Remembering Bette Davis

A look at one of the great stars of yesteryear.

by Jennie Kermode

As she features in a retrospective at the Glasgow Film Festival, Eye For Film takes a look at the long and celebrated career of one of Hollywood's greatest stars.

"Acting should be bigger than life. Scripts should be bigger than life. It should all be bigger than life," said Bette Davis. Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in a small town in Massachusetts, she had to deal with her parents' break-up at the age of six and later moved with her mother to New York City. There she changed her name - she had always been affectionately called Betty, but wanted it to be spelled like the anti-heroine in Honoré de Balzac's Cousine Bette. She took an intense interest in literature, but it was cinema and the stage which captured her heart. Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy and Peg Entwistle in the Ibsen play The Wild Duck convinced her that acting was the only career worth having.

Unfortunately, Davis' very enthusiasm worked against her. She was dismissed as a starry-eyed wannabe by the Manhattan Civic Repertory. But even in her teens, she was beginning to show the steely determination which would take her to the top. Enrolment in the John Murray Anderson School of Theatre soon led to Broadway performances. There she made such an impression that she was invited to go to Hollywood and audition for Universal Studios. However, the clerk sent to collect her from the station missed her after searching in vain for someone who "looked like a movie star". "What a fool I was to come to Hollywood where they only understand platinum blondes and where legs are more important than talent," she lamented later. She was still accepted, though her first director, William Wyler, protested that she was insulting him by turning up to the set in a low-cut top. Despite this, the two went on to fall passionately in love, and had an affair which resonated throughout Davis' life, though Wyler never left his wife. They were to work together on several films including the classics Jezebel and The Little Foxes, both of which showcased her charismatic appeal as a scheming villainess.

Davis' early films were run-of-the-mill Universal melodramas, and it wasn't until she was loaned to RKO that she had a smash hit, with Of Human Bondage. Her portrait of a violently self-destructive woman whose recklessness and string of affairs bring near-ruin to the man who loves her won her a Best Actress Oscar nomination and firmly established her as a star, with Life describing it as "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress". The following year she won the Oscar for her role as a demanding alcoholic actress in Dangerous, and three years later she was to win it again for Jezebel. But it was her work in Dark Victory, as an heiress coming to terms with impending death from a brain tumour, that she always privately considered to be her best.

At the height of her career, Davis had the pick of female starring roles at Warner Bros., performing alongside the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, George Brent at Errol Flynn. Of the latter she commented "He was just beautiful... He himself openly said 'I don't know really anything about acting', and I admire his honesty because he's absolutely right," but they became great friends. Her friends were a vital support when, toward the end of the Forties, her career began to wane, and she went freelance in 1949. It was shortly after this that she won a role in what was to become one of her most enduring popular films, All About Eve. Playing an ageing stage actress who watches the next generation of talent prepare to ruthlessly cut her down, she seemed to audiences to be telling a very personal story - yet her own career was far from over.

Though most of the films Davis made in subsequent years had a lower profile, she continued to win acclaim for the quality of her work. In 1962 she made her last true classic, teaming up with old rival Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Once again, her willingness to play a character who was older than she was, who was ugly and who was losing her mind enabled her to deliver a performance of real magnitude. Davis was never interested in the beautiful woman in distress roles which satisfied most of her contemporaries, only ever taking them to placate studio bosses and fans. What she loved was the chance to get her teeth into a really strong character. "Why am I so good at playing bitches?" she wondered. "I think it's because I'm not a bitch. Maybe that's why Joan Crawford always plays ladies."

Davis' dedication to her craft saw her working right up to the end of her life. Her last hit came in 1987, when she appeared opposite Lillian Gish in The Whales Of August. She played a witch in Wicked Stepmother in 1989, but walked out after arguing with the director. Time remained only for her to put the finishing touches to the second volume of her autobiography, and she died on the sixth of October, in France, as a consequence of breast cancer and a series of strokes.

During the course of her life, Davis was married four times, her last husband being the actor Gary Merrill. She also had a number of passionate affairs with her directors and leading men. "Gary was a macho man, but none of my husbands was ever man enough to become Mr. Bette Davis," she lamented. Her final book was subtitled The Lonely Life, so how did she make it through all those years? Her answer was simple: "I survived because I was tougher than anybody else."

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