Bette Davis: Champion of the Pictures

I always had the will to win. I felt it baking cookies. They had to be the best cookies anyone baked.
–Bette Davis

Today, April 5th, is Bette Davis’ birthday. If you’ve never seen a Bette Davis movie, your life is not complete. In a career spanning five decades, her legacy includes a dozen movies that are all classics. The hallmark of a Davis film is that you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s on screen. As the Internet would say, “You won’t believe what she’ll do next…” Whether playing a vixen, starlet, waitress, apple seller, murderer, nanny, queen, or washed-up film star, Davis could squeeze every drop of drama out of a line. She would work a scene like nobody’s business, and that was the hallmark of her talent – in that way, uniquely American and uniquely female. Her characters always had to defeat the odds and they had to work like the devil to do it.

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All About Eve, 1950

The FX TV series FEUD, about the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, has rekindled interest by a new generation in the stars Davis and Joan Crawford. They really did hate each other, and the majority of events in the TV series did happen. The series does equal justice to both Crawford and Davis as people with stellar performances by both Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon. However, what the show does not clearly demonstrate is that Davis was far and away a better actress than Crawford. Davis was nominated for Baby Jane instead of Crawford for a reason.

Turn on the average Crawford movie and it quickly turns into “watch me emote” lines delivered by Crawford akin to the best actress in high school. (Proof: Crawford’s Possessed was on TCM the other day, and five minutes of her screaming and murmuring “David” was all any viewer could possible endure.) Even when Davis overacts, she’s mesmerizing rather than pathetic.

If you want a thing well done, get a couple of old broads to do it.
— Bette Davis

Baby Jane was an anomaly or an innovation at the time, take your pic. It was an unexpected hit that the studios then tried to repeat with a dozen more “old woman horror” performances that Davis was forced to take. Her movies in the 1960s are a testament to how the studios immediately typecast her into spinster and crazy lady roles. She wanted to work and was willing to roll up her sleeves and “scrub the floors” if that’s what it took, and the list of roles proves it – from Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte to The Nanny to Scream, Pretty Peggy.

But typecasting was a standard approach by movie executives throughout Davis’ long career and as much as she fought for better roles, she was caught in cycles of repetitiveness. After her breakout role, Of Human Bondage, she was given part after part for manipulative, scornful young women. After Dark Victory, she played a stream of women who were vain or selfish but then find redemption. Play a spinster? Here come five more. Play a Southern belle in Jezebel? Let’s try The Little Foxes. How about a good and bad twin? If you liked A Stolen Life, then let’s do Dead Ringer. When you look across her illustrious career, it becomes clear that her choices of scripts in any decade were pretty narrow, so she’d take the part, give it her all, hit her mark, and then move on.

She had 123 acting credits, and a full 30 of those are screen classics. (In comparison, Crawford has 104 acting credits, but I dare anyone to name more than three. And how many did you actually watch all the way through? That didn’t have Davis in it?)  Bette Davis won two Oscars, was nominated for ten, was nominated five years in a row, and made movies from 1931 to 1989. She reportedly penned a note to Meryl Streep that she considered Streep the new “first lady of the American screen”; she was probably right on both counts.

The three highlights of her career:

  • Jezebel: Davis epitomizes the Southern belle by playing a wealthy, selfish socialite. The scene where she wears red to the debutante’s ball (where they MUST wear white) is a classic in cinema equal to anything in Gone With the Wind. Davis won a well-deserved Oscar for the role. She wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara as well, but was not offered the part, possibly because she had just played one – reverse typecasting for once.
  • Of Human Bondage: Based on the Somerest Maugham story, Davis plays a vulgar and disdainful waitress with whom art student Leslie Howard becomes infatuated. LIFE magazine characterized it as “probably the best performance ever recorded on screen” according to IMDB. Davis’ fans were so outraged that she was not nominated for an Academy Award that they successfully won the right in future years to add Write In votes.
  • All About Eve: The performance of a lifetime and one of the greatest of all times. Davis plays older actress, Margo Channing, mentoring young Anne Baxter. Margo rightfully fears that her acting opportunities are drying up just as she is at the height of her career while also wary of the young, backstabbing Eve, who tries to steal her parts and her love interest. Davis at the time would also have been watching parts dry up, which might explain the particular gusto with which she delivers the signature line: Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night!

Among the great list of lesser known Davis movies, here are three that are my guilty pleasures. I fully admit these aren’t great movies, but as with most of her movies, once Davis comes on screen, I can’t stop watching.

  • A Pocketful of Miracles: Made the year before Baby Jane, Davis plays an old apple seller who convinces a small-town local gangster-type (Glenn Ford) to help her dress up in finery to impress a daughter she hasn’t seen since a tiny baby. Unabashedly sentimental and probably a longer film than need be, still, when Davis comes in to meet the long-estranged Ann-Margret, you can’t help getting a little misty-eyed. Because it’s Davis and you… can’t take your eyes off her.
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The Little Foxes, 1941
  • The Little Foxes: Davis was from Massachussetts but she played a Southern bitch like nobody’s business. This is a family of rattlesnakes, kind of like a 1940s version of Osage County. Based on a play by Lillian Hellman, the first sentence in Wikipedia’s description is:

The play’s focus is Southerner Regina Hubbard Giddens, who struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early 20th-century society where fathers considered only sons as their legal heirs.
–Who wouldn’t want to watch Davis in that?

  • Dead Ringer (or A Stolen Life): Aren’t we all just suckers for good/bad twin movies? In both movies, Davis plays sisters – one of whom ends up dead – compelling the other to take on her identity. They’re both potboilers, but watching a great actress try to take on the mannerisms of two separate people, is worth the price of the popcorn. Hmm… I’ve never tried watching them as a double feature – now THAT would be interesting!

In her personal life, Davis raised children through multiple divorces, supported her mother and ex-husbands, championed the Girl Scouts and liberal causes, and lived a long, acting life. She was the highest paid woman in America in 1942 and garnered a reputation as “difficult” in order to get there. In her later years, she was good-natured about parodies and imitations of herself, and was even willing to join in.

As one story notes, when she says the line “What a dump!” in Beyond the Forest, it’s a simple statement. But after Elizabeth Taylor parodies Davis’ version of that line in the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Davis was forever asked to say the tag line as Taylor said it. She acquiesced. After all, when asked to make a TV appearance, it was work.

Davis died from complications due to breast cancer at age 81. She made 34 movies after the success of Baby Jane, and although few of them allow her much range, she kept working. As she said, “someone had to pay for the groceries.”

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Dead Ringer, 1964

She didn’t mind that her audiences would see her as a larger than life presence who was acting. She was not a fan of Method acting in that sense. She wanted her fans to see her act, to be someone larger than life, to be theatrical. She wanted people to see her working because as she knew, and as we all knew, nobody could work a scene like Bette Davis could.

Today’s entry is brought to you by the Daily Post word of the day: Champion

0 Replies to “Bette Davis: Champion of the Pictures”

  1. I loved reading your column – I am such a huge Bette Davis fan my mom bought us tickets when she was feted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1989.
    I also love Joan Crawford and theses films are favorites :
    Mildred Pierce (1945)
    The Women (1939)
    Grand Hotel, Flaemmchen – the Stenographer
    Daisy Kenyon (1947)
    A Woman’s Face (1941)
    Rain, Sadie Thompson
    Flamingo Road (1949)
    Johnny Guitar (1954)
    Susan and God (1940)
    Sadie McKee (1934)
    Laughing Sinners (1931)
    Letty Lynton (1932)
    Possessed (1931)
    The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937)
    Love on the Run (1936)
    The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)
    Forsaking All Others (1934)
    Chained (1934)
    Sadie McKee (1934)
    Strange Cargo (1940)
    Humoresque (1946)
    Possessed (1947)

    1. Wow.. great tribute info… a gold mine to savor. I’m not convinced about Joan, but I’ll grant it to other fans. As Miss Jean Brodie would say, “For people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” But really appreciate the response.

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