The Wonderful History of Actress Bette Davis
Bette Davis deserves any praise that comes her way. She is a historically important screen actress, and her work should be treasured, studied, and archived. Davis was not a classic beauty in any sense of the word. She had big, round, almost bulging eyes with circles that would bag heavily in late middle age. She had a high forehead and unflattering hair, and her chain smoking led to wrinkles and pursed lips. She had a unique voice, often throaty with cigarette smoke, and she continued her young make-up into her late years. She was never cast for stunning good looks.
After training with actress Eva LaGallienne, appearing in small parts on Broadway and with the Provincetown Players, she went to Hollywood. She had speaking parts as early as 1931 in The Bad Sister, a typical melodramatic potboiler of the time. She and Humphrey Bogart had the second leads behind the forgettable Conrad Nagle, but it clearly put her on the map. She continued in a variety of romances in stories taking her from World War I London to a country farm. She played in gangster flics and soap operas with the likes of Joan Blondell, Pat O’Brien, Dick Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, and hundreds who never made a name for themselves.
Davis hit the big time with her performance in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage with Leslie Howard. Playing an illiterate waitress, Bette Davis meets a loving tender man who sacrifices everything for her, only to be betrayed by her repeatedly. A lesser actress would have overdone it, chewing the scenery to bits. But, Davis masters it – tempting, promiscuous, hateful, yet independent and resilient and vulnerable. She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar (on a write-in vote).
Through 1935, she continued in unlikeable roles in Dangerous and The Girl from 10th Avenue, but, in retrospect, it appears she was chasing roles for their quality. With Of Human Bondage under her belt, she became more independent and began a long struggle against the studio contract player system. This would put her in the classic The Petrified Forest with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart in 1936. Playing a waitress again, she finds herself together with a hobo and a vicious gangster. Nothing glamorous here in the years where her actress peers were competing for the pretty parts.
While the world flocked to see Gone with the Wind, Davis played a very unlikeable southern belle in Jezebel, with William Wyler and Henry Fonda and worked with Fonda again in That Certain Woman playing a betrayed woman. And, then, the ultimate tear-jerker Dark Victory with Bogart, still the embattled and resilient heroine.
Then, come the grand, stand-alone performances:
- · In 1941, she opened in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes directed by William Wyler. Davis creates and owns the role of Regina Giddens, a grand dame of the Gilded Age who proves capable of anything to protect herself interest – even if it means the destruction of those around her. Wyler wisely integrated the stage production with its flouncing bustles, grand staircase, and melodramatic entrances and exits. No other actress of her generation so savored being hated.
- · After leading a marvelous cast in The Man Who Came to Dinner, Davis returned to melodrama in unforgettable Now, Voyager with Paul Henreid and its iconic scenes and quotes; remember, Henreid lighting two cigarettes at the same time, and lines like “Don’t ask for the moon when we have the stars.” The point is she makes something of the stuff that normally would have gone to contemporaries with less talent.
- · In 1943, Davis makde something really important of the, by then, pro-forma anti-Nazi film in Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammet’s Watch on the Rhine with Paul Lukas and Geraldine Fitzgerald. By 1944, she married a Jewish banker in Mr. Skeffington despite her love for another man. Themes of anti-Semitism lurk at the edges. In 1945, she returned to a classic period piece, The Corn is Green, with more than a touch of class consciousness and worker’s rights. And, in 1949, Davis was pregnant and alone once again in Beyond the Forest (more than a coincidental parallel to life in The Petrified Forest).
- · Then, in 1950 came the role of her lifetime and one for the century of film - All About Eve. Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, she blew away her co-stars: Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, and Gary Merrill (her real life husband). Plying the part full-out at the age appropriate to the part, Davis created Margo Channing, an aging and demanding diva whose “apprentice” Eve sweeps past her, betrays and humiliates her. As Davis spews, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” and that it is. Bette Davis “owns” the role in the sense that you cannot imagine anyone else playing the part.
Sadly, despite this triumph, Davis did no major work thereafter. She did not ignore television, appearing in TV series and mini-series, pretty much as a parody of herself. She made an artistically disastrous decision to make horror films: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? With Joan Crawford, Hush . . . Hush . . . Sweet Charlotte with Olivia de Havilland, and Burnt Offerings with Oliver Reed and Karen Black. These were sad choices for the independent artist who had stood alone against the studio system. Only the taught thriller called The Nanny and the sweetly nostalgic The Whales of August with Lillian Gish restored her earlier genius.
Bette Davis had a range of dramatic roles wider than most actresses in her generation although she was not a successful comic or musical actress. She won Best Actress Academy Awards for Jezebel and Dangerous and was nominated nine other times. She holds awards and honors from The Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, the New York Film Critics and he Film Society of Lincoln Center. She holds a Lifetime Achievement Award from The American Film Institute, and she was and remains “The First Lady of the Silver Screen.”