The American Film Institute ranked today’s Style Icon as the second greatest female star of ALL time (behind only Katharine Hepburn) but much as I love her for style and impressive career (over 100 films and 10 Oscar nominations in 30 years! – quite the Hollywood CV); I love her most for playing the unconventional characters and being the “bitch” of the golden era of Hollywood and in her own words for forging a career without the benefit of beauty….
Although, I would have to disagree and say that for me Bette Davis with her big doe eyes, is one of the great beauties as well as the great names of Hollywood! I confess Joan Crawford always edged it for me in the performance stakes, Bette Davis was undoubtedly one of the most beguiling ladies of the silver screen. Even her critics couldn’t help but praise her, Time magazine wrote “her acting, as always, isn’t really acting: it’s shameless showing off. But just try to look away!”
Ruth, Elizabeth (Bette) Davis was born on the 5th of April 1908 in Lowell Massachusetts, during a thunderstorm according to her autobiography. The star was inspired to become an actress at a young age after seeing Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921 and Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy.
But it was seeing Henrik Ibsen’s the Wild Duck with Peg Entwistle that inspired her full commitment to her chosen career “Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended, I had to be an actress … exactly like Peg Entwistle.” With the support of her mother Ruth who had also been an aspiring actress, she auditioned for admission to John Murray Anderson School of Theatre and was accepted (but not before she was rejected by Eva LeGallienne’s Manhattan Civic Repertory – LeGallienne described her attitude as “insincere” and “frivolous”….. I wonder how often Eva regretted that!)
Bette didn’t have the early film success of her nemesis Joan Crawford. Making her Broadway debut in 1929 it was December 1930 when a universal Studios talent scout spotted her and invited her for a screen test in Hollywood. Arriving by train Bette wasn’t met by the usual studio representative because the employee left having seen nobody who “looked like an actress”. Her introduction went from bad to worse with Bette failing her first screen test and being snubbed by more than one director. In fact Universal Studios came close to terminating Bette’s contract, it was only cinematographer Karl Freund’s observation that she had “lovely eyes” that bought her a reprieve (all be it temporary) and her film debut in The Bad Sister in 1931.
After nine months, and six unsuccessful films though Universal chose not to renew her contract and Bette was close to returning home, when actor George Arliss chose Davis for the lead female role in the Warner Brothers picture The Man Who Played God. She remained with Warner Brothers for the next 18 years and for the rest of her life, Bette Davis credited him with helping her achieve her “break” in Hollywood.
Many actresses of the era avoided playing unsympathetic characters and several had refused the role, but fearless Davis viewed it as an opportunity to show the range of her acting skills. Her first such role was that of the vicious and slatternly Mildred Rogers in the RKO Radio production of Of Human Bondage – it earned Bette her first major critical acclaim. LIFE Magazine called it ‘probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress.’
Bette won her first Academy Award in 1935 for her role in the film Dangerous. E. Arnot Robertson wrote in Picture Post, “I think Bette Davis would probably have been burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet.”
Her second Academy Award came just 3 years later for her role in Jezebel. The film and Bette’s success led to huge speculation at the time that she would be chosen to play my all time favourite Southern Belle, Scarlett O’Hara. Bette certainly made her desire to play Scarlett clear, and a radio poll even named her as the audience favourite for the role. Warner offered her services to Selznick, as well as those of Errol Flynn for the part of Rhett Butler, thank goodness Selznick did not consider Davis suitable….. I can not even imagine anyone else in those roles!
After Jezebel Bette Davis career peaked, being named year after year one of the Top Ten Money Making Stars and in 1941 becoming the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – although in typical Bette style, she didn’t keep that crown for long, antagonizing her fellow committee members with her brash manner.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbour Bette Davis became personally involved in the war efforts at home, selling war bonds and opening servicemen’s club the Hollywood Canteen in 1942, in which Hollywood’s most important stars volunteered to entertain servicemen. Davis ensured that every night there would be a few important “names” for the visiting soldiers to meet. The star later commented, “There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.” And in 1980, she was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the United States Department of Defence’s highest civilian award, for her efforts.
For all of her efforts on and off the silver screen though, Bette is almost universally best remembered for being something of a div, Bette claims she became tough by necessity – “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you are not a star”…. well that explains a lot And for her lifelong feuds with fellow stars of the big screen, in particular Joan Crawford.
It all started in 1945 when Davis refused the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), a career defining role and one for which Joan Crawford won an Academy Award. Just 2 years later Possessed was tailor-made for Davis however, she became pregnant and again the role and the Academy Award nomination for Best Actress went to Joan Crawford. but it came to a head when filming horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Director, Robert Aldrich claimed “It’s proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.” But after filming wound up their public comments against each other developed into the famous feud. My favourite tale is that of when Davis was nominated for an Academy Award, and Joan contacted the other Best Actress nominees (who were unable to attend the ceremonies) and offered to accept the award on their behalf should they win…. gosh I love those two, how fun would it have been to have them both round for dinner?!
(Image Source – Doctor Macro)