Bette Davis (1908-1989)
Bette Davis was more than just a good actress, she was one of the cinema's greatest ever performers. In her long career of over 100 films spanning six decades, she reached new heights and set new acting standards in a variety of difficult, challenging roles. She fought her corner and blazed a trail for other actresses to follow and she did it in a male-dominated industry. She changed Hollywood forever and she changed it for the better.
In 1977, Bette was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. When the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences voted to choose their first female President, there could only be one choice - Bette Davis.
She was nominated for Academy awards a total of ten times and she won the Best Actress award twice. On the AFI's Best Actress list she was voted number two behind Katharine Hepburn.Search Amazon for Bette Davis
Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA. Her father was a lawyer and he and her mother divorced when she was 10. She and her sister were sent to board at the Cushing Academy and after graduation she enrolled in John Murray Anderson's Acting School in New York. She became their star pupil and after spending the 1928 season in George Cukor's stock company in Rochester, NY, she was offered her first role on Broadway in 'Broken Dishes' in 1929.
Her performances on stage were dazzling and Hollywood, in the form of Universal Studios, quickly came calling and put her in her first film, 'Bad Sister' in 1931. The following year they dropped her, because she had 'as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville,' but she then plugged away at Warner Brothers throughout the 1930's in a variety of pert, pretty, chic, urban girl roles. She played with George Arliss in 'The Man Who Played God'. She took supporting roles in 'So Big' and 'The Rich Are Always With Us' in 1932 and worked her way up singing 'Willie the Weeper' in 'Cabin in the Cotton' in 1932, in 'Three on a Match', '20,000 Years in Sing Sing' in 1932, 'Ex Lady', 'Bureau of Missing Persons' in 1933, 'Fashions of 1934, 'Jimmy the Gent' and 'Fog Over Frisco' in 1934.
Bette was working intensely hard and it paid off. Like many young actresses, she knew that the best way to stand out from the pack was to play an outrageous tramp, and she lobbied hard for the role of cockney 'artist's model' Mildred Rogers opposite Leslie Howard, in 'Of Human Bondage' in 1934. Warners loaned her out to RKO to play the part, an important role and the first to show her as a woman living ruthlessly by her wits. The critics gave her rave reviews, she won her first Oscar nomination for it, and Warners finally realised they had a major star on their hands.
Hollywood StarWarners then gave her a real chance in 'Bordertown', 'Front Page Woman' and 'Dangerous in 1935, in which she played a Warners 'Persona' actress and won the Best Actress Oscar, the first Warner Bros actress to win the award.
She was now a top level star and she felt she merited top roles. In 1936, when Warner Bros. failed to deliver them, Bette effectively went on strike, and when she refused an inferior role she was suspended without pay. She sailed for England to find work and sued Warner Bros in a hectic court case in London to get out of her contract. She lost the case and had to return, apparently humiliated and penniless. But the case had publicised her flamboyant independence and her spirited struggle was acknowledged. The studio began to take her more seriously, her salary was increased, and she was given better and better roles: 'Marked Woman', 'Kid Galahad', 'That Certain Woman', 'and 'It's Love I'm After', all in 1937. This last was one of the first concessions the studio made to romantic melodrama on her behalf.
They went further with 'Jezebel' in 1938, a lurid Deep South women's picture that allowed Davis first to scheme then repent and which co-starred the up-and-coming Henry Fonda. It won her a second Oscar, though it killed any chance she had of obtaining the much coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in 'Gone With The Wind'.
Now, at last, she was in her element: 'The Sisters' in 1938 as a rich girl who goes blind in 'Dark Victory' in 1939, making death the great performance, as the demented Carlotta in 'Juarez', 'The Old Maid', as the fidgety Virgin Queen in 'The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex' in 1939. The part of Elizabeth highlighted the emotions of a woman fearful of romantic neglect who makes a cult of highly strung capriciousness - in other words, Bette Davis. Within a few years, she had given up modern, masculine films for costume melodrama. She excelled in the tearjerker 'All This and Heaven Too' in 1940 and she was at her best in 'The Letter' in the same year and 'The Great Lie' in 1941 before 'The Little Foxes' which once again was tailor-made for her and which made explicit her ability to portray the spurned emotional woman who becomes a malicious tyrant.
The good scripts she had called for needed only to be red-blooded and to turn upon her 'passionate ugliness'. After 'The Man Who Came to Dinner and 'In This Our Life' in 1942, she played Charlotte Vale in 'Now, Voyager', in the same year, a classic exaltation of the women's picture. Much quieter in 'Watch on the Rhine' in 1943, she was then in 'Old Acquaintance', also in 1943 and a very nasty wife to Claude Rains in 'Mr Skeffington' the following year.
After this run of successful films Bette had become the highest paid woman in America. She contributed to the war effort by helping to organize the Hollywood Canteen during World War II, transforming a once-abandoned nightclub into a successful entertainment center. She received The Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the Defense Department's highest civilian award, for her work.
Davis's career stalled in middle age, as the fashion for 'women's pictures' faded after World War II. Her material just withered away: 'The Corn Is Green' in 1945, 'A Stolen Life' in 1946 as twins, one with icing and one without; and then three absolute duds in a row. Her final contracted film with Warner Brothers was the worst of the lot - 'Beyond the Forest' in 1949, the trashy King Vidor movie in which she pulls on a cigarette and drawls 'What a Dump!', as quoted in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
Joseph L. Mankiewicsz put her back in the limelight in 1950, when he put her in place of an indisposed Claudette Colbert in the role of Margot Channing in 'All About Eve'. In it she clearly channels herself as a theatrical diva challenged by a scheming, younger rival. The film was instantly acclaimed, and remains a classic, and she received another Best Actress Oscar nomination.
It was a spectacular comeback but it did not however, mark the beginning of a new era of success for Davies.She faltered throughout the 1950's in efforts to revive earlier successes: 'Payment on Demand in 1951, 'Another Man's Poison' and' Phone Call from a Stranger' in 1952, 'The Star' in 1953, 'The Virgin Queen', in 1955, 'Storm Centre' and 'The Catered Affair' (as Debbie Reynold's mother) in 1956, 'The Scapegoat' in 1958, 'John Paul Jones' in 1959 and 'Pocketful of Miracles' in 1961, were all lacking the old pre-war Davies magic.
By the 1960's Davis's career had effectively come to a standstill. She was down to guest shots on 'Wagon Train' when Robert Aldrich gifted her with the role of former child star Baby Jane in 'What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?' in 1962, a Hollywood 'guignol' that pits her against her offscreen rival Joan Crawford in a venemous battle to the Death. As deranged former child star Jane Hudson, Davies earned yet another Best Actress Oscar nomination, and the flames of her career were reignited.
It made her henceforward the star of a number of Gothic horror films. She was not exactly unsuited to these, but it was a sad spectacle to see an actress submitting to what ammounted to an exploitation of her rich and neurotic personality: 'Dead Ringer', 'Where Love Has Gone' and 'Hush…Hush, 'Sweet Charlotte' in 1964, much better than the rest , if just as calculated; nicely starched as 'The Nanny' in 1965; 'The Anniversary' in 1967; 'Connecting Rooms' in 1970; and 'Bunny O'Hare' in 1970.
During the remainder of her life Bette appeared in many TV productions and films and worked on lecture tours about her life and movies into the '70's, always outspoken and cutting an imposing figure . In 1977, she was the first female recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. In 1979 she won a Best Actress Emmy for the TV programme 'Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter'. Her swansong was another unforgettable film performance in 'The Whales of August' in 1987, in which she worked with another legendary actress, Lillian Gish. Though suffering from ill health, Davis remained indomitable to the end.
Bette Davis, the 'First Lady of Film' died of cancer at the age of eighty-one on October 6, 1989, at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
Bette Davis Academy AwardsTwo Wins:
Best Actress ... Dangerous (1935)
Best Actress ... Jezebel (1938)
Eight Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Dark Victory (1939)
Best Actress ... The Letter (1940)
Best Actress ... The Little Foxes (1941)
Best Actress ... Now Voyager (1942)
Best Actress ... Mr Skeffington (1944)
Best Actress ... All About Eve (1950)
Best Actress ... The Star (1952)
Best Actress ... What Ever Happend To Baby Jane? (1962)
Bette Davis Filmography
The Bad Sister
The Silent Voice
The Rich Are Always with Us
The Dark Horse
The Cabin in the Cotton
Three on a Match
20,000 Years in Sing Sing
Just Around the Corner
The Working Man
Bureau of Missing Persons
The Big Shakedown
Fashions of 1934
Jimmy the Gent
Fog Over Frisco
Of Human Bondage
Men on Her Mind
Front Page Woman
The Petrified Forest
The Golden Arrow
Satan Met a Lady
That Certain Woman
It's Love I'm After
The Old Maid
Essex and Elizabeth
If I Forget You
All This, and Heaven Too
The Great Lie
The Bride Came C.O.D.
The Little Foxes
The Man Who Came to Dinner
In This Our Life
Watch on the Rhine
The Corn Is Green
A Stolen Life
Beyond the Forest
All About Eve
Payment on Demand
Another Man's Poison
Phone Call from a Stranger
The Virgin Queen
John Paul Jones
Pocketful of Miracles
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The Empty Canvas
Where Love Has Gone
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Lo Scopone scientifico
Return from Witch Mountain
Death on the Nile
The Children of Sanchez
The Watcher in the Woods
The Whales of August