Bette Davis, Hollywood First Lady

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Bette Davis

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.

Bette on the right with her mother and sister
Bette on the right with her mother and sister

Early Years

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.

The young actress
The young actress

Stardom

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.

All about Eve (1950)
All about Eve (1950)

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).

Baby Jane
Baby Jane

Later Life

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.

Summary

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.[75]

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.

The First Lady of Hollywood
The First Lady of Hollywood

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Comments 9 comments

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

Great informative hub! I always liked Bette Davis. I remember that she collected buttons later in life and wore a hat full of them on TV talk shows.


gunsock profile image

gunsock 8 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thanks Patty. That's something i didn't know! Its personal details like that which bring a character to life.


MrMarmalade profile image

MrMarmalade 8 years ago from Sydney

All those people bring back some wonderful memories.

Perhaps I fell in love with Grace Kelly the most.

Thanks for a great hub


VickeyK profile image

VickeyK 8 years ago

Love Bette Davis! Thanks for a great hub!


alan-knows 8 years ago

Bette Davis's daughter Margo, is actually mildly mentally retard but is mentally ill. Was hospitalized at State Hospitals in Pennsylvannia for a years and later transferred by her brother to a long term mental hospital in Mass. so she could be closer to him. Although he rarely if ever visited her in PA, maybe he's able to there. She would often come up to other patients visitors and tell them that she was Bette Davis's. They would then usually smile and nod their heads and think sure you are we at a metal hospital. I beleave see was moved around 2003 to a Mass. facility.


Woody McBreairty 8 years ago

I had the pleasure of meeting Bette Davis numerous times through the years. I remember when whe was signing her record album "Miss Bette Davis" in the 70's I think. It was at Don Ovens' "Celebrity Records" in West Hollywood. She wrote "Happy Birthday Woody, Bette Davis" on the album cover in red ink. I took a few pictures and still have them. I actually supplied the desk she used for that signing. It came from "Italian Accents", a showroom then on Robertson Blvd. I also went to her book signing on Hollywood Blvd. for "This n' That". I remember Arturo of "Arturo's Flowers" gave everyone a rose to put in a basket by her side. He secretary was very dominating at that event and acted like the people who came to get a book signed were an enemy and she was a little hostile, so this event wasn't nearly as much fun as the record album signing. Bette Davis lived at the Colonial House in West Hollywood, which was her residence at the time she died in Paris. I lived within blocks of her for years and was always thrilled to be passing the home of Bette Davis so often. Of course I have heard many stories from people who lived in the same building with her at the time but I never once spotted her coming or going from her building.


K8 N profile image

K8 N 7 years ago from Arizona

Another great hub. I was in Laguna Beach recently and looked up things to do while in Laguna Beach and came across an article that said "See Bette Davis' House"...apparently she lived there during the 1940s so of course I checked it out...a beautiful old house right on the sand overlooking a gorgeous private beach and ocean...took some great photos...and from the private beach you can see BD written on the chimney and there is a plaque with her name on it on the front entrance.


Bobby D. 6 years ago

I knew Miss Davis in Westport, CT in the late 70s and early 80s.

She lived on 1 Crooked Mile Rd in Westport.

She frequented the restaurant I managed and was very quiet and gracious whenever she came by. Guests always stared and usually stopped by her table and said a quick and tastefull hello. She never minded. She signed many photos for me and asked where I got them from and how many years it took me to collect them.

I have a couple of thank you letters she sent to me.

There will never be another like her!!


gunsock profile image

gunsock 6 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thats a really interesting personal insight, Bobby D. Betty was a true First Lady.

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