Bette Davis (1908-1989)

bette davis
Bette Davis

Bette Davis was a brilliant actress who justly earned her reputation as one of cinema's greatest ever performers. In a glittering Hollywood career she made over 100 films spanning six decades, and she reached new heights and set new acting standards in a variety of difficult, challenging roles. In a male-dominated industry she fought her corner and blazed a trail for other actresses to follow. She changed Hollywood forever and she changed it for the better.

She was nominated for Academy awards a total of ten times including a record five years in a row, in 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1943, and she won the Best Actress award twice, for 'Dangerous' in 1935 and 'Jezebel' in 1938. One of her unsuccessful nominations was for her appearance as Margo Channing in 'All About Eve' in 1950, the role with which she is most closely identified. On the AFI's Best Actress list she stands at number two behind Katharine Hepburn.

When in October 1941 the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences voted to choose their first female President, there could only be one choice - Bette Davis. In 1977, Bette was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA. Her father was a patent attorney and when he and her mother divorced in 1915, the family moved to New York. She and her sister were sent to board at the Cushing Academy, just outside Boston, and after graduation she began to train as a dancer at the Mariarden School of Dancing in New York.

She became enamored by the theater and decided that she wanted to be an actress rather than a dancer so she enrolled in John Murray Anderson's Acting School in New York. She became their star pupil and after spending part of the 1928 season in George Cukor's stock company in Rochester, New York, she made her professional New York debut in Virgil Geddes's "The Earth Between," to excellent critical reviews. The young actress, still only 21, was on her way and this first success soon led to parts in other productions, including her first Broadway hit, "Broken Dishes" in 1929.

By now Ruth had changed her name, choosing Bette from the novel "Cousin Bette" by Balzac. After several more roles on Broadway, and with her reputation continuing to grow, it was not long before Hollywood, in the form of Universal Studios, took notice, and in 1931 she made her movie debut for them in 'The Bad Sister'.

She made several low budget movies for Universal and then for Warner Brothers during the early 1930's in a variety of pert, chic, urban girl roles, without any great success, but learning her trade well. At this point all her roles were supporting, such as in 'So Big' and 'The Rich Are Always With Us', 'Three on a Match' and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing' in 1932 . She attracted more attention working with George Arliss in 'The Man Who Played God' also in 1932 and the critical appreciation she received convinced her to stay on and continue to make movies.

She never stopped working and learning, appearing in movies such as , 'Ex Lady', 'Bureau of Missing Persons' in 1933, 'Fashions of 1934, 'Jimmy the Gent' and 'Fog Over Frisco' in 1934. Bette's hard work eventually paid off. She won the plum role of 'artist's model' Mildred Rogers in 'Of Human Bondage' in 1934, opposite Leslie Howard, after lobbying hard for it. 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 and Bette received her first Oscar nomination for it. Warners at last realised they had a major star on their hands.

Hollywood Star

Warners 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, and the public began to take her more seriously, her salary was increased, and she was given better and better roles such as '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 for Best Actress, 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 part of the Hollywood elite and, for a time, 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.

Post-War Crisis

After the war Bette's career started to slide as she played in a series of weak pictures such as 'The Corn Is Green' in 1945, 'A Stolen Life' and 'Deception' in 1946, which was her first movie to actually lose money. Her final contracted film with Warner Brothers is generally acknowledged as being her worst - 'Beyond the Forest' in 1949, after which she succeeded in cancelling her remaining contract with the studio.

She returned to the limelight in spectacular fashion in 1950 when Joseph L. Mankiewicz put her in place of an ailing Claudette Colbert in the role of Margo Channing in his masterpiece 'All About Eve'. 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 Davis.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 Davis magic.

By the 1960's Davis's career had effectively come to a halt apart from her more frequent ventures into television, guesting in series such as 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' in 1959, 'Wagon Train' between 1959 and 1961 and 'Perry Mason' in 1963. She reinvented herself, in typical Davis fashion, in 1962 in 'What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?' with a bravura performance as Jane Hudson, the deranged former child star, living with her equally unstable sister, played by Joan Crawford. Both Bette and Crawford took the opportunity to continue their famous feud. The movie earned for Davis her tenth and last Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

It gave the last part of her career a fresh impetus and she went on to make acclaimed appearances in a number of excellent movies including the Gothic horror drama 'Dead Ringer' and the highly successful 'Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte' in 1964.

She finished the 1960's in good form with three films made in Britain, nicely starched as 'The Nanny' in 1965, 'The Anniversary' in 1967 and 'Connecting Rooms' 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 never relied on her looks to succeed in her career. She was never classed as a great beauty and never needed to be. She had a no nonsense, forthright manner and was not afraid of confrontation. None of her four marriages were happy and none of her husbands, as she once quipped, were "man enough to be Mr Bette Davis". She also readily admitted that her career always took precedence.

Her first marriage was from 1932 to 1938 to band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson. When they divorced she married in 1940 businessman Arthur Farnsworth. After 3 years he died after a series of accidental falls. She then married artist William Grant Sherry in 1945 and the couple had one daughter, but in 1950 again the marriage ended in divorce. In the same year she got married for the fourth time to actor Gary Merrill, one of her co-stars in 'All About Eve'. They had two children, a girl and a boy, but, after 10 years of drink-fuelled arguments they divorced in 1960.

In addition, Bette had several affairs including with her favorite leading man, 1930's heartthrob, George Brent, and her favorite director, William Wyler.

In 1983 Bette was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a masectomy. She also suffered a series of strokes which left her with slurred speech but, typically, did not stop her from continuing her round of personal appearances and interviews. On a trip to Europe in 1989, she fell ill and was hospitalised in the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

Bette Davis, the 'First Lady of Film' died of cancer at the age of eighty-one on October 6, 1989. She is interred at Forest Lawn (Hollywood Hills), Los Angeles.

Bette Davis Academy Awards

Two 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
Waterloo Bridge
Old Greatheart
The Menace
Hell's House
The Silent Voice
So Big!
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
Parachute Jumper
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
Special Agent
The Petrified Forest
The Golden Arrow
Satan Met a Lady
Marked Woman
Kid Galahad
That Certain Woman
It's Love I'm After
The Sisters
Dark Victory
The Old Maid
Essex and Elizabeth
If I Forget You
All This, and Heaven Too
The Letter
The Great Lie
Shining Victory
The Bride Came C.O.D.
The Little Foxes
The Man Who Came to Dinner
In This Our Life
Now, Voyager
Watch on the Rhine
Old Acquaintance
The Corn Is Green
A Stolen Life
Winter Meeting
June Bride
Beyond the Forest
Payment on Demand
Another Man's Poison
Phone Call from a Stranger
The Star
The Virgin Queen
Wedding Breakfast (aka The Catered Affair)
Storm Center
John Paul Jones
The Scapegoat