To Bette Davis on Her 110th Birthday
Known as “Betty” growing up, Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on April 5, 1908. Davis’s parents divorced, and her single mother raised her, working multiple jobs. Changing her name to Bette Davis, she started acting in the 1920s, and she had a career up until her death in 1989. She exemplified the glamor and eccentricities of being a ‘Movie Star.’ Not that her formidable talents could ever be diminished by her persona. Davis was an auteur unto herself, crafting a career with rich and impressive performances.
Bette Davis had a wild, complicated life. It would be a herculean task to boil her life down into a single article. Her professional life was full of ups and downs, and her personal life was no smooth ride either. She married a few times, and had multiple affairs. Davis battled studios, directors, co-stars, and the press. She was a woman who regarded her own talents and box office clout highly and the numbers were on her side. Davis was the first actor of any gender to receive 10 Oscar nominations (she won two of them, and not even for her best roles).
Davis wanted to work with the best directors in the most interesting roles. She was a one-woman army against Hollywood’s patriarchal attempts to shut her up. In 1937, Davis wanted to move to England for better work than she was getting from Warner Bros. The studio tried to stop her, and she sued them. Her claim alleged that the studio locked her in a contract and kept her from working by offering roles that were beneath her. Davis lost the case, but her talent on screen was strong enough that the studio offered her the kind of roles she wanted. Perhaps she was known as a difficult bitch, but she took charge of her career and kept working for nearly 60 years.
Each period of Davis’s life brought a new form to her career. In the early 1930s, she was just starting out. By the late 1930s into 1950, she was a top star with a multitude of beautiful performances. Her career declined in the 1950s, though she worked consistently and received some praise. Then in the 1960s, she found new life in campy but knowing psycho-thrillers. Davis’s later career is often what people think of now: her wide eyes, grand dame theatricality, over the top acting, and features so striking they can seem horrific. She had a deep voice and a flair for drama, and it’s clear why she became an icon for drag queens.
Davis’s extensive film work can be hard to dive into, so here are several notable performances.
Of Human Bondage (1934): Davis plays Mildred, a cruel Cockney waitress who takes advantage of a kind medical student (Leslie Howard). Her star-making role.
Dark Victory (1939): Davis’s performance as a spoiled socialite who is diagnosed with a brain tumor is one of her most tender, while maintaining her characteristic edge and fire.
Now, Voyager (1942): Here, she’s an emotionally abused spinster who finds confidence through therapy and falls in love. Definitely a different kind of role, but she is fantastic.
All About Eve (1950): Margo Channing is Davis’s most iconic role. This might be the one film in her career that has been canonized as a major classic. Davis is both ferocious and vulnerable, often simultaneously.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962): Davis’s feud with co-star Joan Crawford is the stuff of legend. But Davis’s theatrical, unnerving performance gave new life to her career.
FilmStruck’s library has two dozen of Bette Davis’s films, from classics to more obscure titles. She was best known for playing bitches and bad girls (1941’s The Little Foxes), but she did show her range in more virtuous roles (1945’s All This, and Heaven Too). She played Queen Elizabeth I twice, in 1939 (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a performance I really like), and in 1955 (The Virgin Queen). Davis's psycho-thrillers are great fun, like Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Dead Ringer (both 1964). Lo Scopone Scientifico is an Italian gambling comedy from 1972. Davis even did some kids movies like Return from Witch Mountain in 1978, and her final film Wicked Stepmother in 1989.
Bette Davis’s contribution to film acting, her founding of the WWII Hollywood Cantina, and her artistic integrity suggest a woman dedicated to her industry. Then you hear about her combative tantrums and she comes off a haughty diva. She definitely lived a fascinating life on and off screen and became a legend of old Hollywood. In an era where actresses were forced into boxes, Bette resisted being defined by others.