Is Bette Davis the Greatest Actress in the History of American Cinema?
Bette Davis may not have been a beauty but she sure could act
Bette Davis started her film career in 1930, acting in a series of films that didn’t do well at the box office. Yet the Hollywood film-making machine soon realized this petite blonde made other actresses look like kids trying out for a high school play.
Bette’s career lasted throughout Hollywood’s classic period of the talkies, along the way winning two Academy Awards for Best Actress, while competing with top talent such as Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, Vivian Leigh, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Tallulah Bankhead and the great Katharine Hepburn, the only actress from the era who could have been as good or better.
As good as Bette was, she still had battles to win. She dealt with censorship in films, namely the Hays Code enacted in 1934, which severely limited subject matter in films. Bette was also the first actress to fight the infamous “contract system,” when in 1936 she unsuccessfully tried to break her five-year deal with Warner Bros. However, Bette got the last laugh when she left Warner Bros. and turned “indie” at the center point of her career.
Though some of Bette’s movies may have been turkeys, you knew you were in for a treat when she uttered immortal lines such as “What a dump!” and “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night.” And, at some point, she may have exclaimed, “Pee-tah! Pee-tah! Pee-tah!”
Please read on about the legendary career of Bette Davis:
Bette’s Early Career
After watching a stage performance of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, Bette decided she had to be an actress, starting her career in the theatre in the late 1920s. She made her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes in 1929.
Then Bette went to Universal Studios in Hollywood and took a screen test, reclining on a couch with a succession of 15 men. She was mortified. But she eventually got a part in The Bad Sister, reportedly because she had lovely eyes. Those powerful, captivating eyes would serve Bette well in the coming years.
After playing in a six unsuccessful films, Bette left Universal and signed a five-year contract with Warner Bros., beginning a working arrangement that would certainly have its ups and downs, as Hollywood’s contract system in those days frustrated many an actor.
Bette’s first critical success came in 1934 when she played the female lead in Of Human Bondage. As with many of Bette’s performances, she played a troublesome, unlikeable woman. Many actresses had turned down the role, but Bette saw it as a challenge. She garnered a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress, but Claudette Colbert won the award for her part in It Happened One Night.
For the movie Dangerous, Bette played a fiery, fractious female and received another nomination for Best Actress. In Picture Post, E. Arnot Robertson wrote, “I think Bette Davis would probably have been burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet." This time Bette won the Oscar, but thought her performance in Of Human Bondage was better.
In 1936, Bette tried to break her contract with Warner Bros because she said they were ruining her career by making her appear in mediocre films. The litigation took place in England, where Bette eventually lost the case. (Olivia de Havilland won a similar case with Warner Bros. in 1943.) Now broke and out of work, Bette had to return to Warner Bros.
In spite of Bette’s trouble with Warner Bros. she landed a superb role, playing a spoiled southern belle in the film, Jezebel, produced in 1938. This movie marked the beginning of Bette’s work with director William Wyler, who became Bette’s favorite director, a union that almost certainly helped her win another Academy Award for Best Actress. Bette then wanted to play the part of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, but Vivian Leigh snatched the part from her. Jezebel later became known as Bette’s Gone with the Wind.
By this time Bette’s stardom was reaching its zenith. In 1940, Bette Davis was Warner Bros. most profitable star; she was also one of the top ten earners in the movie business. Then, in January 1941, Bette became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And during the war years, she was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the country’s highest civilian award for her work with the Hollywood Canteen, a nightclub where servicemen could see entertainers and movie stars before being shipped overseas.
Throughout the 1940s Bette continued acting in “women’s pictures,” often playing the “bitch” as well, picking up multiple Academy Award nominations along the way. And whatever parts she turned down or couldn’t get, Joan Crawford often got them in movies such as Mildred Pierce, for which Crawford received the Academy Award for Best Actress. These events may have fueled the well-publicized rivalry between the two stars.
Bette’s First Comeback
By 1949 Bette Davis was the highest paid woman in the U.S. Unfortunately, she was also getting older and, once again, some of her films weren’t making money. Bette thought her most recent, Beyond the Forest, was the worst she had ever made. Apparently Warner Bros. had similar thoughts, because it released Bette from her contract, making her an independent.
Many critics wondered if Bette’s career was over, though most knew her star power was undiminished. In Britain’s Picturegoer magazine Margaret Hinxman wrote:
Probably no screen actress since Garbo has been so recklessly admired and irrationally disliked as Bette Davis. She is one of those dominating personalities about whom it is almost impossible to be indifferent. Which is, I suppose, as healthy a state of affairs as any star – whose continued success, after all, depends primarily on his or her capacity to arouse the public’s interest, both approving and not so approving – could wish for.
As if to show everyone she could still wield a heavy stick, Bette starred as Margot Channing, an aging theatrical actress in All About Eve. The part was perfect for Bette and so was the script, which had as much repartee as any movie since The Philadelphia Story (1938). Incidentally, the part of Margo Channing had been written for Claudette Colbert, but Colbert hurt her back and couldn’t perform. About Bette’s comeback, famous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote:
For my money, her performance in All About Eve topped anything she ever did, including the two pictures that brought her Oscars. To a Brilliantly conceived and written part she gave everything that any director could desire. If the job doesn’t get her a third Academy Award, I’ll miss my guess.
Well, Hedda missed her guess, because Judy Holliday won the Best Actress Oscar for her part in Born Yesterday - but Bette won many other major awards for her part in All About Eve, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award, an honor that Better greatly appreciated. Moreover, All About Eve won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1950 and is often considered one of the greatest movies of all time.
Nevertheless, Bette’s career resumed its slow decline. Few of the movies she made in the 1950s were successful, though she did play Elizabeth I for the second time in The Virgin Queen (1955). At their most savage, some critics suggested that many of Bette’s performances were caricatures of herself.
Bette’s Second Comeback
Seemingly, it took awhile, but about every decade Bette Davis found a part that seemed ideal, such as in the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Bette and Joan Crawford played two aging sisters and former actresses forced by circumstances to live in an old Hollywood mansion. Bette played the part of Baby Jane Hudson, a marvelously horrible old hag who torments Crawford, her character confined to a wheelchair. (Who can forget the “rat scene” in this one?) The feud between these two middle-aged stars, seemingly competing for Oscars, really heated up during and after they made this horror film.
Thereafter the parts kept coming, as Bette acted in a succession of movies: Dead Ringer, Where Love Has Gone, in which she played twin sisters, and Hush . . .Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a cinematic success.
Work in Television
From the late 1950s through the 1970s Bette, in addition to acting in occasional stage productions, did a fair amount of work on television. In 1959, Bette acted with renowned character actor Ward Bond on an episode of Wagon Train. In 1964, Bette was cast as the lead in an Aaron Spelling sitcom entitled “The Decorator.” A pilot episode was filmed but not shown and the project terminated. In the early 1970s, Bette played the part of an arthritic safecracker in an episode of It Takes of Thief, starring Robert Wagner. And in 1973 Bette was “roasted” on Dean Martin’s variety show.
Bette continued working on television throughout the 1980s – even after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, underwent a mastectomy and thereafter suffered four strokes. Seemingly indestructible, Bette recovered and acted in Agatha Christie’s Murder with Mirrors in 1985.
Over the years, Bette also appeared on numerous talk shows and was interviewed by hosts such as Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, Dick Cavett, Larry King and David Letterman.
Bette Davis died on October 6, 1989. At the end of Mother Goddam, one of Bette’s autobiographies, she wrote, “I am truly fortunate that I have my work. I have decided that work is the one great hope, the one anchor for a satisfying life.”
Bette Davis may have acted in a few clunkers, but there was always plenty of praise and awards showered upon her by fellow actors, actresses, directors and producers. Critics certainly took notice as well. And if imitation is the sincerest from of flattery, Bette positively swam in it, for she was impersonated and copied by her contemporaries and nightclub comics as much as any actress ever. For all this, Bette Davis is perhaps the greatest actress in the history of American cinema.
Make that she definitely is the greatest because, as the words to the popular song declare, she’s got . . . Bette Davis eyes.
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© 2011 Kelley Marks