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Star of the Month: Bette Davis
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Bette Davis

Bette Davis - Tuesdays in November


With her volcanic talent and formidable personality, Bette Davis staked her claim as the number one dramatic diva of the screen in the 1930s and '40s. Not as stereotypically glamorous as Joan Crawford or Vivien Leigh and rougher around the edges compared to Barbara Stanwyck, our Star of the Month for November relied on emotional intensity and sheer professionalism to bring character to her audiences.

Her electrifying performances became such an essential part of her home studio that Davis was dubbed "The Fourth Warner Brother." After leaving Warner Bros., Davis reached her peak in 1950 with an image-defining performance as the aging, acid-tongued actress in All About Eve. She continued to give commanding performances well into the 1980s that were sometimes worthy of her abilities and other times not.

Overall, her career spanned 60 years, with 100 acting credits, 10 Academy Award nominations (a record at the time) and two Oscars. Her large, round "Bette Davis eyes," staccato speech and that omnipresent cigarette made her an easy target for impersonators. But it was her realism and daring onscreen performances that caused a generation of performers, particularly actresses, to regard her with reverence and awe.

In a TCM tribute to Davis, Meryl Streep talked about the "bravery" of her work: "She lifted the veil of appropriate behavior for women to expose what was scary and unexpected beneath." After being the first recipient of the Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998, Streep commented that, "To even be mentioned in the same breath with Bette Davis is like a dream come true."

Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born April 5, 1908, in Lowell, MA, the daughter of attorney Harlow Morrell Davis and his wife, Ruth Augusta. A younger sister was named Barbara; the girls were always close to their mother and called her "Ruthie." Davis's parents separated when she was seven and divorced when she was 10. She attended boarding schools in Massachusetts and New York, where her mother moved to work as a governess and portrait photographer. Ruth Elizabeth became a Girl Scout, eventually rising to the rank of Patrol Leader.

From early childhood she had been called "Betty," and a friend of her mother suggested that she change the spelling to that used by Honoré Balzac in his novel La Cousine Bette. And so, she became Bette Davis. She had the urge to perform from an early age and had originally wanted to be a dancer. But at age 18, she saw a production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck and was so impressed with the performance of an actress named Peg Entwistle that she decided on the spot to become an actress.

Davis was able to study with Martha Graham and later credited the renowned dancer with teaching her the power of bodily expression that she would later employ so effectively on film. George Cukor, who would become one of the great Hollywood directors, provided Davis her first paid acting jobs in a stock company he operated. (Unfortunately, Cukor and the mature Davis never collaborated in the movies.) By 1929, the young actress had played the Entwistle role in The Wild Duck and made her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes, followed by Solid South. Her theater work led to two screen tests - one for Samuel Goldwyn and the other for Universal Pictures.

Universal signed Davis to a contract paying her $300 a week with three-month options. The story goes that when Davis and her mother arrived at the Los Angeles Union Station, a studio representative left the scene because he couldn't find anyone who "looked like an actress." In later years, Davis delighted in telling the story that the studio wanted to rename her "Bettina Dawes," but she resisted because it sounded to her like "Between the Drawers." After some false starts, she finally made her film debut in The Bad Sister (1931), playing the dull sister of tempestuous leading lady Sidney Fox.

Another Davis story had Universal studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. saying of her initial screen appearance, "She's got as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville." She hated the film and called making it "the worst experience of my life." She fared little better with a thankless supporting role in the original screen version of Waterloo Bridge (1931).

Universal found little else for Davis to do and, after loan-outs for insignificant films at RKO and Columbia Pictures, the studio let her option drop. Character actor/star George Arliss came to the rescue by offering Davis the ingenue role in the appropriately titled The Man Who Played God (1932) at Warner Bros. The film was a success and Davis acknowledged that making it gave her "standing" in the industry.

She signed a contract with Warner Bros. in 1932 and quickly learned what an exhausting schedule the studio demanded of its young players. During the period 1932-34, she appeared in 17 Warner films. For the TCM tribute, we have 12 of them.

From 1932: So Big!, The Rich are Always with Us, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing and Three on a Match. From 1933: Bureau of Missing Persons, Ex-Lady, The Working Man and Parachute Jumper. From 1934: Fog Over Frisco, The Big Shakedown, Fashions of 1934 and Jimmy the Gent.

After her long apprenticeship, Davis scored her breakthrough into real stardom on loan-out to RKO for Of Human Bondage (1934). This first screen version of the W. Somerset Maugham novel stars Leslie Howard as the handicapped medical student who becomes obsessed with a slatternly cockney waitress (Davis). Hollywood hadn't seen anything quite like the Davis performance, done in broad strokes with a raw power that galvanized audiences.

This over-the-top star turn put Davis on the Hollywood map. She was not officially nominated for an Academy Award, but many outraged Academy members wrote her in as their choice. (Claudette Colbert won for her performance in It Happened One Night, 1934.)

After this triumph, it was back to Warner Bros. for more standard fare, although she now demanded more colorful roles. She won a Best Actress Oscar for one of these, the self-destructive actress of Dangerous (1935), in which she received solo star billing. Among Davis's other significant films of this period were Bordertown (1935), starring Paul Muni; and The Petrified Forest (1936), starring Leslie Howard with Humphrey Bogart in an attention-grabbing supporting role. Davis delivered strong performances in these contrasting roles as the "bad" and "good" girl.

Other films gave her less opportunity. These included Special Agent (1935), Front Page Woman (1935), The Girl from 10th Avenue (1935), The Golden Arrow (1936), Satan Met a Lady (1936) and It's Love I'm After (1937).

In 1937, Davis sued Warner Bros. for the right to appear independently in films made outside the studio. She told a reporter at the time that, "If I continued to appear in mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for." But the court ruled against her.

Essentially, she lost the battle but won the war. Studio head Jack Warner looked upon Davis with new respect and rewarded her with roles that took advantage of her prodigious talent. Six years later, Davis friend and fellow Warner contract player Olivia de Havilland would win a similar suit that forbade an employer to add periods of suspension (caused by a refusal to play unwanted roles) to the length of a contract. Together, the struggles of Davis and de Havilland proved significant in extending greater creative control to film actors.

And so, Bette Davis entered the prime of her Warner Bros. career. For Marked Woman (1937), playing a nightclub "hostess" who brings a mobster to justice, she won the Venice Film Festival's Volpi Cup as Best Actress. She won her second Best Actress Oscar for Jezebel (1938), in which she is a willful Southern belle of pre-Civil War days.

Jezebel marked the beginning of a five-year period in which Davis was consecutively nominated for the same Best Actress Oscar honor; the other vehicles were Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941) and Now, Voyager (1942).

Davis was now fully in command of her audience, particularly the female portion. Other commercially and critically successful films included The Old Maid (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939, as Queen Elizabeth I), All This, and Heaven Too (1940), The Great Lie (1941), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Old Acquaintance (1943), Watch on the Rhine (1943), The Corn Is Green (1945) and Mr. Skeffington (1944).

Deception (1946), in which costar Claude Rains was even more flamboyantly dramatic than Davis, lost money and marked the beginning of her decline at her home studio. She tried performing a double role in A Stolen Life (1946), playing comedy in June Bride (1948) and enacting a neurotic poetess in Winter Meeting (1948). But none of these efforts clicked with audiences.

Davis's final film under her Warner Bros. contract, and the nadir of her time there, was Beyond the Forest (1949), which spawned the trademark line from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: "What a dump!" After that she became a freelancer.

Then came the miracle of 20th Century-Fox's All About Eve (1950), with Davis describing the Joseph L. Mankiewicz screenplay about life in the theater as "the best I ever read." He also directed, surrounding Davis with an impeccable cast and guiding her to her eighth Oscar nomination.

Her other vehicles of the 1950s came nowhere near comparing, but she kept busy with such films as Payment on Demand (1951), The Star (1952), The Catered Affair (1956) and The Scapegoat (1959). In 1961, she played "Apple Annie" in Frank Capra's Pocketful of Miracles.

Teamed with longtime rival Joan Crawford, Davis entered the world of Grand Guignol in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a surprise hit in which her grotesquely aged child star of the title is both horrifying and heartbreaking. This one brought her the 10th and final Oscar nomination and much attention for her bitter feud with her costar.

Her later films were a mixed bag, ranging from what seemed a parody of her old melodramas at Warner Bros. (and filmed there) like Dead Ringer (1964), to such further exercises in horror as The Nanny (1965). She led the touching, beautifully filmed drama The Whales of August (1987), in which Davis and Lillian Gish play elderly sisters. Over the course of her career, she had continued on occasion to do theater work. She also appeared periodically in television dramas, series and made-for-TV movies from 1956-86.

Davis suffered a stroke in 1983 and the aftereffects were noticeable in her subsequent screen appearances. Her last film was Wicked Stepmother (1989), which was completed without her after she walked out partway through filming and released after her death.

Davis married four times: Harmon Nelson (1932-38), Arthur Farnsworth (1940-43, his death), William Grant Sherry (1945-50), and All About Eve costar Gary Merrill (1950-60). She had three children.

B.D. Hyman, a daughter by Sherry born in 1947 and adopted by Merrill, wrote two books, My Mother's Keeper (1985) and Narrow Is the Way (1987), in which she painted a grotesque picture of her mother as an overbearing alcoholic. This characterization was disputed by Davis herself and some who were close to her.

Davis and Merrill adopted two children. Margot Mosher Merrill, born in 1951, was adopted as an infant and, as a toddler, diagnosed with brain damage. She has been institutionalized since the age of three. In 1952, the couple adopted a baby boy who was named Michael Merrill and would become a lawyer in Boston.

Several biographies about Davis have been published, and she wrote two memoirs, The Lonely Life (1962) and This 'N That (1987). Davis died on October 6, 1989, of metastasized breast cancer, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, France. She is interred at Forest Lawn (Hollywood Hills) in Los Angeles. On her tombstone is written, "She did it the hard way."

In looking back on the challenges and rewards of her life, the idealistic yet practical star once commented that, "To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lonely labor, to be given a chance to create, is the meat and potatoes of life." Then she added, "The money is the gravy."

by Roger Fristoe
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