herbert Marshall, THE LITTLE FOXES (1941) with Teresa Wright, and NOW, VOYAGER (1942) with Paul Henried.
By now she was the highest paid woman in America. Bette contributed to the war effort by helping to organize the Hollywood Canteen during World War II for soldiers passing through Los Angeles. Inspired by New York's Stage Door Canteen, Bette transformed a once-abandoned nightclub into an inspiring entertainment facility. "There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them," Bette later commented. In 1980, she was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the Defense Department's highest civilian award, for running the Hollywood Canteen.
Husbands and Children
Harmon "Ham" Nelson (1932 - 1939)
Arthur Farnsworth (1940 - 1943) (his death)
William Grant Sherry (1945 - 1950) (divorced); 1 daughter, Barbara Davis Sherry (B.D.)
Gary Merrill (1950 - 1960) (divorced) 2 adopted children, Michael & Margo (who was severely retarded).
Her career faltered in the late forties, but she came roaring back in 1950 playing the fading Broadway star Margo Channing in ALL ABOUT EVE, the Best Picture of the year. Later in the '50s, her career began to falter once more, but she came back once again in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), also starring Joan Crawford. This led to a string of gothic horror films that did little to advance Davis' reputation, but kept her in the public eye. It was also in 1962 that Davis penned her thoughtful and honest autobiography The Lonely Life. Working in movies, TV, on-stage and on one-woman lecture tours into the '70s, Davis may have been older but no less feisty and combative; her outspokenness may have unnerved some of her co-stars, but made her an ideal interview subject for young film historians and fans.
Her personal life was not as successful however, having been married four times and suffering estrangement from her daughter B.D. Her last significant film appearance was THE WHALES OF AUGUST in 1987. Bette herself once said, "I adore playing bitches ... there's a little bit of bitch in every woman; and a little bit of bitch in every man." She adopted two children, Margot and Michael, while married to her fourth husband, Gary Merrill.
At the age of 75, Bette had a mastectomy due to breast cancer. Nine days later, she suffered a stroke.
During 1988 and 1989, Davis was feted for her career achievements, receiving the Kennedy Center Honor, the Legion of Honor from France, the Campione d'Italia from Italy and the Film Society of Lincoln Center Lifetime Achievement Award. She collapsed during the American Cinema Awards in 1989 and later discovered that her cancer had returned. She recovered sufficiently to travel to Spain where she was honored at the Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival, but during her visit her health rapidly deteriorated. Too weak to make the long journey back to the U.S., she travelled to France where she died on October 6, 1989, at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
She was interred in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California, alongside her mother, Ruthie, and sister, Bobby.
Michael Merrill, Bette's son, and Kathryn Sermak, Bette's personal assistant and friend, are now the executors of her estate. In her memory, they have created The Bette Davis Foundation, which provides financial assistance to promising young actors and actresses. Meryl Streep received the first Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award at Boston University in 1998.
Davis thrust raw emotion at audiences without apology, demanding that attention be paid.
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, though her greatest successes were romantic dramas.
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.
On her tombstone is written "She did it the hard way". She did, and it paid off.
Great movies from The Golden Age
- High Noon, High Quality
One of the best Westerns ever made, with Gary Cooper at his best as the embattled Marshall standing alone, awaiting his fate at noon.
- 42nd Street, Musical Genius
A behind the scenes musical story of life on Broadway. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and features Busby Berkeley's fantastic choreography and production design. It is fast moving, refreshing and a sheer joy to watch.
- Citizen Kane, Movie Masterclass
The world's most famous and highly-rated film, with many remarkable scenes and innovative cinematic techniques. Its director, star, and producer were all the same remarkable genius - Orson Welles - who was making his film debut at the age of 25.
Bette Davis Resources
- Bette Davis
All about the wonderful Bette Davis - A full biography, filmography and gallery. All you need to know about the 'First Lady of Hollywood'.
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