One of Hollywood’s most infiuential personalities, Bette Davis, in her films of the 1940s, defined a new breed of strong, independent women, while redefining the film industry’s standards of beauty with her unconventional looks. On April 5, 1908, Ruth Elizabeth Davis (known as Betty to her family) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. When she was 10, her parents divorced, leaving her mother, Ruth, to raise Betty and her sister, Barbara. Davis later credited Ruth’s example with inspiring the confidence and determination that would guide Davis throughout her life.
Encouraged by her mother, Betty developed an early fascination with the theater. Having changed the spelling of her name after reading Honoré de Balzac’s La Cousine Bette, she applied to Eva Le Gallienne’s famed acting school in New York City but was rejected. Davis dismissed Le Gallienne’s advice that she pursue another profession and instead enrolled in John Murray Anderson’s rival drama school. She performed in director George Cukor’s stock company in Rochester, New York, before winning her first major off-Broadway role in The Earth Between (1928). The next year, she had her first Broadway triumph in a small role in Broken Dishes, which ran six months. Based on her theater work, Davis was given a screen test for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), but the studio rejected her out of hand. Physically, she lacked the glamour-girl beauty favored by Hollywood, although her large, expressive eyes played well to the camera. Her highly mannered acting style and exaggerated diction also seemed too stagy to translate well to the screen.
Despite this setback, the persistent Davis was given a second screen test in 1930, which won her a six-month contract with Universal. Her movie debut in The Bad Sister (1931) and her other early films, however, were not encouraging. As Hollywood insiders had suspected, audiences were initially put off by Davis’s unique looks, voice, and mannerisms. Her film career was all but over when actor George Arliss insisted that she be loaned out to Warner Brothers for The Man Who Played God (1932). The film was a hit and earned Davis a contract with Warner Brothers, the studio for which she would work for the next 18 years.
Almost from the start, Davis butted heads with studio head Jack Warner over the roles she was given. She complained repeatedly about the quality of her films and, two years into her contract, convinced Warner to loan her to RKO so she could appear in the film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1934). Her energetic performance as Mildred, a vulgar waitress who inspires a odd infatuation in the film’s sensitive hero (played by Leslie Howard), won near universal praise. Her fans were outraged when she was not nominated for an Oscar for her performance. The next year, however, Davis won the award for a much lesser film, Dangerous—an honor even Davis recognized as a “consolation prize” for the previous snub. Davis was now seen as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, but with the exception of The Petrified Forest (1936), she continued to be disappointed with the films Warner Brothers offered her. Her irritation came to a head when in 1937, she refused to follow Jack Warner’s orders and headed to England to appear in British films. The action was unprecedented in Hollywood. At the time, common wisdom held that contracted players had no choice but to do as the studio told them, like it or not. Warner sued Davis and won but the highly publicized court battle changed, Hollywood forever. Although the contract system would largely stay in place for decades, Davis introduced the film industry to the idea of actors working as free agents and choosing their own parts, the system that rules Hollywood today. Ironically, Davis reaped enormous benefits from her unsuccessful rebellion.
Embarrassed by the lawsuit, Warner took her demands more seriously than before, and as a result, the legal action ushered in the best period of her career. In 1938 she won a second Academy Award for Jezebel (1938), in which she played a conniving Southern belle during the Civil War. (According to Davis, she had been offered the role of the era’s most famous Southern femme fatale—Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939)—but rejected the role because they wanted to pair her with Errol Flynn, whom she felt was wrong for the role of Rhett Butler.) The next four years, she received four of her 10 best-actress nominations for performances in several of her best pictures: Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), and Now, Voyager (1942). In these and other films of the 1940s, Davis generally played fiercely independent women, though some were decent and long-suffering, while others were cruel and scheming.Toward the end of the decade, Davis’s stormy relationship with Jack Warner again began to deteriorate. The two had their final showdown in 1949 when she demanded the firing of King Vidor, her director on Beyond the Forest (1949). She declared that she wanted out of her contract if he were not replaced. A frustrated Warner this time refused to back down. By the time Davis
finished the film, her professional ties with Warner Brothers were severed. Free from studio control at last, Davis was approached by Twentieth Century-Fox to replace an injured CLAUDETTE COLBERT in All About Eve (1950), a sophisticated comedy about the theater world. The movie gave Davis her greatest rolethe aging theater diva Margo Channing, who is determined to ward off the attempts of newcomer Eve Harrington to steal her spot in the limelight. Announcing to her intention to do battle with Eve, Margo says, “Fasten your seatbelts—it’s going to be a bumpy ride”—a now famous line with which Davis will forever be associated.
In her later years, Davis grew increasingly frustrated trying to find roles that were equal to her talent. Desperate for work, in 1962 she took a part opposite her longtime rival JOAN CRAWFORD in a horror film, What Ever Happened to Baby Janefi The movie was an unexpected hit and inspired the follow-up Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) in which Davis was paired with Olivia De Havilland. Though Davis continued acting, often in television movies, during the 1970s and 1980s, her films were largely unmemorable. An exception was the role as a blind woman in The Whales of August (1987), in which she shared the screen with another legend, LILLIAN GISH.
By her own admission, Davis’s work always took precedence over her private life. Married and divorced four times, she wrote in her autobiography The Lonely Life (1962), “No man could ever share my drive or vision. No man has ever understood the sweetness of my joy at the end of a good day’s work.” She found more satisfaction with her daughter Barbara (known as B. D.) and two adopted children, Margot and Michael. But in her late years, she felt betrayed by B. D., whose book My Mother’s Keeper (1985) portrayed her as a bad mother. Davis wrote her own book, This ’n That (1987) as a challenge to B. D.’s representation of her.
Long in ill health, Davis died on October 6, 1989, in Paris after attending a Spanish film festival. She is remembered for her strong will—on screen and off—and credited with broadening the range of film roles available to women by showing the appeal of heroines with minds of their own.
Davis, Bette. The Lonely Life: An Autobiography. New York: Putnam, 1962.
Davis, Bette, with Michael Herskowitz. This ’n That. New York: Putnam, 1987.
Higham, Charles. Bette: The Life of Bette Davis. New York: Macmillan, 1981.
Quirk, Lawrence J. Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis. New York: William Morrow, 1990.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
All About Eve (1950). Twentieth Century-Fox, DVD/VHS, 1990.
Dark Victory (1939). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Jezebel (1938). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.
The Little Foxes (1941). MGM/UA, VHS, 2000.
Of Human Bondage (1934). Monterey Home Video, VHS, 1996.