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‘Star Persona’ of Better Davis

Updated on June 20, 2018
Bette Davis
Bette Davis | Source

Born in 1908 as Ruth Elizabeth Davis, Bette Davis is a two-time award winning actor, who was considered ‘a strong-willed independent thinker as confrontational as any man’ (Life of Bette Davis, 2009). Bette Davis was not a typical Hollywood actress but her star persona made a lasting impression, especially during her time at Warner Brothers. In 1931, Bette Davis signed a seven-year contract with the Warner Brothers studio, but as Margo Channing famously said, it was going to be ‘a bumpy night’ (All About Eve, 1950). Davis was unhappy with the roles given to her; she was a contract player with small parts, a low salary and often leant to different studios such as Universal Pictures for the film Seed (1931, John M. Stahl). It was only in 1936 when Davis fled to England that her star persona became established. She was by sued Warner Brothers, and though she inevitably lost, her roles from then on became bigger and better. Films such as Marked Woman (1936, Lloyd Bacon) and Jezebel (1938, William Wyler) defined her style; a ‘deliberate, clipped vocal inflection, darting eyes and penetrating stares, swinging, striding walk’ and ‘clenching fists’ (Christine Gledhill, p.147).

From 1927, the Star System became an important intertextual factor for film studios; it was important to have recognisable stars who could promote their films. When audiences heard that Humphrey Bogart would play the main character, Rick in Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz) they knew what Rick’s mannerisms would be like; people would come to see Bogart, just as audiences would come to see Davis. She was to become a trademark of Warner Brothers and indicate the quality of the film. There was the insurance that people would come to see any film that Davis was in because the character of a film would be adapted to suit the star. Hollywood’s priority was to show recognisable star personas to meet audience expectation, rather than a realistic characterisation or narrative. Davis’s character in Dark Victory (1939, Edmund Goulding) is to die a painless death a few hours after going blind; while not realistic, it promotes Davis’s performance.

Bette Davis as Jezebel
Bette Davis as Jezebel | Source

The unstable construction of a star fascinated fans and there was definitely instability with Davis, whose characters were often women doomed through love. At the end of Jezebel, she makes one selfless act by going to the island to face certain death; in Dark Victory, she dies shortly after marriage and in The Letter (1940, William Wyler),she murders her lover, resulting in her own death. Married four times, Davis’s roles paralleled her own love life as she ‘found her niche as the troubled woman in search of romance’ (Columbia Encyclopaedia, 2009).

The body of the actor is an important factor, for instance ArnoldSchwarzenegger’s persona is partly made up of his muscular body, which means he is usually identified as The Terminator. An actress’ persona was usually based on her sexuality, however, Bette Davis was not know for her beauty and was not publicised as a stereotypical sex symbol. Davis was in fact known for her more masculine portrayal of women. Unlike Joan Crawford, Davis did not care what she looked like on screen. In Now, Voyager (1942, Irving Rapper), for the first quarter of the film she is wearing thick, bushy eyebrows, unattractive spectacles and is made to look fat and dumpy.

Past characters also make up part of a star; Davis’s persona was usually thought to be the bitch. In Jezebel, her character Julie is defiant by refusing to wear a white dress, selfish by thinking the world revolves around her and has a sharp tongue, constantly insulting anyone she disagrees with. Then in The Letter, her character, Leslie murders her lover, then covers up the truth through bribery and lies.

Warner Brothers ‘continually had difficulty finding the “right” films for Bette Davis [because] she did not conform to any existing star-type’ (Robert Allen, p.181), so they attempted to build up Davis’s star persona by looking at her most popular films. Audiences loved Of Human Bondage and Dangerous (1935, Alfred Green), so they established her role as the ‘deadly seductress’ (Richard Maltby, p.386). Occasionally stars would be off-cast, such as Davis in The Great Lie (1941, Edmund Goulding) so audiences would not tire of seeing the same performances. This allowed Davis to show the range of her acting ability.

Davis’s screen persona was similar to her real life. She was known for being difficult to work with, often arguing with directors. In some cases, this worked out for the best, as was the case in Dark Victory, when she had to persuade Jack Warner to buy the story rights because he thought ‘who would want to see a dame go blind?’ The film ended up being considered one of her crowning glories; it was one of the softest characters she played in her career and the farthest removed from her star persona. In a commentary, Paul Clinton stated how she had grown ‘tired of playing bitches’.

However, all the characteristics of the Davis style were still present. When anxious, Davis would pick at her cuticles, fiddle with a handkerchief or smoke a cigarette. An audience would have the expectation that her characters would smoke. The only exception to this was in The Letter, where she ditched cigarettes for knitting; a juxtaposition contrasting her murderess persona.

When Judith discovers her medical file in Dark Victory, Davis’s darting eyes come back into the play. She would glare at the other characters, eyes popping, and her voice would rise sharp and shrilly. This indicates Judith’s bitterness at being lied to, she is spiteful and plays mind games with her friends to get back at them. There are instances in the film where Davis’s characters slow down and she is able to effectively portray them without her usual characteristics. When Judith comes to terms with her fate in Dark Victory, she becomes happier, Davis’s speech is slower and less hysterical. As Davis’s style of acting uses her eyes to a large extent, her portrayal of a woman going blind indicates the strength of her acting ability. Davis had a flare for the melodramatic. Early in the film when she first suffers from a headache, her arm flies up to her face as she leans against a tree. These exaggerated movements are frequently seen in her other films. In The Letter, she pleads with her husband for forgiveness, throwing herself at his feet and clinging onto his arm, all the time her eyes darting left and right in a frenzy. In Now, Voyager, Charlotte Vale quickly goes from quiet and reserved to a hysterical fit when the doctor is in her room.

In most of her performances, Davis is dominant; in Dark Victory, she plays off the other actors. However, there are scenes where she is put in the subordinate position, such as when George Brent a makes his diagnosis. Davis sinks down into a chair and lowers her chin into her chest, while Brent is leaning over her. Similarly, in Marked Woman, Bogart interrogates her character, Mary. He is sitting higher up and in the shot/reverse/shots the camera is tilted up at Bogart and looks down on Davis to indicate that he is in the dominant position

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? | Source

In later years, Davis began to share more roles. Usually she was the main character and everyone around her was the supporting cast, but in All About Eve (1950, Joseph Mankienwicz) Anne Baxter had the main role of Eve. Eve, however does not develop much, we merely discover her true intentions. Davis’s character, Margo, has the story arc after accepting that her age will change the roles she plays. Davis was also getting older and being pushed aside for newer actors, indicating how her persona began to change over time. It wasIn All About Eve, that Davis’s acting style became subtler. She still had the shifty eyes, but they would not dart around as quickly. She also spoke differently, taking on a throaty voice – though this was partly due to a ruptured blood vessel, and constant years of smoking. The main change that came to Davis was the roles she played. She ‘suffered from the industry’s ageism’ (Pam Cook, p.127) and the only way to continue her career was by taking on more obscure roles such as in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, Robert Aldrich), turning into monstrous horror film characters. According to Alexander Walker ‘the excesses’ of the film originated from a ‘period of personal unhappiness and professional uncertainty’ (p.110).

Even as time led her into parody roles, Davis’s star person is one of a unique female actress of the time. Her acting style was often complimented by George Brent with whom she shared many films. ‘Nervousness, hysteria and paranoia are defining features of Davis’s acting style’ (Life of Bette Davis, 2009), but Brent took on a calm approach, such as in Dark Victory, where his understated performance allowed Davis to take the lime light. This was similar to Anne Baxter’s character, Eve, quiet but duplicitous, like many of Davis’s characters. Then there was Bogart, who was laidback compared to her edginess and always being on red alert. According to Christine Gledhill ‘Bette Davis was one of the ten top-grossing stars in Hollywood and the most popular and critically acclaimed female star’ (p.146). Today she is still considered one of the finest star personas of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Bibliography

Allen, R., Gomery, D. 1985, Film History: Theory and Practice, New York: McGraw-Hill Inc.

Cook, P. 2007, The Cinema Book, Third Edition, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press

Gledhill, C.1987, Home Is Where The Heart Is, London: BFI Publishing

Hill, J., Gibson, P. 1998, The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Hampshire: Colour Press LTD

Maltby, R. 2003, Hollywood Cinema, Second Edition, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing

Walker, A. 1999, Bette Davis: A Celebration, New York: Applause Books

A Talent For Hysteria, Howard Mandelbaum

http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/18/18_bette.html (accessed: February 20th 2009)

Bette Davis, The Columbia Encyclopaedia, sixth edition, 2008

http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-DavisBet.html (accessed: February 20th 2009)

Life of Bette Davis, Joan Prefontaine, 2008

http://actorbiographies.suite101.com/article.cfm/dark_victory (accessed: February 20th 2009)


Filmography

All About Eve, (1950), directed by Joseph Mankienwicz [videocassette], UK, Warner Brothers

Dark Victory, (1939), directed by Edmund Goulding [DVD], UK, Warner Brothers

Jezebel, (1938), directed by William Wyler [video recording], UK, Warner Brothers

Marked Woman, (1937), directed by Lloyd Bacon [DVD], UK, Warner Brothers

Now, Voyager, (1942), directed by Irving Rapper [DVD], UK, Warner Brothers

The Letter, (1940), directed by William Wyler [DVD], UK, Warner Brothers

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