Bette Davis (Actress)
Ruth Elizabeth "Bette" Davis (Apr 5, 1908 – Oct 6, 1989) was an American actress of film, television and theater.
Noted for her willingness to play unsympathetic characters, she was highly regarded for her performances in a range of film genres.
She played in everything from contemporary crime melodramas to historical and period films and occasional comedies, though her greatest successes were her roles in romantic dramas.
After appearing in Broadway plays, Davis moved to Hollywood in 1930, but her early films for Universal Studios were unsuccessful. She joined Warner Bros. in 1932 and established her career with several critically acclaimed performances.
In 1937, she attempted to free herself from her contract and although she lost a well-publicized legal case, it marked the beginning of the most successful period of her career. Until the late 1940s, she was one of American cinema's most celebrated leading ladies, known for her forceful and intense style.
Here she is with Joan Crawford in a clip from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?:
Davis gained a reputation as a perfectionist who could be highly combative, and her confrontations with studio executives, film directors and costars were often reported. Her forthright manner, clipped vocal style and ubiquitous cigarette contributed to a public persona which has often been imitated and satirized.
Davis was the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, and was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress twice, was the first person to accrue 10 Academy Award nominations for acting, and was the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Her career went through several periods of eclipse, and she admitted that her success had often been at the expense of her personal relationships.
Married four times, she was once widowed and thrice divorced, and raised her children as a single parent. Her final years were marred by a long period of ill health, but she continued acting until shortly before her death from breast cancer, with more than 100 films, television and theater roles to her credit. In 1999, Davis was placed second, after Katharine Hepburn, on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest female stars of all time.
Accompanied by her mother, Davis traveled by train to Hollywood, arriving on December 13, 1930. She later recounted her surprise that nobody from the studio was there to meet her; a studio employee had waited for her, but left because he saw nobody 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 related the experience with the observation, "I was the most Yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth.
They laid me 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 would die. Just thought I would die." A second test was arranged for Davis, for the film A House Divided (1931). Hastily dressed in an ill-fitting costume with a low neckline, she was rebuffed by the director William Wyler, who loudly commented to the assembled crew, "What do you think of these dames who show their chests and think they can get jobs?"
Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, considered terminating Davis's employment, but cinematographer Karl Freund told him she had "lovely eyes" and would be suitable for The Bad Sister (1931), in which she subsequently made her film debut. Her nervousness was compounded when she overheard the Chief of Production, Carl Laemmle, Jr., comment to another executive that she had "about 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 Seed (1931) was too brief to attract attention.
Universal Studios renewed her contract for three months, and she appeared in a small role in Waterloo Bridge (1931) before being lent to Columbia Pictures for The Menace and to Capital Films for Hell's House (all 1932). After nine months, and six unsuccessful films, Laemmle elected not to renew her contract. George Arliss chose Davis for the lead female role in The Man Who Played God (1932), and for the rest of her life, Davis credited him with helping her achieve her "break" in Hollywood. The Saturday Evening Post wrote, "she is not only beautiful, but she bubbles with charm", and compared her to Constance Bennett and Olive Borden. Warner Bros. signed her to a five-year contract.
In 1932, she married Harmon "Ham" Nelson, who was scrutinized by the press; his $100 a week earnings compared unfavorably with Davis's reported $1,000 a week income. 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 purchase a house until he could afford to pay for it himself.
After more than 20 film roles, the role of the vicious and slatternly Mildred Rogers in the RKO Radio production of Of Human Bondage (1934), a film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel, earned Davis her first major critical acclaim. Many actresses feared playing unsympathetic characters and several had refused the role, but Davis viewed it as an opportunity to show the range of her acting skills.
Her costar, Leslie Howard, was initially dismissive of her, but as filming progressed his attitude changed and he subsequently spoke highly of her abilities. The director, John Cromwell, allowed her relative freedom, and commented, "I let Bette have her head. I trusted her instincts." She insisted that she be portrayed realistically in her death scene, and said, "the last stages of consumption, poverty and neglect are not pretty and I intended to be convincing-looking".
The film was a success, and Davis's confronting characterization won praise from critics, with Life magazine writing that she gave "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress".Davis anticipated that her reception would encourage Warner Bros. to cast her in more important roles, and was disappointed when Jack Warner refused to lend her to Columbia Studios to appear in It Happened One Night, and instead cast her in the melodrama Housewife. When Davis was not nominated for an Academy Award for Of Human Bondage, The Hollywood Citizen News questioned the omission and Norma Shearer, herself a nominee, joined a campaign to have Davis nominated.
This prompted an announcement from the Academy president, Howard Estabrook, who said that under the circumstances "any voter ... may write on the ballot his or her personal choice for the winners", thus allowing, for the only time in the Academy's history, the consideration of a candidate not officially nominated for an award. Claudette Colbert won the award for It Happened One Night but the uproar led to a change in Academy voting procedures the following year, whereby nominations were determined by votes from all eligible members of a particular branch, rather than by a smaller committee, with results independently tabulated 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 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." 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 it was 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 its familiar name of "Oscar" because its posterior resembled that of her husband, whose middle name was Oscar, although her claim has been disputed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, among others.
In her next film, The Petrified Forest (1936), Davis co-starred with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart, but Bogart, in his first important role, received most of the critics' praise. Davis appeared in several films over the next two years but most were poorly received.
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 England. Knowing that she was breaching her contract with Warner Bros., she fled to Canada to avoid legal papers being served upon her. Eventually, Davis brought her case to court in England, hoping to get out of her contract with Warner Bros.
She later recalled the opening statement of the barrister, Sir Patrick Hastings, who represented Warner Bros. Hastings urged the court to "come to the conclusion that this is rather a naughty young lady and that what she wants is more money". He mocked Davis's description of her contract as "slavery" by stating, incorrectly, that she was being paid $1,350 per week. He remarked, "if anybody wants to put me into perpetual servitude on the basis of that remuneration, I shall prepare to consider it". The British press offered little support to Davis, and portrayed her as overpaid and ungrateful.
Davis explained her viewpoint to a journalist, saying "I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for." Davis's counsel presented her complaints – that she could be suspended without pay for refusing a part, with the period of suspension added to her contract, that she could be called upon to play any part within her abilities regardless of her personal beliefs, that she could be required to support a political party against her beliefs, and that her image and likeness could be displayed in any manner deemed applicable by the studio. Jack Warner testified, and was asked, "Whatever part you choose to call upon her to play, if she thinks she can play it, whether it is distasteful and cheap, she has to play it?" Warner replied, "Yes, she must play it."
The case, decided by Branson J. in the English High Court, was reported as Warner Bros. Studios Incorporated v. Nelson in  1 KB 209. Davis lost the case and returned to Hollywood, in debt and without income, to resume her career. Olivia de Havilland mounted a similar case in 1943 and won.
Davis began work on Marked Woman (1937), as a prostitute in a contemporary gangster drama inspired by the case of Lucky Luciano. The film and Davis's performance received excellent reviews, and her stature as a leading actress was enhanced.
During the filming of her next film, Jezebel (1938), Davis entered 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 time in my life of my most perfect happiness". The film was a success, and Davis's performance as a spoiled Southern belle earned her a second Academy Award, which led to speculation in the press that she would be chosen to play a similar character, Scarlett O'Hara, in Gone with the Wind. Davis expressed her desire to play Scarlett, and while David O. Selznick was conducting a search for the actress to 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 consider Davis as suitable, and rejected the offer.
Jezebel marked the beginning of the most successful phase of Davis's career, and over the next few years she was listed in the annual "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars", which was compiled from the votes of movie exhibitors throughout the U.S. for the stars that had generated the most revenue in their theaters over the previous year. In contrast to Davis's success, her husband, Ham Nelson, had failed to establish a career for himself, and their relationship faltered. In 1938, Nelson obtained evidence that Davis was engaged in a sexual relationship with Howard Hughes and subsequently filed for divorce citing Davis's "cruel and inhuman manner".
She was emotional during the making of her next film, Dark Victory (1939), and considered abandoning it until the producer Hal B. Wallis convinced her to channel her despair into her acting. The film became one of the highest grossing films of the year, and the role of Judith Traherne brought her an Academy Award nomination. In later years, Davis cited this performance as her personal favorite.
She appeared in three other box office hits in 1939, The Old Maid with Miriam Hopkins, Juarez with Paul Muni and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex with Errol Flynn. The latter was her first color film and her only color film made during the height of her career. To play the elderly Elizabeth I of England, Davis shaved her hairline and eyebrows. During filming she was visited on the set by the actor Charles Laughton.
She commented that she had a "nerve" playing a woman in her sixties, to which Laughton replied, "Never not dare to hang yourself. That's the only way you grow in your profession. You must continually attempt things that you think are beyond you, or you get into a complete rut." Recalling the episode many years later, Davis remarked that Laughton's advice had influenced her throughout her career.
By this time, Davis was Warner Bros.' most profitable star, and she was given the most important of their female leading roles. Her image was considered with more care; although she continued to play character roles, she was often filmed in close-ups that emphasized her distinctive eyes.
All This and Heaven Too (1940) was the most financially successful film of Davis's career to that point, while The Letter (1940) was considered "one of the best pictures of the year" by The Hollywood Reporter, and Davis won admiration for her portrayal of an adulterous killer, a role originated by famed actress Katharine Cornell. During this time, she was in a relationship with her former costar George Brent, who proposed marriage. Davis refused, as she had met Arthur Farnsworth, a New England innkeeper. They were married in December 1940.
In January 1941, Davis became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but antagonized the committee members with her brash manner and radical proposals. Faced with the disapproval and resistance of the committee, Davis resigned, and was succeeded by Jean Hersholt, who implemented the changes she had suggested.
William Wyler directed Davis in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes ( RKO,1941), but they clashed over the character of Regina Giddens. Taking a role originally played on stage by Tallulah Bankhead, Davis felt Bankhead's original interpretation was appropriate and followed Hellman's intent, but Wyler wanted her to soften the character. Davis refused to compromise. She received another Academy Award nomination for her performance, and never worked with Wyler again.
By 1949, Davis and Sherry were estranged and Hollywood columnists were writing that Davis's career was at an end. She filmed The Story of a Divorce (released by RKO Radio Pictures in 1951 as Payment on Demand) but had received no other offers. Shortly before filming was completed, the producer Darryl F. Zanuck offered her the role of the aging theatrical actress Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950).
Claudette Colbert, for whom the part had been written, had severely injured her back, and although production had been halted for two months in the hope that she might recover, she was unable to continue. 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 would become a life-long friendship with her costar, Anne Baxter, and a romantic relationship with her leading man, Gary Merrill, which led to marriage. The film's director Joseph L. Mankiewicz later remarked, "Bette was letter perfect. She was syllable-perfect. The director's dream: the prepared actress."
Critics responded positively to Davis's performance and several of her lines became well-known, particularly, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night." She was again nominated for an Academy Award and critics such as Gene Ringgold described her Margo as her "all-time best performance".
Pauline Kael wrote that much of Mankiewicz's vision of "the theater" was "nonsense" but commended Davis, writing "[the film is] saved by one performance that is the real thing: Bette Davis is at her most instinctive and assured. Her actress–vain, scared, a woman who goes too far in her reactions and emotions–makes the whole thing come alive."
Davis won a "Best Actress" award from the Cannes Film Festival, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. She also received the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award as "Best Actress", having been 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 forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
On July 3, 1950 Davis's divorce from William Sherry was finalized, and on July 28 she married Gary Merrill. With Sherry's consent, Merrill adopted B.D., Davis's daughter with Sherry, and in 1950, Davis and Merrill adopted a baby girl they named Margot. The family traveled to England, where Davis and Merrill starred in a murder-mystery film, Another Man's Poison (1951). When it received lukewarm reviews and failed at the box office, Hollywood columnists wrote that Davis's comeback had petered out, and an Academy Award nomination for The Star (1952) did not halt her decline.
Davis and Merrill adopted a baby boy, Michael, in 1952, and Davis appeared in a Broadway revue, Two's Company directed by Jules Dassin. She was uncomfortable working outside of her area of expertise; she had never been a musical performer and her limited theater experience had been more than 20 years earlier. She was also severely ill and was operated on for osteomyelitis of the jaw. Margot was diagnosed as severely brain damaged due to an injury sustained during or shortly after her birth, and was eventually placed in an institution. Davis and Merrill began arguing frequently, with B.D. later recalling episodes of alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Few of Davis's films of the 1950s were successful and many of her performances were condemned by critics. The Hollywood Reporter wrote of mannerisms "that you'd expect to find in a nightclub impersonation of [Davis]", while the London critic, Richard Winninger, wrote, "Miss Davis, with more say than most stars as to what films she makes, seems to have lapsed into egoism. The criterion for her choice of film would appear to be that nothing must compete with the full display of each facet of the Davis art. Only bad films are good enough for her." As her career declined, her marriage continued to deteriorate until she filed for divorce in 1960. The following year, her mother died.
In 1961, Davis opened in the Broadway production The Night of the Iguana to mostly mediocre reviews, and left the production after four months due to "chronic illness". She then joined Glenn Ford and Ann-Margret for the Frank Capra film A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) (a remake of Capra's Lady for a Day (1933)), based on a story by Damon Runyon.
She accepted her next role, in the Grand Guignol horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) after reading the script and believing it could appeal to the same audience that had recently made Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) a success. She negotiated a deal that would pay her 10 percent of the worldwide gross profits, in addition to her salary. The film became one of the year's biggest successes.
Davis and Joan Crawford played two aging sisters, former actresses forced by circumstance to share a decaying Hollywood mansion. The director, Robert Aldrich, explained that Davis and Crawford were each aware of how important the film was to their respective careers and commented, "It's proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly."
After filming was completed, their public comments against each other allowed the tension to develop into a lifelong feud, and when Davis was nominated for an Academy Award, Crawford campaigned against her. Davis also received her only BAFTA Award nomination for this performance.
Daughter B.D. played a small role in the film and when she and Davis visited the Cannes Film Festival to promote it, she met Jeremy Hyman, an executive for Seven Arts Productions. After a short courtship, she married Hyman at the age of 16, with Davis's permission.
In September 1962, Davis placed an advertisement in Variety under the heading of "Situations wanted — women artists", which read, "Mother of three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway)." Davis said that she intended it as a joke, and she sustained her comeback over the course of several years. Dead Ringer (1964) was a crime drama in which she played twin sisters and Where Love Has Gone (1964) was a romantic drama based on a Harold Robbins novel.
Davis played the mother of Susan Hayward but filming was hampered by heated arguments between Davis and Hayward. Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) was Robert Aldrich's follow-up to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which he planned to reunite Davis and Crawford, but when Crawford withdrew allegedly due to illness soon 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 also included Joseph Cotten, Mary Astor and Agnes Moorehead.
In 1964 Davis was cast as the lead in an Aaron Spelling sitcom, The Decorator. A pilot episode was filmed, but was not shown, and the project was terminated. By the end of the decade, Davis had appeared in the British films The Nanny (1965), The Anniversary (1968), and Connecting Rooms (1970), but her career again stalled.
In 1983, after filming the pilot episode for the television series Hotel, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Within two weeks of her surgery she suffered four strokes which caused paralysis in the right side of her face and in her left arm, and left her with slurred speech. She commenced a lengthy period of physical therapy and, aided by her personal assistant, Kathryn Sermak, gained partial recovery from the paralysis.
During this time, her relationship with her daughter, B. D. Hyman, deteriorated when Hyman became a born-again Christian and attempted to persuade Davis to follow suit. With her health stable, she traveled to England to film the Agatha Christie mystery Murder with Mirrors (1985). Upon her return, she learned that Hyman had published a memoir, My Mother's Keeper, in which she chronicled a difficult mother-daughter relationship and depicted scenes of Davis's overbearing and drunken behavior.
Several of Davis's friends commented that Hyman's depictions of events were not accurate; one said, "so much of the book is out of context". Mike Wallace rebroadcast a 60 Minutes interview he had filmed with Hyman a few years earlier in which she commended Davis on her skills as a mother, and said that she had adopted many of Davis's principles in raising her own children.
Critics of Hyman noted that Davis had financially supported the Hyman family for several years and had recently saved them from losing their house. Despite the acrimony of their divorce years earlier, Gary Merrill also defended Davis. Interviewed by CNN, Merrill said that Hyman was motivated by "cruelty and greed". Davis's adopted son, Michael Merrill, ended contact with Hyman and refused to speak to her again, as did Davis, who also disinherited her.
In her second memoir, This 'N That (1987), Davis wrote, "I am still recovering from the fact that a child of mine would write about me behind my back, to say nothing about the kind of book it is. I will never recover as completely from B.D.'s book as I have from the stroke. Both were shattering 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 glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given". She concluded with a reference to the title of Hyman's book, "If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I've been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success."
Davis appeared in the television film As Summers Die (1986) and Lindsay Anderson's film The Whales of August (1987), in which she played the blind sister of Lillian Gish. The film earned good reviews, with one critic writing, "Bette crawls across the screen like a testy old hornet on a windowpane, snarling, staggering, twitching – a symphony of misfired synapses." 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 walked off the set. The script was rewritten to place more emphasis on Barbara Carrera's character, and the reworked version was released after Davis's death.
After abandoning Wicked Stepmother and with no further film offers, 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 discuss her daughter. Her appearances were popular; Lindsay Anderson observed that the public enjoyed seeing her behaving "so bitchy". He commented, "I always disliked that because she was encouraged to behave badly. And I'd always hear her described by that awful word, feisty."
During 1988 and 1989, Davis was feted for her career achievements, receiving the Kennedy Center Honor, the Legion of Honor from France, the Campione d'Italia from Italy and the Film Society of Lincoln Center Lifetime Achievement Award. She 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 Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival, but during her visit her health rapidly deteriorated. Too weak to make the long journey back to the U.S., she traveled to France where she died on October 6, 1989, at 11:20 pm, at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. She was 81 years old.
She was interred in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, alongside her mother, Ruthie, and sister, Bobby. On her tombstone is written: "She did it the hard way", an epitaph that she mentioned in her memoir Mother Goddam as having been suggested to her by Joseph L. Mankiewicz shortly after they had filmed All About Eve.
In 1997, the executors of her estate, Michael Merrill, her son, and Kathryn Sermak, her former assistant, established "The Bette Davis Foundation" which awards college scholarships to promising actors and actresses.
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