Between 1931, when she appeared in her first film, The Bad Sister, and 1989, when she received her final screen credit for Wicked Stepmother (which she walked out on midway through shooting), Bette Davis appeared in nearly 100 movies. She received 10 Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (winning twice) and was named one of the Top Ten Box Office Stars four times—in 1939, 1940, 1941, and 1944. Of all the major female stars of the Hollywood studio period, she was one of the most idiosyncratic and unique. And her total concentration on the job of acting, apparent in every scene she ever filmed, was equaled only by the most intense of her contemporaries—actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck.
Although not a classic beauty, nor an object of the camera's adoration like Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo, she could with the right makeup, hairstyling, wardrobe, and lighting look quite attractive. But it was her distinctive mannerisms—her bold, unblinking stare, her hyperactive hand gestures, the way she could aggressively spit out a line, even her manic way of puffing on a cigarette—that made her instantly identifiable and in time became fodder for countless comic impressionists and drag queens. Even playwright Edward Albee paid her homage in his Tony Award-winning play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In that play the lead female character Martha mimics Davis in her unforgettable first appearance, when she walks into her living room and memorably quotes Davis's line in Beyond the Forest: "What a dump!"
Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1908. She traveled to Hollywood in 1930 after being invited by a talent scout for Universal Studios to make a screen test. After a second, apparently more successful screen test, she was hired by Universal Studios. But after only a few months and several inauspicious roles, she was dropped by Universal. Luckily chosen by George Arliss, who had just won an Oscar for Disraeli, to costar with him in The Man Who Played God, she finally received good reviews and was given a five-year contract at Warner Bros. where she remained for the next 18 years.
Davis's relation with the studio, and particularly with its head, Jack Warner, was a stormy one. After being cast in a series of forgettable pictures, Davis finally was offered a role she could sink her teeth into—the sluttish and unsympathetic Mildred in the film adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage—after Katharine Hepburn turned it down. Davis seized the exaggerated qualities of the character with relish and delivered an unforgettable portrayal of a manipulative and neurotically self-centered woman, receiving the most enthusiastic reviews of her career. Powerful the performance was; subtle it was not. Expected to receive the Oscar in a walk, she was not even one of the three actresses nominated. (At that time, nominees were chosen by a committee, not by voters in the appropriate branch of the Academy, as they are now.) A write-in campaign by her supporters was unsuccessful: Davis came in third, after winner Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night) and Norma Shearer (The Barretts of Wimpole Street).
Still, Davis expected her success in Of Human Bondage to lead to better roles. It did not. Like most studio heads, Jack Warner considered actors employees, and like most tyrannical employers, he took particular pains to remind them of their subservience. He consistently refused to lend her to other studios for roles that would clearly further her career, including It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind. He worked her hard; in 1935 alone she starred in five films for Warners (one of which, Dangerous, did win her an Oscar for Best Actress, which even Davis herself recognized was a consolation prize for having been overlooked the previous year). He forced her to appear in roles she detested and refused to cast her in roles she coveted. In 1936 the headstrong Davis attempted to break her contract by going to Britain to appear in two movies. Sued in the British courts by Warner Bros., Davis lost the case and had no choice but to return to the studio.
Yet in the next few years Davis did manage to turn in impressive performances in some impressive movies for Warners and won a second Oscar (for Jezebel, the award this time well deserved) in the process. And in those roles she managed to show her remarkable acting range. In 1936 she played a naive but culturally ambitious young waitress in The Petrified Forest; in 1937 a courageous prostitute who testifies against a racketeer and pays dearly for it in Marked Woman; in 1938 a rebellious Southern belle who defies the conventions of polite society and loses her fiancé for it in Jezebel. In 1939 she played the hedonistic but fatally ill socialite Judith Traherne in Dark Victory, as well as the rather frumpish and sexually possessive middle-aged Queen Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. From the Cockney waitress Mildred to the aging Queen of England in just five years—that is a remarkable progression.
What all these roles do have in common, though, is a spirit of independence and determination, the sense that the character is taking life quite seriously and approaching it, at least in the end, without frivolity. These qualities mirror the approach of Davis herself to her profession, which she seems to have genuinely considered both a calling and an art. This was certainly the impression she gave in her 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on television. She came across there as a consummate professional almost religiously devoted to her work.
A telling indication of Davis's dedication to her craft is her choice of what were really secondary roles in order to appear in, and to aid in the production of, what she considered quality films. One example is The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), a movie dominated by Monty Wooley's flamboyant impersonation of the lead character Sheridan Whiteside. Another is Watch on the Rhine (1943), in which the main character is actually Davis's husband in the film, an anti-Nazi Resistance fighter played by Paul Lukas in an Oscar-winning performance. In both instances the nature of her part made it inevitable that she would be overshadowed by her male costar.
One element of Davis's career that is often overlooked is that she did some of her most interesting work when playing a character who is opposite in temperament to a female costar. Davis was memorable when playing subdued against the other actress's bitchy (Miriam Hopkins in The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance or Mary Astor in The Great Lie), or histrionic against the other's restrained (Olivia de Havilland in In This Our Life or much later Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?).
That Davis was able to successfully portray such a range of personalities is important to keep in mind because it defies the stereotyped image of her that most moviegoers retain. We tend to remember those distinctive mannerisms and forget how truly versatile an actress she was. Yet no matter what the role, Davis always projected decisiveness, strength (usually tempered with a measure of vulnerability), and persistence. Sometimes that strength is turned to good ends, as in The Great Lie (1941) and The Corn Is Green (1945), in which she plays noble and selfless characters. In other films it is used malevolently, as in The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941), in which she plays calculating and icy villains.
Bette Davis also set the model that informed the trajectories of other Hollywood studio actresses as they matured. In the 1940's she specialized in the "woman's picture" genre, exemplified by Now, Voyager (1942). In this film, a sort of post-Freudian Cinderella/Ugly Duckling story, she plays a dowdy woman dominated by a hateful and repressive mother who is brought out of her shell and given self-confidence, independence, and maturity by psychoanalysis and a brief shipboard affair with a married man (Paul Henreid, pictured above with Davis). (A beauty make-over and new wardrobe also help.) This general career path of specializing in the middle-aged woman's picture was later followed by actresses like Joan Crawford, Jane Wyman, Lana Turner, and Susan Hayward. And in 1962 when she pulled out all the stops to play the freakish title character in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (playing the role with almost desperate ferocity, much as she had nearly thirty years earlier in Of Human Bondage), she established a trend of older actresses playing monstrous characters, a trend that apparently continues to this day, judging from recent roles by Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda.
The definitive Bette Davis performance is universally recognized as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950). So closely identified with this role is she that it is unimaginable that it was conceived with someone else in mind. Yet that is indeed the case, for Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote the part for Claudette Colbert. When Colbert injured her back while filming Three Came Home on location in Southeast Asia, Mankiewicz began looking for someone else to play Margo. The British actress Gertrude Lawrence, who had played Anna in the Broadway production of The King and I (and was herself portrayed by Julie Andrews in the 1968 movie biography Star!) first accepted the role and then backed out. Darryl F. Zanuck, who produced the movie for Fox, reportedly wanted Barbara Stanwyck for the part. (He also proposed that Jeanne Crain play Eve Harrington.)
Somehow Davis's name was mentioned and she was eventually cast. In his autobiography, Mankiewicz writes that, given Davis's reputation for being difficult on the set and for disagreeing with her directors, he had misgivings, but that in fact she behaved herself perfectly during filming. This good behavior was almost certainly the result of Davis's respect for the writing. She has said that All About Eve, which Mankiewicz wrote, was the best screenplay she ever read. Margo Channing is a fascinating character as written, and Davis's magnificent performance does this complex, larger-than-life woman full justice. She seizes the challenge presented by the brilliantly conceived character and, her creative abilities fully engaged, forges a wholly convincing and unforgettable experience for the viewer.
Margo Channing is a person of opposite qualities, of conflicting needs and desires. On the surface an acerbic and outspoken person, she occasionally allows an underlying vulnerability to emerge. She is clearly competitive with other women but relies on the companionship and loyalty of her best (and unthreatening) friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm). A dedicated careerist, she nonetheless finds herself tiring of her profession and wanting a relationship with her director, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill, who later did marry Davis). She would like to keep working but realizes that at her age appropriate leading roles are unlikely to come her way, and she already feels uncomfortable with her latest role, a Southern belle much like Davis's Julie in Jezebel and clearly much younger than Margo herself. Her need for status and professional recognition drives her to want to hold on to her position as Broadway's leading actress, yet she knows that eventually she will be replaced by a younger actress whose ambition matches her own, although she doesn't expect it to be so soon, and she doesn't expect that person to be the outwardly adoring but secretly scheming Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter).
It is impossible not to recognize in Margo Channing elements of the screen persona associated with Davis, whether she intentionally sought to create that effect or not. Moreover, the character of Margo Channing and the real person Bette Davis share similarities that cannot be missed. When All About Eve was made, the direction of Davis's career was uncertain. She had just left Warner Bros. after eighteen years, having received probably the worst reviews of her long career for Beyond the Forest. ("Davis pants and rants her way out of Warner Brothers in an unfortunate finale to her brilliant career there. . . . No night club caricaturist has ever turned in such a cruel imitation of the Davis mannerisms as Bette turns on herself in this one," wrote the movie critic for the Los Angeles Examiner.) Davis was just a little over forty when All About Eve was made. While it is one thing for a younger actress to play middle-aged women—and Davis had been doing this off and on for a good ten years—it is quite another actually to be a middle-aged Hollywood actress in search of good starring roles. The conventional progression of other aging actresses to playing mothers, often in supporting roles, was not in the prevailing screen image, or apparently in the professional plans, of Davis.
Davis's personal life had also been problematic. By the time she made All About Eve, Davis had been married three times. Her second husband died and the other two marriages ended in divorce. She seems to have been attracted to hard-drinking, ultra-masculine men, hardly the type likely to defer to a famous, and famously assertive, female. While filming All About Eve Davis began a romance with her co-star, Gary Merrill, and they were married in 1950. They later appeared together in two other movies and two television episodes. But the marriage, Davis's fourth, was at times a difficult one, and the two finally divorced ten years later. Like Margo Channing, Bette Davis seems to have led a life in which personal and romantic relationships, no matter how they began, inevitably became secondary to her career.
All About Eve didn't really revive Davis's career as one might have expected. She did continue to make movies regularly, but few of these were constructed around her character, and she never again was given the opportunity to play a character of the originality and complexity, not to mention the glamor, of Margo Channing. Her best post-Eve role was as a has-been movie actress in The Star (1952)—another part that seemed awfully close to her real life—for which she received her ninth Oscar nomination. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she did not eschew television work, appearing in more than thirty television episodes between 1956 and 1986, everything from episodes of Wagon Train and Perry Mason to made-for-television movies like Madame Sin (1972). She continued to work in film and television, to appear on talk shows, and to make personal appearances even after being diagnosed with cancer and suffering several strokes in 1983. She died in France in 1989 while returning from the San Sebastian Film Festival, where she had received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1982 Bette Davis succinctly summed up her approach to her profession and to living: "Acting should be bigger than life. Scripts should be bigger than life. It should all be bigger than life."
My personal list of favorite performances by Bette Davis:
1. All About Eve (1950)
2. The Little Foxes (1941)
3. Dark Victory (1939)—Davis's own favorite role
4. The Letter (1940)
5. Jezebel (1938)
6. Now, Voyager (1942)
7. Marked Woman (1937)
8. The Star (1952)
9. The Corn Is Green (1945)
10. The Petrified Forest (1936)
Edward Albee has said that when he sold the screen rights to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Warner Bros. he was told that the studio planned to star Davis and James Mason as Martha and George. According to the website notstarring.com, Davis turned down roles in the following films: Mildred Pierce, The Glass Menagerie, The African Queen, and Come Back, Little Sheba. She called the last decision "one of the really great mistakes of my career."