Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why Joan Crawford always plays ladies.
– Bette Davis
Renowned for her unconventional film choices and her penchant for manipulative and “bitchy” roles, Bette Davis was the first actress to voluntarily play roles older than herself, and pioneered the way for stronger female leads in film.
Born of the 5 April, 1908, Ruth Elizabeth Davis, also known as Betty – a nickname which would later inspire her Hollywood name – was first inspired to become an actress after seeing Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921). Davis attended the Cushing Academy and upon graduation, enrolled in John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School. She auditioned for George Cukor’s stock theatre company and although he was not very impressed, he gave the young hopeful her first paid acting job – a one week stint playing a chorus girl. In 1929 she made her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes.
The following year, at the age of 22, Davis moved to Hollywood to screen test for Universal Studios. She later remarked that she was surprised no one from the studio had met her at the train, when in reality, a studio employee had been waiting but left as he saw nobody who “looked like an actress”. She failed her first screen test and was instead used in screen tests for other actors. After a second failed screen test, the head of Universal considered terminating her contract, but cinematographer Karl Freund told him she had “lovely eyes”, and would be suitable for the film Bad Sister (1931), in which she subsequently made her film debut. Unfortunately the film was not a success. Universal renewed her contract for three months, she appeared in a small role in Waterloo Bridge (1931) before being leant to Columbia Pictures for The Menace (1932), and then to Capitol Films for Hell’s House (1932). After nine months and six unsuccessful films, Universal made the decision not to renew her contract.
While she was preparing to move back to New York, actor George Arliss chose Davis for the female lead in the Warner Brothers picture, The Man Who Played God (1932). For the rest of her life the actress would credit Arliss for helping her achieve her break in Hollywood. Warner Brothers signed her to a five year contract and would remain with the studio for the next eighteen years.
In 1932 Davis married Harmon Nelson whom she had met previously at Cushing Academy. Before too long it became clear that the large discrepancy in their respective incomes, with Davis earning far more than her husband, began to take its toll on their relationship. The actress had several abortions during this marriage.
After more than twenty film roles, it was the role of the vicious Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (1934) which saw the actress achieve critical acclaim. While many actresses’ feared playing unsympathetic characters, Davis viewed it as a chance to demonstrate the breadth of her acting ability and while her co-star Leslie Howard was initially dismissive of her, as filming progressed he began to openly praise her ability. The film was a huge success, with Life magazine writing that Davis gave “probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress.” So revered was her performance, when she was not nominated for an Academy Award there was such an outcry that the Academy was forced to make a public statement and ultimately change the voting system.
Davis starred in Dangerous (1935) to positive reviews and while she won the Academy Award for the role, she maintained that is was belated recognition for Of Human Bondage, calling the award a “consolation prize”. Despite claims to the contrary, Davis maintained for the rest of her life that it was her that nicknamed the statue “Oscar”, because its posterior resembled her husband’s whose middle name was Oscar.
Convinced her career was damaged through being cast in a string of mediocre films, the actress accepted an offer to star in two films in Britain in 1936, in direct breech of her contract with Warner Brothers. She fled to Canada to avoid papers being filed against her and eventually took the studio to court in Britain in an attempt to get out of her contract. Throughout proceedings, Davis was belittled and mocked, referred to as a “naughty young lady”. Ultimately she lost the case and returned to Hollywood in debt, without an income and still locked into her Warner Brothers contract.
In 1938 she starred in Jezebel and during filming started a relationship with director William Wyler, later describing him as the “love of my life”. The film was a success, earning the actress her second Academy Award. This film marked the beginning of the most successful period in Davis’ career. In contrast to her professional success, her marriage to Ham Nelson was faltering. In 1938 he obtained evidence that she was involved with Howard Hughes and filed for divorce citing Davis’ “cruel and inhumane manner.”
As a result, the actress was emotional during the making of her next film Dark Victory (1939) and considered pulling out altogether but producer Hal B. Wallis convinced her to channel her despair into the role. Subsequently, the film became one of the highest grossing films of the year and earned her an Academy Award nomination. She appeared in three other box office hits in 1939 – The Old Maid, Juarez and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. By this time Davis was Warner Brother’s most profitable star and she was given the most significant of their female leads. All This and Heaven Too (1940) was the most financially successful film of Davis’ career to that point, while The Letter (1940) was considered “one of the best pictures of the year” by the Hollywood Reporter. It was in December 1940 that the actress married New England innkeeper Arthur Farnsworth. In January 1941 Davis became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but was not well liked and antagonised other members with her brash manner and radical ideas. Constant resistance and disapproval saw her resign.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, Davis spent the early months of 1942 selling war bonds, and sold two million dollars worth of bonds in two days, as well as a picture of herself in Jezebel for $250,000. She also performed for black regiments as the only white member of an acting troupe which included Lena Horne and Ethel Waters. Davis, with the aid of Warner, Cary Grant and Jule Styne, transformed an old nightclub into the Hollywood Canteen for servicemen, opening on October 3, 1942. Davis ensured that every night there would be a few big name celebrities for the soldiers to meet and in 1944 she starred as herself in the film Hollywood Canteen. The actress later commented, “There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.” For her work with the Hollywood Canteen she was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal in 1980 – the United States Department of Defence’s highest civilian award.
In August 1943 Davis’ husband Arthur Farnsworth collapsed while walking along a Hollywood street and died two days later. Two years later in 1945 Davis married artist William Grant Sherry, who claimed to have never heard of her, which she found very appealing. That same year she turned down the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), a role which would see Joan Crawford win an Academy Award.
In 1947, at the age of 39, Davis gave birth to her first child, daughter Barbara Davis Sherry. She considered giving up acting to focus on motherhood and her decision to continue acting would have irreparable consequences for her relationship with Barbara.
By 1949 Davis and her husband were estranged and many Hollywood columnists claimed her career was at an end. Then producer Darryl F. Zanuck offered her the role of the ageing theatrical actress Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) and after reading the script Davis joined the rest of the cast in San Francisco. Within days of filming she had established what would become a lifelong friendship with co-star Anne Baxter and a romantic relationship with leading man Gary Merrill, which would lead to marriage once her divorce from William Sherry was finalised on July 3, 1950. Critics praised Davis’ performance and numerous lines became well known, such as “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Again, she was nominated for an Academy Award and critics such as Gene Ringgold described the film as her “all-time best performance.” It was during this time that she was invited to leave her hand prints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
During her marriage to Merrill, he adopted her daughter from her previous marriage as well as a five day old baby girl and later, a baby boy. In 1952 while appearing in a Broadway revue, Davis became incredibly ill and was operated on for osteomyelitis of the jaw. Around this time her adopted daughter was diagnosed as severely brain damaged, caused by complications during her birth, and was placed in an institution at the age of three.
Many of Davis’ performances of the 1950s were condemned by critics and as her career declined, her marriage to Merrill began to deteriorate until eventually they filed for divorce in 1960. During this period she decided to try her hand at television. The actress would receive her final Academy Award nomination for her performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) opposite her well known nemesis Joan Crawford. She negotiated a deal that would pay her ten percent of the worldwide gross profits, in addition to her salary. The film became one of the year’s biggest successes. Director Robert Aldrich observed that both Davis and Crawford recognised how important this film was to their respective careers and commented, “It’s proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.” Their ongoing feud is one of the most infamous in Hollywood history. When Davis was nominated for an Academy Award, Crawford contacted all the other Best Actress nominees, none of which could make the event and she offered to accept the award on their behalf, which is exactly what happened when Anne Bancroft took out the award.
In 1977 Davis became the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award and after the telecast she found herself on the receiving end of several offers, with the bulk of her work now residing with television. She became popular again with younger audiences through the Kim Carnes’ song Bette Davis Eyes in 1981, a tribute which she considered a compliment.
In 1983 Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Within two weeks of her surgery she suffered four strokes, causing paralysis in the left side of her face and in her left arm. After much physical therapy she gained partial recovery, yet still continued to smoke one hundred cigarettes a day. During this time her relationship with her daughter deteriorated further when she discovered she had written a tell all memoir depicting the actress as overbearing and a drunk. Many of Davis’ friends, and even her ex-husband Merrill, came out in defence of the actress, claiming that the book was largely fabricated. Davis’ adopted son ended all contact with his sister and Davis cut off all contact, disinheriting her completely.
Despite her health concerns, Davis continued to act in television and film, with her final performance as the title role in Wicked Stepmother (1989) which she abandoned half way through due to disagreements with the director. Throughout 1988 – 89 the actress received numerous acknowledgments for her life’s work, including the Kennedy Center Honor and the Film Society of Lincoln Center Lifetime Achievement Award. Around this time she discovered that her cancer had returned and on October 6, 1989 she passed away at the age of 81.
Davis’ film choices were notoriously unconventional, opting to play manipulative villains during a time when most actresses feared unsympathetic characters. Near the end of her career, Davis famously remarked that unlike many of her contemporaries, she had forged a career without the benefit of beauty. Often labelled a bitch and “difficult” by her contemporaries, these labels were generally hurled at her by men who were unaccustomed to working with such a strong woman and rather than damaging her career, these stereotypes merely enhanced her appeal. She was a woman well ahead of her time.