Ruth Elizabeth “Bette” Davis (Lowell, April 5, 1908 – Neuilly-sur-Seine, October 6, 1989), was an American film, television and stage actress. Known for her willingness to play unsympathetic characters, she was revered for her performances in a diverse range of film genres; from crime melodramas, period films, and comedies, although her greatest successes were dramatic romances. Winner of two Academy Awards, she was the first actress to accumulate ten nominations.
After appearing on Broadway in New York, 22-year-old Davis moved to Hollywood in 1930. After a few unsuccessful films, she had her critical success playing a vulgar waitress in “Slaves of Desire” (1934) although, contentiously, she was not among the three nominees for the Academy Award for Best Actress that year. The following year, her performance as a decadent actress in “Dangerous” (1935) gave Davis her first nomination, in which she won. In 1937, she tried to break free of her contract with Warner Bros.; although she lost the legal case, it marked the beginning of more than a decade as one of the most celebrated leading ladies in American cinema. In the same year, she starred in “Marked Woman,” a film regarded as one of the most important of her early career. Davis” portrayal of an 1850s Southern belle in “Jezebel” (1938) earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress, and was the first of five consecutive years in which she received a nomination for the award; the others were for “Bitter Victory” (1939), “The Letter” (1940), “Perfidious” (1941), and “The Passing Stranger” (1942).
Davis was known for her vigorous and intense acting style and earned a reputation as a perfectionist in her craft. She could be combative and confrontational with studio executives and film directors as well as her cast mates, expecting the same high standard of performance and commitment from them as she expected from herself. Her direct manner, idiosyncratic speech, and ubiquitous cigarette smoking contributed to a public persona that was often imitated and satirized.
She played a Broadway star in “The Wicked One” (1950), which earned her another Oscar nomination and won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Her last Oscar nomination was for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), which she starred in with her famous rival Joan Crawford. In the last phase of her career, her most successful films were 1978”s “Death on the Nile” and “The Whales of August” (1987). Her career went through several periods of eclipse, but despite a long period of health problems, she continued acting in film and television until shortly before her death from breast cancer in 1989. Davis admitted that her success often came at the expense of her personal relationships. She was married four times, divorced three times, and widowed once, when her second husband died unexpectedly. She raised her children largely as a single mother. Her daughter, B. D. Hyman, wrote a controversial memoir about her childhood “My Mother”s Keeper” (1985).
Davis was the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, a food, dancing, and entertainment club for military personnel during World War II, and was the first woman president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was also the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. In 1999, Davis ranked second behind Katharine Hepburn in the list of the 50 greatest legends of Hollywood”s golden age.
He has two stars on the Walk of Fame, one for his work in film and one for his work in television. They are located at 6225 Hollywood Boulevard and 6233 Hollywood Boulevard.
Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known since childhood as “Betty,” was born on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts, the daughter of Harlow Morrell Davis (1885-1938), a law student from Augusta, Maine, and later a patent attorney, and Ruth “Ruthie” Augusta (1885-1961), of Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. His younger sister, Barbara “Bobby” Harriet, had been born on October 25, 1909.
In 1915, Davis”s parents separated and Davis attended, for three years, the Crestalban Spartan boarding school in Lanesborough, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. In the fall of 1921, his mother, Ruth Davis, moved to New York City, using her children”s tuition money to enroll at the Clarence White School of Photography, with an apartment on 144th Street at Broadway. She then worked as a portrait photographer.
The young Bette Davis later changed the spelling of her first name to Bette after meeting “Bette Fischer,” a character in Honoré de Balzac”s “La Cousine Bette” (1846). During her time in New York, Davis became a Girl Scout, where she became a patrol leader. Her patrol won a competitive parade for Mrs. Herbert Hoover at Madison Square Garden.
Davis attended Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, where she met her future husband, Harmon O. Nelson, known as Ham. In 1926, Davis, then 18, saw Henrik Ibsen”s production of “The Wild Duck,” starring Blanche Yurka and Peg Entwistle. Davis later recalled, “The reason I wanted to go into theater was because of an actress named Peg Entwistle. She auditioned for admission in Eva Le Gallienne”s “Manhattan Civic Repertory,” but was rejected by Le Gallienne, who described her attitude as “insincere” and “frivolous.”
Davis auditioned for George Cukor”s theater company in Rochester, New York; although he was not very impressed, he gave Davis his first paid acting job-a one-week stint playing the role of a chorus girl in the play “Broadway.” Ed Sikov provided Davis” first professional role, in a 1929 production of Virgil Geddes” Provincetown Players in the play “The Earth Between”; however, the production was delayed for a year. In 1929, Davis was chosen by Blanche Yurka to play Hedwig, the character she saw Entwistle play in “The Wild Duck.” After performing in Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston, she made her Broadway debut in 1929”s “Broken Dishes,” and followed with “Solid South.”
1930-1936: Early Years in Hollywood
In 1930, 22-year-old Davis moved to Hollywood to do screen tests for Universal Studios. She was inspired to pursue a career as a film actress after seeing Mary Pickford in 1921”s “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (“The Little Lord”). Davis and her mother traveled to Hollywood by train. She later recounted her surprise that no one from the studio was there to meet her. In fact, a studio employee waited for her, but left because he didn”t see anyone who “looked like an actress.” She failed her first screen test, but was used in several screen tests for other actors. In a 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, she recounted her experience with the remark, “I was the most Yankee and most modest virgin that ever walked the earth. They laid me down on a couch, and I tested fifteen men … They all had to lie on top of me and give me a passionate kiss. Oh, I thought I was going to die. I just thought I was going to die. A second test was arranged for Davis, for the film “A House Divided” in 1931. Dressed hastily in an ill-fitting outfit with low necklines, she was rejected by the film”s director William Wyler, who commented aloud to the assembled crew, “What do you think of these ladies who show their breasts and think they can get jobs?”
Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, considered terminating Davis” contract, but director of photography Karl Freund told him that she had “lovely eyes” and would be suitable for “Rebel Girl” (1931), in which she subsequently made her film debut. Her nervousness was compounded when she overheard the production chief, Carl Laemmle, Jr. comment to another executive that she had “as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville,” one of the film”s co-stars. The film was not a success, and her next role in 1931”s “Seed” was too brief to attract attention.
Universal Studios renewed her contract for three months, and she appeared in a small role in “The Bridge at Waterloo” (1931), before being loaned to Columbia Pictures for a role in “The Menace,” and to Capital Films for “Hell”s House,” all 1932. After a year and six unsuccessful films, Laemmle chose not to renew his contract.
Davis was preparing to return to New York when actor George Arliss cast Davis for the lead female role in the Warner Bros. film “The God Man” (1932), and for the rest of her life, Davis credited him for helping her get her momentum in Hollywood. The Saturday Evening Post wrote, “She is not only beautiful, but bubbling with charm,” and compared her to Constance Bennett and Olive Borden. Warner Bros signed her to a five-year contract, and she remained with the studio for the next 18 years.
After more than 20 film roles, the role of the cruel and libertine Mildred Rogers in RKO Radio”s “Slaves of Desire” (1934), a film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham”s novel gave Davis her first major critical acclaim. Many actresses feared playing unsympathetic characters, and several turned down such roles, but Davis saw this as an opportunity to show the range of her acting abilities. Her co-star, Leslie Howard, was initially dismissive and unsympathetic, but as filming progressed, her attitude changed and she subsequently spoke highly of Davis” abilities. Director John Cromwell allowed her relative freedom: “I let Bette take her head. I trusted her instincts.” She insisted on being portrayed realistically in her death scene and said, “The last stages of consumption, poverty, and neglect are not pretty, and I intended to look convincing.”
The film was a success, and Davis” characterization won praise from critics, with Life writing that she gave “probably the best performance ever recorded on screen by an American actress.” Davis anticipated that her reception would encourage Warner Bros. to cast her in larger roles, and was disappointed when Jack L. Warner refused to loan her to Columbia Studios to appear in “It Happened That Night” (1934), and instead cast her in the melodrama “Housewife. When Davis was not nominated for an Oscar for “Of Human Bondage,” The Hollywood Citizen News questioned the omission, and Norma Shearer, one of the nominees that year, joined a campaign to have Davis nominated for the award. This led to an announcement by Academy president Howard Estabrook, who said that under the circumstances, “any voter … may write on the ballot their personal choice for the winners,” thus allowing, for the only time in history, consideration of a candidate not officially nominated for an award. The uproar led, however, to a change in voting procedures the following year, in which nominations were determined by the votes of all eligible members of a specific branch, rather than by a smaller committee, with results tabulated independently by the accounting firm Price Waterhouse.
Davis appeared in “Dangerous” (1935) as a troubled actress, and received very good reviews. E. Arnot Robertson wrote in Picture Post:
“I think Bette Davis probably would have been burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious sense of being charged with a power that cannot find a common outlet.”
The New York Times hailed her as “becoming one of the most interesting of our screen actresses.” She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role, but commented that it was a belated recognition for “Of Human Bondage,” calling the award a “consolation prize.” For the rest of her life, Davis maintained that she gave the statue the familiar name of “Oscar” because her bottom resembled that of her husband, whose middle name was Oscar, although, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially references another story.
In his next film, “The Petrified Forest” (1936), Davis co-starred with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart.
Convinced that her career was being damaged by a succession of mediocre films, Davis accepted an offer in 1936 to appear in two films in Britain. Knowing that she was in breach of her contract with Warner Bros. she fled to Canada to avoid having legal documents served on her. Eventually, Davis took her case to court in Britain, hoping to get out of her contract. She later recalled the opening statement of the lawyer representing Warner Bros., Patrick Hastings, in which he urged the court to “come to the conclusion that this is a naughty young woman and that what she wants is more money.” He mocked Davis” description of her contract as “slavery,” stating, incorrectly, that she was being paid $1,350 a week. He commented, “If anyone wants to put me in perpetual servitude based on that pay, I will prepare to consider it.” The British press offered little support for Davis and portrayed her as overpaid and ungrateful.
Davis explained her views to a journalist, “I knew that if I kept appearing in more mediocre pictures, I wouldn”t have any career worth fighting for.” Her lawyer laid out the claims – that she could be suspended without pay for refusing a role, with the period of suspension added to her contract, and could be called upon to play any role within her abilities regardless of her personal beliefs, being forced to support a political party against her ideologies, and that her image and likeness could be displayed in any way deemed applicable by the studio. Jack Warner testified, and was asked, “Whatever role you choose to call for her to play, if she thinks she can play it, whether it”s unpleasant and cheap, she has to play it?” Warner replied, “Yes, she must play it.” and returned to Hollywood, in debt and with no income, to resume her career. Olivia de Havilland mounted a similar case in 1943, and won.
1937-1941: Success with Warner Bros.
Davis began work on “Marked Woman” (1937), portraying a prostitute in a contemporary gangster drama inspired by the case of Lucky Luciano. For her performance in the film, she was awarded the Coppa Volpi at the Venice Film Festival in 1937. Her next film was “Jezebel” (1938). The film was a hit, and Davis” performance as a spoiled Southerner earned her a second Oscar.
This led to speculation in the press that she would be chosen to play Scarlett O”Hara, a similar character, in “…Gone With the Wind.” Davis expressed her desire to play Scarlett, and while David O. Selznick was conducting a search for the actress who would play the role, a radio poll named her as the audience favorite. Warner offered her services to Selznick as part of a deal that also included Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, but Selznick did not see Davis as suitable and rejected the offer, while Davis did not want Flynn cast as Rhett Butler. Newcomer Vivien Leigh was cast as Scarlett O”Hara, and de Havilland got a role as Melanie, with both being nominated for Oscars, and Leigh winning.
“Jezebel” marked the beginning of the most successful phase of Davis” career, and in subsequent years she was listed in the annual Quigley”s “Top-Ten Money-Making Stars Poll,” which was compiled from the votes of movie exhibitors in the U.S., based on the stars who generated the highest box office revenue over the previous year.
Davis became emotional during the production of her next film, “Bitter Victory” (1939), and considered abandoning it until producer Hal B. Wallis convinced her to channel her despair into acting. The film was among the highest-grossing films of the year, and the role of Judith Traherne earned her another Oscar nomination. In recent years, Davis has cited this performance as her personal favorite.
She appeared in three other blockbusters in 1939: “The Old Maid” (“I Knew How to Love”) with Miriam Hopkins, “Juarez” with Paul Muni, and “My Kingdom for a Love” with Errol Flynn. The latter was her first color film, and her only color film made at the height of her career. To play the elderly Elizabeth I of England, Davis shaved off her hairline and eyebrows.
During filming, she was visited on set by actor Charles Laughton. She commented that she had a “nerve” playing a 60-year-old woman, to which Laughton replied, “Don”t you ever dare hang yourself. That is the only way you can grow in your profession. You must continually try things that you think are beyond you, or you get into a complete rut.” Recalling the episode many years later, Davis commented that Laughton”s advice has influenced her throughout her career.
By this time, Davis was Warner Bros.” most lucrative star, and was given the most important of her female lead roles. Her image was considered more carefully, although she continued to play her roles, she was often filmed in close-ups that emphasized her eyes. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) was the most financially successful film of Davis” career up to that point. “The Letter” (1940) was considered “one of the best productions of the year” by The Hollywood Reporter, and Davis won admiration for her interpretation of an adulterous murderess, a role originated by Katharine Cornell.
In January 1941, Davis became the first woman president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but she antagonized committee members with her brash manner and radical proposals. Davis rejected the idea of her being just “a figurehead.” Faced with disapproval and resistance from the committee, Davis resigned and was succeeded by her predecessor Walter Wanger.
Davis starred in three films in 1941, the first being “The Big Lie,” with George Brent. It was a pleasantly different role for Davis, as she played a kind and sympathetic character.
William Wyler directed Davis for the third time in Lillian Hellman”s “Perfidious” (1941), but they clashed over the character of Regina Giddens, a role originally played on Broadway by Tallulah Bankhead (Davis had portrayed on film a role begun by Bankhead on stage once before – in “Dark Victory”). Wyler encouraged Davis to imitate Bankhead”s interpretation, but Davis wanted to do the role her own way. She received another Oscar nomination for her performance and never worked with Wyler again.
1942-1944: War Years and Personal Tragedies
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Davis spent the first months of 1942 selling war bonds. After Jack Warner criticized her tendency to persuade crowds to buy, she reminded him that her audience responded most strongly to her “slutty” performances. She sold $2 million worth of bonds in two days, as well as a picture of herself in “Jezebel” for $250,000. She also performed for regiments of black people, as the only white member of an acting troupe formed by Hattie McDaniel, and which included Lena Horne and Ethel Waters.
At John Garfield”s suggestion to open a military club in Hollywood, Davis-with the help of Warner, Cary Grant, and Jule Styne-turned an old nightclub into the Hollywood Canteen, which opened on October 3, 1942. Hollywood”s top stars volunteered to entertain the military. Davis guaranteed that every night, some important “names” would be there for the visiting soldiers to meet.
She appeared as herself in the film “Hollywood Canteen” (1944), which used the canteen as the setting for a fictional story. Davis later commented, “There are few accomplishments in my life of which I am sincerely proud. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.” In 1980, she received the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the United States Department of Defense”s highest civilian award, for her work on the Hollywood Canteen.
Davis showed little interest in the film “The Strange Passenger” (1942), until Hal Wallis advised her that female audiences needed romantic dramas to distract them from the reality of their lives. It became one of the best known of his “women”s films.” In one of the most imitated scenes in the film, Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes while looking into Davis” eyes and passes one to her. Film critics praised Davis for her performance, with the National Board of Review commenting that she gave the film “a dignity not entirely warranted by the script.”
During the early 1940s, several of Davis” film choices were influenced by the war, such as Lillian Hellman”s “Hours of Storm” (1943) and “Thank Your Lucky Stars” (1943), a musical filled with performers, with each of them donating their fees to the Hollywood Canteen. Davis sang an unreleased song, “They”re Either Too Young or Too Old,” which became a hit record after the film”s release.
“Old Acquaintance” (“An Old Friendship”), 1943, reunited her with Miriam Hopkins in a story of two old friends dealing with tensions created when one of them becomes a successful novelist. Davis felt that Hopkins tried to overshadow her throughout the film. Director Vincent Sherman recalled the intense competition and animosity between the two actresses, and Davis often joked that she hid nothing in a scene in which she was forced to shake Hopkins in a fit of rage.
In August 1943, Davis” husband, Arthur Farnsworth, collapsed while walking down a Hollywood street and died two days later. An autopsy revealed that his fall was caused by a skull fracture he had suffered two weeks earlier. Davis testified before an inquest that he knew of no event that could have caused the injury. A finding of accidental death was reached. Highly distraught, Davis tried to withdraw from her next film “Vanity” (1944), but Jack Warner, who had halted production after Farnsworth”s death, convinced her to continue.
Although she earned a reputation for being direct and demanding, her behavior during the filming of “Mr. Skeffington” was erratic and out of character. She alienated Vincent Sherman, refusing to shoot certain scenes and insisting that some sets be reconstructed. She improvised dialogue, causing confusion among other actors, and infuriated writer Julius Epstein, who was called upon to rewrite scenes at her whim. Davis later explained his actions with the remark, “When I was most unhappy, I attacked rather than lamented.” Some critics criticized Davis for over-performance; James Agee wrote that she “demonstrates the horrors of egocentrism on a marathon scale.”
1945-1949: Professional Setbacks
Davis turned down the title role in “Soul in Distress” (1945), a role that won Joan Crawford an Oscar, and instead played “The Heart Does Not Grow Old” (1945), based on a play by Emlyn Williams.
In “The Corn Is Green” Davis played Miss Moffat, an English teacher who saves a young Welsh miner (John Dall) from a life in the coal mines by offering him an education. The role was played in the theater by Ethel Barrymore (who was 61 at the play”s premiere), but Warner Bros. felt that the film version should portray the character as a younger woman. Davis disagreed and insisted on playing the role as written, so she wore a gray wig and padding under her clothes to create an inelegant appearance. The film was well received by critics and grossed $2.2 million. Critic E. Arnot Robertson noted:
“Only Bette Davis … could have so successfully countered the play”s adaptors” obvious intention to make frustrated sex the driving force behind the main character”s interest in the young miner.”
She concluded that “the subtle interpretation she insisted on giving” kept the focus on the teacher”s “sheer joy in imparting knowledge.”
Her next film, “A Stolen Life” (1946), was the only film Davis made with her own production company, BD Productions. Davis played double roles, as twins. The film received poor reviews and was described by Bosley Crowther as “a painfully empty play”; but, with a profit of $2.5 million, it was one of his biggest box office successes. In 1947, the U.S. Treasury named Davis the highest paid woman in the country, with her share of the film”s profits accounting for most of her earnings. Her next film was 1946”s “Deception” (“Heaven Damn Her”), the first of her films to lose money.
“Bonfire of Passion” (1947) had been tailor-made for Davis, and was to be her next project after “Deception.” However, she was pregnant and went on maternity leave. Joan Crawford then played her role and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. After giving birth in 1947, Davis wrote in her memoir that she became absorbed in motherhood and considered ending her career. As she continued to make films, however, her relationship with her daughter began to deteriorate, and her popularity with the public steadily declined.
Among the roles offered to Davis after her return to film was Rose Sayer in “An Adventure in Africa” (1951). When informed that the film would be shot in Africa, Davis turned down the role, telling Jack Warner, “If you can”t shoot on a boat in the back, then I”m not interested.” Katharine Hepburn played the role and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Davis was offered a role in a film version of Virginia Kellogg”s prison drama Women Without Men. Originally intended to cast Davis alongside Joan Crawford, Davis made it clear that she would not appear in any “dyke movies.” It was filmed as “On the Fringes of Life” (1950), and the lead roles were played by Eleanor Parker (who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar) and Agnes Moorehead.
In 1948, Davis was cast in the melodrama “Winter Meeting. Although she was initially excited, she soon learned that Warner had arranged for “softer” lighting to be used to disguise her age. She recalled that she had seen the same lighting technique “on the sets of Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis, and I knew what they meant.” To add to her disappointment, Davis was not confident with abilities of her protagonist – James Davis in his first big screen role. She disagreed with changes made to the script because of censorship restrictions and found that many of the aspects of the role that initially appealed to her had been cut. The film was described by Bosley Crowther as “interminable,” and he noted that “of all the miserable dilemmas Miss Davis has been involved in … this is probably the worst.” The film failed at the box office and the studio lost nearly $1 million.
While making 1948”s “June Bride,” Davis clashed with co-star Robert Montgomery, later describing him as “a male version of Miriam Hopkins … an excellent actor, but addicted to stealing scenes.” The film marked his first comedy in several years and earned him some positive reviews, but was not particularly popular with audiences and returned only a smaller profit than expected.
Despite the poor box office receipts of her later films, in 1949 she negotiated a four-film contract with Warner Bros. that paid her $10,285 a week and made her, again, the highest paid woman in the United States. However, Jack Warner refused to allow her script approval and cast her in “Beyond the Forest” (1949). Davis allegedly hated the script and begged Warner to recast the role, but he refused. After the film was completed, her request to be released from her contract was granted.
The reviews of the film were blunt. Dorothy Manners, writing for the Los Angeles Examiner, described the film as “an unfortunate end to her brilliant career.” Hedda Hopper wrote, “If Bette had deliberately decided to ruin her career, she could not have chosen a more appropriate vehicle.” The film contained the line “What a dump!”, which became closely associated with Davis after it was referenced in Edward Albee”s “Who”s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962), in which actors began using it in their acts. Arthur Blake was a famous transformer of the post-World War II era who was particularly known for his performances as Bette Davis; notably impersonating her in the 1952 film “Diplomatic Courier” (“Dangerous Mission in Trieste”).
1949-1960: Beginning of a freelance career
Davis filmed “The Story of a Divorce” (released by RKO Radio Pictures in 1951 as “After the Storm”). Shortly before filming was completed, producer Darryl F. Zanuck offered him the role of aging theatrical actress Margo Channing in “The Wicked One” (1950). Davis read the script, described it as the best she had ever read, and accepted the role. Within days, she joined the cast in San Francisco to begin filming. During production, she established what became a lifelong friendship with her co-star Anne Baxter and a romantic relationship with leading man Gary Merrill that led to marriage. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film”s director, later commented, “Bette was the perfect lyric. She was the perfect syllable. The director”s dream: the prepared actress.”
Critics responded positively to Davis” performance, and several of her lines became well-known, particularly: “Fasten your seat belts, it”s going to be a bumpy night. Pauline Kael wrote that much of Mankiewicz”s vision of “theater” was “absurd,” but praised Davis, writing “saved for a performance that is the real thing: Bette Davis is at her most instinctive and assured. Actress – vain, frightened, a woman who goes too far in her reactions and emotions – makes the whole thing come alive.”
Davis won a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the New York Critics Association Award. She also received the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress, and was named by them as the “worst actress of 1949” for “Beyond the Forest.” During this time, she was invited to leave her handprints in the courtyard of Grauman”s Chinese Theater.
After a semi-retirement in the mid-1950s, Davis again starred in several films during her time in Maine, including 1955”s “The Virgin Queen,” in which she played Queen Elizabeth I.
The family traveled to England, where Davis and her husband Gary Merrill starred in the 1951 murder mystery film “Another Man”s Poison” (“Cursed Woman”). When it received lukewarm reviews and flopped at the box office, Hollywood columnists wrote that Davis” comeback had run its course, and an Oscar nomination for “Bitter Tears” (1952) did not halt her decline at the box office.
In 1952, Davis appeared in “Two”s Company” on Broadway, directed by Jules Dassin. She felt uncomfortable working outside her area of expertise; she had never been a musical artist, and her limited theater experience had been more than 20 years earlier. Davis was also seriously ill and had surgery for osteomyelitis of the jaw.
Few of Davis” 1950s films were successful, and many of his performances were condemned by critics. The Hollywood Reporter wrote of mannerisms “that you would expect to find in a nightclub impersonation of “, while London critic Richard Winninger wrote:
“Miss Davis, with more say than most stars about which films she makes, seems to have fallen into egotism. The criteria for her choice of films seems to be that nothing should compete with the full display of every facet of Davis” art. Only bad movies are good enough for her.”
Her films from this period included “The Wake of the Storms” and “The Wedding Party,” both from 1956. As her career declined, her marriage continued to deteriorate until she filed for divorce in 1960. The following year, her mother died. At the same time, she tried television, appearing in three episodes of NBC”s popular western “Wagon Train” as three different characters in 1959 and 1961; her first TV appearance was on February 25, 1956, in “General Electric Theatre.”
In 1960, Davis, a registered Democrat, appeared at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where she met future President John F. Kennedy, whom she strongly admired. Outside of acting and politics, Davis was an active and practicing Anglican.
1961-1970: Renewed Success
In 1961, Davis debuted in the Broadway production of “The Night of the Iguana” with mostly mediocre reviews, and left the production after four months due to “chronic illness.” He then joined Glenn Ford and Hope Lange in Frank Capra”s “Lady For a Day” (1961), a remake of “Lady For a Day” (1933), also directed by Capra, and based on a story by Damon Runyon. Exhibitors protested its billing, as they felt it would negatively affect the film”s financial performance, and despite Ford”s appearance, the film failed at the box office.
She accepted her next role, in the gothic horror film “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), after Joan Crawford showed interest in the script and considered Davis for the role of Baby Jane. Davis believed she could attract the same audience that had recently made Alfred Hitchcock”s “Psycho” (1960) a success. She negotiated a deal that would pay her 10% of worldwide gross profits, in addition to her salary. The film became one of the big hits of the year.
Davis and Crawford played two aging sisters, former actresses forced by circumstances to share a decaying Hollywood mansion. Director Robert Aldrich explained that Davis and Crawford were aware of how important the film was to their respective careers, and commented, “It”s accurate to say that they really hated each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.
After filming was completed, their public comments against each other allowed the tension to escalate into a lifelong feud. When Davis was nominated for an Oscar, Crawford contacted the other Best Actress nominees (who were unable to attend the ceremonies) and offered to accept the award on her behalf if they won. When Anne Bancroft was announced as the winner, Crawford accepted the award on Bancroft”s behalf. Despite not liking each other, Davis and Crawford spoke highly of each other”s acting talent. Crawford said that Davis was a “fascinating actress,” but they were never able to become friends, as they only worked on one film together. Davis also said that Crawford was a good professional actress, but cared too much about her looks and her vanity. Their rivalry eventually became Ryan Murphy”s limited series “Feud” (2017).
Davis also received her only BAFTA nomination for this performance. Her daughter Barbara (credited as B.D. Merrill) played a small role in the film, and when she and Davis visited the Cannes Film Festival to promote it, Barbara met Jeremy Hyman, an executive at Seven Arts Productions. After a short courtship, she married Hyman at 16, with Davis” permission.
In October 1962, it was announced that four episodes of the CBS series “Perry Mason” would feature special guest stars covering Raymond Burr during his convalescence from surgery. A fan of the series, Davis was the first of the guest stars. The episode “The Case of Constant Doyle” began filming on December 12, 1962, and aired on January 31, 1963.
In 1962, Davis appeared as Celia Miller in the TV western “The Virginian,” in the episode “The Accomplice.”
In September 1962, Davis placed an ad in Variety under the headline “Situations Wanted – Women Artists,” which read, “Mother of three – 10, 11 and 15 – divorced. American. Thirty years of experience as an actress in films. Still mobile, and more affable than rumored. Wants a steady job in Hollywood (Had Broadway).” Davis said it was a joke, and she sustained her comeback over several years.
“Someone Died in My Place” (1964) was a crime drama in which she played twin sisters. The film was an American adaptation of the Mexican film “La Otra” (“The Other”), starring Dolores del Río. “Scandal in Society” (1964) was a drama based on a novel by Harold Robbins. Davis played Susan Hayward”s mother, but filming was marred by heated arguments between Davis and Hayward.
“With Evil in Their Souls” (1964) was Robert Aldrich”s sequel to “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”. Aldrich planned to reunite Davis and Crawford, but the latter dropped out of the film supposedly due to an illness shortly after filming began. She was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. The film was a considerable success and brought renewed attention to its veteran cast, which included Joseph Cotten, Mary Astor, Agnes Moorehead, and Cecil Kellaway.
The following year, Davis was cast in the lead role in Aaron Spelling”s comedy The Decorator. A pilot episode was filmed, but not aired, and the project was shut down. At the end of the decade, Davis appeared in the 1965 British films “The Nanny,” “The Birthday” (1968), and “Connecting Rooms” (1970), none of which received good reviews, and her career again stalled.
1971-1983: Later Career
In the early 1970s, Davis was invited to appear in New York City in a stage presentation entitled “Great Ladies of the American Cinema.” Over five consecutive nights, a different female star discussed her career and answered questions from the audience; Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell, Lana Turner, Sylvia Sidney, and Joan Crawford were the other participants. Davis was well received and was invited to tour Australia with the similar theme “Bette Davis in Person and on Film”; her success allowed her to take the production to the UK.
In 1972, Davis played the lead role in two television movies that were conceived as pilots for upcoming ABC and NBC series, “Madame Sin,” with Robert Wagner, and “The Judge and Jake Wyler,” with Doug McClure and Joan Van Ark, but in each case, the network decided not to produce a series.
She appeared in the stage production “Miss Moffat,” a musical adaptation of her film “The Corn Is Green,” but after the show was poorly reviewed by Philadelphia critics during its pre-Broadway run, she cited a back injury, and abandoned the show, which closed immediately.
She played supporting roles in Luigi Comencini”s “Sowing the Illusion” (1972) with Joseph Cotten and Italian actors Alberto Sordi and Silvana Mangano, Dan Curtis”s 1976 film “Burnt Offerings,” and “The Disappearance of Aimee, also 1976, but clashed with Karen Black and Faye Dunaway, the stars of the latter two respective productions, because she felt that neither extended an appropriate degree of respect to her and that their behavior on the sets was unprofessional.
In 1977, Davis became the first woman to receive the American Film Institute”s Lifetime Contribution Award. The televised event included comments from several of Davis” colleagues, including William Wyler, who jokingly said that given the chance, Davis would still like to reshoot a scene from “The Letter,” and Davis nodded. Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, Natalie Wood, and Olivia de Havilland were among the performers who paid tribute, with de Havilland commenting that Davis “got the roles I always wanted.”
After the broadcast, she found herself in demand again, often having to choose between several offers. She accepted roles in the television miniseries “The Dark Secret of Harvest Home” (1978) and the 1978 theatrical film “Death on the Nile,” an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Most of his remaining work was for television. She won an Emmy for 1979”s “Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter” with Gena Rowlands, and was nominated for her performances in 1980”s “White Mama” and “Little Gloria Happy at Last” (1982). She also played supporting roles in the Disney films “Danger on Bewitched Mountain” (1978) and “Mystery in the Woods” (1980).
Davis” name became known to a younger audience when Kim Carnes” song “Bette Davis Eyes” (written by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon) became a worldwide hit and the best-selling album of 1981 in the U.S., where it ranked #1 on the music charts for over two months. Davis” grandson was impressed that she was the subject of a hit song, and Davis took this as a compliment, writing to both Carnes and the songwriters, and accepting the gift of gold and platinum records from Carnes, hanging them on his wall.
She continued acting for television, appearing in 1981”s “Family Reunion” with her grandson J. Ashley Hyman, 1982”s “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino,” and 1983”s “Right of Way” with James Stewart. In 1983, she received the Women in Film Crystal Award.
1983-1989: Tributes and final works
In 1983, after filming the pilot episode of the television series “Hotel,” Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.
Davis appeared in the 1986 television movie “As Summers Die” (“In a Certain Summer”) and in Lindsay Anderson”s “The Whales of August” (1987), in which she played the blind sister of Lillian Gish. Although having health problems at the time, Davis memorized her own and everyone else”s lines, as she always did. The film received good reviews, with one reviewer writing, “Bette crawls across the screen like an angry old wasp on a pane of glass, growling, staggering, squirming – a symphony of wrong synapses.” Davis became a Kennedy Awards honoree for her contribution to film in 1987.
Her last performance was the title role in Larry Cohen”s “Wicked Stepmother” (1989). By this time, her health was failing, and after disagreements with Cohen, she left the set. The script was rewritten to give Barbara Carrera”s character more emphasis, and the reworked version was released after Davis” death.
After leaving “Wicked Stepmother,” and with no more movie offers (although she was interested in playing the centenarian in Craig Calman”s “The Turn of the Century,” and worked with him on adapting the stage play into a feature film), Davis appeared on several talk shows, and was interviewed by Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, Larry King, and David Letterman, discussing her career but refusing to talk about her daughter. Her appearances were popular; Lindsay Anderson noted that the public enjoyed seeing her behaving “so mean”: “I always hated it because she was encouraged to behave badly. And I would always hear her described by that horrible word, mean-spirited.”
During 1988 and 1989, Davis was honored for her career achievements, receiving the Legion of Honor Award from France, the Campione d”Italia from Italy, and the Lifetime Contribution Award from the Film Society of Lincoln Center. She appeared on British television in a special broadcast from the South Bank Centre, discussing films and her career, the other guest being renowned Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky.
Relationships and Marriages
While attending Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, she met her future husband, Harmon O. Nelson, known as Ham. They were married on August 18, 1932, in Yuma, Arizona. The marriage was scrutinized by the press; as Ham”s earnings of $100 per week was in an unfavorable comparison to Davis” income of $1,000 per week. Davis addressed the issue in an interview, pointing out that many Hollywood wives earned more than their husbands, but the situation proved difficult for Nelson, who refused to allow Davis to buy a house until he could afford it. Davis had several miscarriages during their marriage. In 1938, Harmon ended his marriage to Davis, claiming that she read too much. On December 7, 1938, The New York Times reported in that Ham “usually just sat there while his wife read to ”an unnecessary degree. ” She thought her work was more important than her marriage. She even insisted on reading books or manuscripts when she had guests over. It was all very disturbing.”
In contrast to Davis” success, Ham Nelson was unable to establish a career for himself, which caused their relationship to decline. Also in 1938, after some fights over Davis” absence from the marriage, Nelson obtained evidence that his wife was involved in a sexual relationship with Howard Hughes, and subsequently filed for divorce, alleging “cruel and inhuman manner” on Davis” part.
During the productions of “Jezebel” (1938), Davis entered into a relationship with director William Wyler. She later described him as the “love of my life” and said that making the film with him was “the most perfect moment of happiness in my entire life.”
On the recording of “The Letter” (1940), Davis was in a relationship with former co-star George Brent, who proposed to her. Davis declined, as she had met Arthur Farnsworth, a New England innkeeper and son of a Vermont dentist. Davis and Farnsworth were married at Home Ranch in Rimrock, Arizona in December 1940, their second marriage.
In August 1943, Arthur collapsed while walking down a Hollywood street and died two days later. An autopsy revealed that his fall was caused by a skull fracture he had suffered two weeks earlier. Davis testified before an inquest that he knew of no event that could have caused the injury. A verdict of accidental death was reached. Highly distraught and grieving, Davis tried to withdraw from her next film “Vanity” (1944), but Jack Warner, who had halted production after Farnsworth”s death, convinced her to continue.
In 1945, Davis married artist William Grant Sherry, her third husband, who worked as a massage therapist. She was attracted to him because he claimed that he had never heard of her and therefore was not intimidated. In 1947, at the age of 39, Davis gave birth to her first and only biological daughter, Barbara Davis Sherry (known as B.D.), and later wrote in her memoir that she became so absorbed with motherhood and considered ending her career. As she continued making films, however, her relationship with her daughter began to deteriorate, and her popularity with audiences steadily declined. The 195s began an eventful decade for Davis, as she filed for divorce from her third husband, William.
During the production of “The Wicked One,” she established what became a lifelong friendship with co-star Anne Baxter and a romantic relationship with her leading man Gary Merrill.
On July 3, 1950, Davis and William Sherry”s divorce was finalized, and on July 28, she married Gary Merrill, her fourth and final husband. With Sherry”s consent, Merrill adopted B.D., Davis” daughter with Sherry. In January 1951, Davis and Merrill adopted a five-day-old baby girl named Margot Mosher Merrill (born January 6, 1951). Davis and Merrill lived with their three children – in 1952, they adopted a boy, Michael (born February 5, 1952).
Margot was diagnosed with severe brain damage due to an injury sustained during or shortly after her birth, and was placed in an institution around the age of 3. Davis and Merrill began to argue frequently, and B.D. later recalled episodes of alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
As her career declined, her marriage continued to deteriorate until she filed for divorce in 1960. The following year, her mother died.
During the 1980s, her relationship with her daughter B.D. Hyman deteriorated when Hyman became a Christian and tried to persuade Davis to follow her example. After finishing recording “Murder with Mirrors” (1985), she learned that Hyman had published the book “My Mother”s Keeper,” in which she recounted a difficult mother-daughter relationship and showed scenes of Davis” arrogant and drunken behavior.
Several of Davis” friends commented that Hyman”s description of events was inaccurate; one said that “much of the book is out of context.” Mike Wallace rebroadcast a “60 Minutes” interview he had filmed with Hyman some years earlier, in which she praised Davis for her parenting skills and said that she had adopted many of Davis” principles in raising her own children.
Hyman”s critics noted that Davis had supported the Hyman family financially for several years and had recently saved them from losing their home. Despite the bitterness of their divorce years earlier, Gary Merrill also defended Davis. Interviewed by CNN, Merrill said that Hyman was motivated by “cruelty and greed.” Davis” adopted son, Michael Merrill, ended contact with Hyman and refused to speak to her again, as did Davis, who disowned her.
In his second memoir “This ”n That” (1987), Davis wrote: “I am still recovering from the fact that a son of mine would write about me behind my back, to say nothing of the kind of book it is. I will never recover as completely from the comic book as I did from the stroke. Both were devastating experiences.” Her memoir concluded with a letter to her daughter, in which she addressed her several times as Hyman, and described her actions as “a flagrant lack of loyalty and gratitude for the very privileged life I feel you have received.” She concluded with a reference to the title of Hyman”s book: “If you mean money, if my memory serves me correctly, I have been your guardian for all these years. I continue to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.”
Sickness and death
In 1983, after filming the pilot episode of the television series “Hotel,” Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Two weeks after the surgery she suffered four strokes that caused paralysis on the left side of her face and left arm, and left her speech slurred. She began a long period of physical therapy and, aided by her personal assistant, Kathryn Sermak, partially recovered from the paralysis. Even late in life, Davis smoked 100 cigarettes a day.
Davis collapsed during the American Cinema Awards in 1989, and later discovered that her cancer had returned. She recovered sufficiently to travel to Spain, where she was honored at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, but during her visit her health deteriorated rapidly. Too weak to make the long trip back to the U.S., she traveled to France, where she died on October 6, 1989, at 11:35 p.m. at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Davis was 81 years old. A memorial tribute was held on stage 18 of the invitation-only Burbank Studio, where a light was turned on signaling the end of the production.
She was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, next to her mother Ruthie and sister Bobby, with her name enlarged. On her tombstone is written, “She did it the hard way,” an epitaph she mentioned in her memoir “Mother Goddam” as having been suggested to her by Joseph L. Mankiewicz shortly after they filmed “All About Eve.”
In 1936, Graham Greene summed up Davis:
“Even the most insignificant film … seemed temporarily better than they were because of that precise, nervous voice, the grayish blond hair, the wide, neurotic eyes, a kind of corrupt, phosphorescent beauty … I”d rather see Miss Davis than any number of competent films.”
In 1964, Jack Warner spoke of the “magical quality that turned this sometimes dull and not at all pretty little girl into a great artist,” and in a 1988 interview, Davis noted that, unlike many of her contemporaries, she forged a career without the benefit of beauty. She admitted that she was terrified during the making of her first films and that she became difficult by necessity. “Until you are known in my profession as a monster, you are not a star,” she said, ” I never fought for anything in a treacherous way. I never fought for anything but the good of the movie.” During the filming of “All About Eve” (1950), Joseph L. Mankiewicz told her about the perception in Hollywood that she was difficult, and she explained that when audiences saw her on screen, they didn”t consider that her appearance was the result of countless people working behind the scenes. If she was presented as ”a horse”s ass … forty feet wide and thirty feet tall,” that”s all the public would ”see or care” about.”
Although praised for her accomplishments, Davis and her films were sometimes ridiculed; Pauline Kael described “Now, Voyager” (1942) as “classic trash,” and by the mid-1940s, her sometimes polite and histrionic performances became the subject of caricature. Edwin Schallert, for the Los Angeles Time, praised Davis” performance in “Mr. Skeffington” (1944), while observing, “Mimes will have more fun than a box of monkeys imitating Miss Davis”; and Dorothy Manners, in the Los Angeles Examiner, said of her performance in the poorly received “Beyond the Forest” (1949): “No nightclub performer has ever turned in such a cruel imitation of Davis” mannerisms, as Bette transforms herself in that film.” Time magazine noted that Davis was compulsively watchable, even while criticizing her acting technique, summing up her performance in “Dead Ringer” (1964) with the observation, “Her acting, as always, is not really acting: It”s embarrassing to show off. But try to look away!”
Davis attracted a following in the gay subculture, and was often imitated by transformers such as Tracey Lee, Craig Russell, Jim Bailey, and Charles Pierce. Trying to explain her popularity with gay audiences, journalist Jim Emerson wrote: “Was she just a camp figure because her fragile, melodramatic acting style didn”t age well? Or was she ”larger than life,” a strong woman who survived? Probably some of both.”
Her film choices were often unconventional: Davis sought roles as manipulative, murderous women at a time when actresses generally preferred to play sympathetic characters, and she excelled in them. Davis favored authenticity over glamour, and was willing to change her own appearance if it matched the character.
As Davis entered old age, she was recognized for her accomplishments. John Springer, who organized her lectures in the early 1970s, wrote that, despite the achievements of many of her contemporaries, Davis was “the star of the thirties and forties,” achieving notability for the variety of her characterizations and her ability to assert herself even when the material in her hands was mediocre. Her individual performances continued to receive praise; in 1987, Bill Collins reviewed “The Letter” (1940) and described her performance as “a brilliant and subtle achievement,” and wrote, “Bette Davis plays Leslie Crosbie as one of the most extraordinary women in cinema.” In a 2000 review for “All About Eve” (then, even her excesses are realistic.” In “The House of Wax” (2005), in her attempt to blend in with the other wax figures at the local cinema, the main character had to sit through and watch a scene from “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” In 2006, Premiere magazine ranked her interpretation of Margo Channing in “All About Eve” fifth on its list of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, commenting, “There is something deliciously audacious in her joyous willingness to interpret such unattractive emotions as jealousy, bitterness, and neediness.” Reviewing “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) in 2008, Ebert stated that “no one who saw the film will ever forget her.”
Just months before her death in 1989, Davis was one of several actors who appeared on the cover of Life magazine. In a film retrospective celebrating the films and stars of 1939, Life concluded that Davis was the most important actress of her era, and singled out “Dark Victory” (1939) as one of the most important films of that year. Her death was front-page news around the world as the “closing of yet another chapter of Hollywood”s Golden Age.” Angela Lansbury summed up the feelings of those in the Hollywood community who attended her memorial service, commenting, after a sampling of Davis” films were screened, that they witnessed “an extraordinary legacy of 20th century acting by a true master of the craft” who should provide “encouragement and illustration to future generations of aspiring actors.”
In 1977, Davis became the first woman to be honored with the American Film Institute”s Lifetime Contribution Award. In 1999, the Institute published its list of the “50 greatest film legends” in order to increase public awareness and appreciation of classic films. Of the 25 actresses listed, Davis came second only to Katharine Hepburn.
The United States Postal Service honored Davis with a commemorative postage stamp in 2008, marking the 100th anniversary of her birth. The stamp features an image of her in the role of Margo Channing. The “First Day of Issue” celebration took place on September 18, 2008, at Boston University, which houses an extensive Davis archive. Featured speakers included his son Michael Merrill and Lauren Bacall. In 1997, the executors of her estate, Merrill and Kathryn Sermak, her former assistant, established the “Bette Davis Foundation,” which provides scholarships for promising actors and actresses.
Journalist Jeanine Basinger of The New York Times wrote:
“I was once the chosen one to inform her that she was not allowed to smoke at a dinner honoring Frank Capra, whose asthmatic wife, Lu, had stored her oxygen tank under the table. “Well, get her out of here!” Davis shouted to me, by way of a suggested solution.”
In 2017, Sermak published the memoir “Miss D & Me: Life With the Invincible Bette Davis,” a book that Davis had asked Sermak to write, detailing their years spent together.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Davis received ten official nominations in the Best Actress category and one without being on the ballot (Academy rules allowed such an exception at the 1935 Academy Awards). Until 2010, only two actresses had so many nominations in this category: Katharine Hepburn (12) and Meryl Streep (16, and three more as supporting actress).
New York Critics Association (USA)
- Bette Davis
- Bette Davis
- ^ Sikov, Ed (2008). Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis. Henry Holt and Company. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-8050-8863-2.
- ^ Michele Bourgoin, Suzanne (1998). Encyclopedia of World Biography. Gale. p. 119. ISBN 0-7876-2221-4.
- ^ a b “”Feud:” 10 Things to Know About the Bette Davis Tell-All ”My Mother”s Keeper””. The Hollywood Reporter. April 14, 2017. Retrieved March 11, 2019.
- ^ ancestry.com Massachusetts 1840–1915 birth records, page 448 of book registered in Somerville
- Sikov, Ed (2008). Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis. [S.l.]: Henry Holt and Company. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-8050-8863-2
- Michele Bourgoin, Suzanne (1998). Encyclopedia of World Biography. [S.l.]: Gale. p. 119. ISBN 0-7876-2221-4
- ^ «[…] la Le Gallienne aveva la sensazione che, per garantire la mia presenza nella sua scuola, non fossi abbastanza seria nel mio approccio al teatro…» (Bette Davis, Lo schermo della solitudine, pp. 45-46)
- The Autograph Hound. (ang.) The Big Cartoon DataBase [dostęp 2018-10-16]