Nationality: American. Born: Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts, 5 April 1908. Education: Attended Cushing Academy, Ashburnham, Massachusetts; Mariarden School of Dancing; studied acting at Robert Milton-John Murray Anderson School of the Theatre, New York. Family: Married 1) Harmon Nelson, 1932 (divorced 1938); 2) Arthur Farnsworth, 1941 (divorced 1943); 3) William Grant Sherry, 1945 (divorced), daughter: Barbara Davis Sherry; 4) the actor Gary Merrill, 1950 (divorced 1960). Career: 1928—professional stage debut in George Cukor's stock production of Broadway in Rochester, New York; 1929—acted with Blanche Yurka Company in stock productions; Broadway debut in The Lady from the Sea; 1930—contract with Universal; 1931—film debut in Bad Sister; 1932—after series of unsuccessful films, dropped by Universal; long-term contract with Warners; 1934—critical acclaim for role in Of Human Bondage; 1936—refused to appear in poor
quality films and suspended without pay from Warners; attempt to act in Alexander Korda film thwarted by Warners; sued Warners over situation but lost long court battle; 1941—president of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences; co-founder and president of Hollywood Canteen; 1946—formed production company B.D., Inc.; 1949—terminated contract with Warners with Jack Warner's approval after series of unsuccessful films; 1952—returned to stage in musical revue Two's Company; 1956—television debut; early 1960s—change in direction of career occurs after appearances in low-budget horror films; 1978—in TV mini-series The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, and, briefly, in the TV series Hotel, 1983. Awards: Best Acress Academy Award, for Dangerous, 1935; Best Actress, Venice Festival, for Marked Woman and Kid Galahad, 1937; Best Actress Academy Award, for Jezebel, 1938; Best Actress, New York Film Critics, and Best Actress, Cannes Festival, for All about Eve, 1951; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1977. Died: In Neuilly sur Seine, France, 6 October 1989.
Films as Actress:
Bad Sister (Henley) (as Laura Madison); Seed (Stahl) (as Margaret Carter); Waterloo Bridge (Whale) (as Janet)
Way Back Home (Old Greatheart) (Seiter) (as Mary Lucy); The Menace (Neill) (as Peggy); Hell's House (Higgin) (as Peggy Gardner); The Man Who Played God (Adolfi) (as Grace Blair); So Big (Wellman) (as Dallas O'Mara); The Rich Are Always with Us (Alfred E. Green) (as Malbro); The Dark Horse (Alfred E. Green) (as Kay Russell); The Cabin in the Cotton (Curtiz) (as Madge Norwood); Three on a Match (LeRoy) (as Ruth Westcott)
20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Curtiz) (as Fay); Parachute Jumper (Alfred E. Green) (as Alabama); The Working Man (Adolfi) (as Jenny Hartland); Ex-Lady (Florey) (as Helen Bauer); Bureau of Missing Persons (Del Ruth) (as Norma Phillips)
Fashions of 1934 (Dieterle) (as Lynn Mason); The Big Shakedown (Dillon) (as Norma Frank); Jimmy the Gent (Curtiz) (as Joan Martin); Fog over Frisco (Dieterle) (as Arlene Bradford); Of Human Bondage (Cromwell) (as Mildred Rogers); Housewife (Alfred E. Green) (as Patricia Barclay/Ruth Smith)
Bordertown (Mayo) (as Marie Roark); The Girl from Tenth Avenue (Alfred E. Green) (as Miriam Brady); Front Page Woman (Curtiz) (as Ellen Garfield); Special Agent (Keighley) (as Julie Carston)
Dangerous (Alfred E. Green) (as Joyce Heath); The Petrified Forest (Mayo) (as Gabrielle Maple); The Golden Arrow (Alfred E. Green) (as Daisy Appleby); Satan Met a Lady (Dieterle) (as Valerie Purvis)
Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon) (as Mary Dwight/Strauber); Kid Galahad (Curtiz) (as Louise "Fluff" Phillips); That Certain Woman (Goulding) (as Mary Donnell); It's Love I'm After (Mayo) (as Joyce Arden)
Jezebel (Wyler) (as Julie Marsden); The Sisters (Litvak) (as Louise Elliot)
Dark Victory (Goulding) (as Judith Traherne); Juarez (Dieterle) (as Empress Carlotta von Habsburg); The Old Maid (Goulding) (as Charlotte Lovell); The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Curtiz) (as Queen Elizabeth)
All This and Heaven Too (Litvak) (as Henriette Deluzy Desportes); The Letter (Wyler) (as Leslie Crosbie)
The Great Lie (Goulding) (as Maggie Patterson); The Bride Came C.O.D. (Keighley) (as Joan Winfield); Shining Victory (Rapper) (as nurse); The Little Foxes (Wyler) (as Regina Hubbard Giddens)
In This Our Life (Huston) (as Stanley Timberlake); Now, Voyager (Rapper) (as Charlotte Vale); The Man Who Came to Dinner (Keighley) (as Maggie Cutler)
Watch on the Rhine (Shumlin) (as Sara Muller); Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler) (as herself); Old Acquaintance (Vincent Sherman) (as Kitty Marlowe); Stars on Horseback (Swartz—doc, short); A Present with a Future (Swartz—short)
Mr. Skeffington (Vincent Sherman) (as Fanny Tellis Skeffington); Hollywood Canteen (Daves) (as herself)
The Corn Is Green (Rapper) (as Miss Lilly Moffat); Second Victory Loan Campaign Fund (Vincent Sherman—short)
A Stolen Life (Bernhardt) (as Kate Bosworth/Pat Bosworth, + pr); Deception (Rapper) (as Christine Radcliffe)
Winter Meeting (Windust) (as Susan Grieve); June Bride (Windust) (as Linda Gilman)
Beyond the Forest (King Vidor) (as Rosa Moline)
All about Eve (Mankiewicz) (as Margo Channing)
Payment on Demand (Bernhardt) (as Joyce Ramsey)
Another Man's Poison (Rapper) (as Janet Frobisher); Phone Call from a Stranger (Negulesco) (as Marie Hoke); The Star (Heisler) (as Margaret Elliot)
The Virgin Queen (Koster) (as Queen Elizabeth)
Storm Center (Taradash) (as Alicia Hull); The Catered Affair (Wedding Breakfast) (Richard Brooks) (as Aggie Conlon Hurley)
Pocketful of Miracles (Capra) (as Apple Annie)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich) (as Jane Hudson)
Dead Ringer (Henreid) (as Margaret de Lorca/Edith Philips); La noia (The Empty Canvas) (Damiani) (as Dino's mother); Where Love Has Gone (Dmytryk) (as Mrs. Gerald Hayden); Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Aldrich) (as Charlotte Hollis)
The Nanny (Holt) (title role)
The Anniversary (Baker) (as Mrs. Taggart)
Connecting Rooms (Gollings) (as Wanda Fleming)
Bunny O'Hare (Oswald) (title role); Madame Sin (David Greene—for TV) (title role); Lo scopone scientifico (The Scientific Cardplayer) (Comencini) (as Millionairess); The Judge and Jake Wyler (Rich—for TV) (as Judge Meredith)
Scream, Pretty Peggy (Hessler—for TV) (as Mrs. Elliott)
Burnt Offerings (Curtis) (as Aunt Elizabeth); The Disappearance of Aimee (Harvey—for TV) (as Aimee's mother)
Return from Witch Mountain (Hough) (as Letha); The Children of Sanchez (Bartlett); Death on the Nile (Guillermin) (as Mrs. Van Schuyler); Dark Secret of Harvest Home (Leo Penn—for TV) (as Widow Fortune)
Strangers (Katselas—for TV)
The Watcher in the Woods (Hough) (as Mrs. Aylwood); White Mama (Cooper—for TV) (as Adele Malone)
Skyward (Ron Howard—for TV); Family Reunion (Cook—for TV) (as Elizabeth Winfield)
A Piano for Mrs. Cimino (Schaefer—for TV) (as Esther Cimino); Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last (Hussein—for TV) (as Alice Vanderbilt)
Right of Way (Schaefer—for TV)
Murder with Mirrors (Lowry—for TV) (as Carrie Louise Serrocold)
As Summers Die (Tramont—for TV) (as Hannah Loftin); Directed by William Wyler (Slesin—doc) (as herself)
The Whales of August (Lindsay Anderson) (as Libby Strong)
Wicked Stepmother (Cohen) (as Miranda); As Summer Dies (Tramont—for TV)
Here's Looking at You, Warner Bros. (Guenette—doc for TV) (as herself)
By DAVIS: books—
The Lonely Life: An Autobiography, New York, 1962.
This 'n' That, with Michael Herskowitz, New York, 1987.
I'd Love to Kiss You: Conversations with Bette Davis, with Whitney Stine, New York, 1990.
Bette Davis Speaks (interviews), by Boze Hadleigh, New York, 1996.
By DAVIS: articles—
"I Was Not Found on a Soda Fountain Stool," interview with C. Cole, in Films and Filming (London), May 1956.
"I Think . . . ," in Films and Filming (London), May 1959.
"Meeting Baby Jane," interview with P. J. Dyer, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1963.
"What Is a Star?," in Films and Filming (London), September 1965.
"Bette," interview with Margaret Hinxman in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1971–72.
"Sincerely, Bette Davis," interview with R. C. Hay, in Inter/View (New York), December 1972.
"Bette Davis: A Star Views Directors," interview with P. Gardner, in Action (Los Angeles), September-October 1974.
Interview with M. Henry and C. Viviani, in Positif (Paris), March 1988.
On DAVIS: books—
Noble, Peter, Bette Davis: A Biography, London, 1948.
Ringgold, Gene, The Films of Bette Davis, New York, 1966.
Mankiewicz, Joseph L., with Gary Carey, More about "All about Eve," New York, 1972.
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus, New York, 1973.
Vermilye, Jerry, Bette Davis, New York, 1973.
Stine, Whitney, Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis, with commentary by Bette Davis, New York, 1974.
Affron, Charles, Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis, New York, 1977.
Wallis, Hal, and Charles Higham, Starmaker, New York, 1980.
Higham, Charles, Bette: The Life of Bette Davis, New York, 1981.
Robinson, Jeffrey, Bette Davis: Her Stage and Film Career, London, 1982.
Hyman, B. D., My Mother's Keeper, New York, 1985.
Champion, Isabelle, Bette Davis, Paris, 1986.
Walker, Alexander, Bette Davis: A Celebration, London, 1986.
Hyman, B. D., with Jeremy Hyman, Narrow Is the Way, New York, 1987.
Merrill, Gary, Bette, Rita, and the Rest of My Life, Augusta, Maine, 1988.
Baker, Roger, Bette Davis: A Tribute 1908–89, New York, 1989.
Considine, Shaun, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, New York, 1989.
Moseley, Roy, Bette Davis: An Intimate Memoir, New York, 1989.
Brown, Gene, Bette Davis, Film Star, New York, 1990.
Quirk, Lawrence J., Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis, New York, 1990.
Ringgold, Gene, The Complete Films of Bette Davis, New York, 1990.
Leaming, Barbara, Bette Davis, New York, 1992.
Riese, Randall, All about Bette: Her Life from A to Z, Chicago, 1993.
Spada, James, More than a Woman: An Intimate Biography of Bette Davis, New York, 1993.
Baxt, George, The Bette Davis Murder Case (fiction), New York, 1994.
Walker, Alexander, Bette Davis, New York, 1998.
On DAVIS: articles—
Flanner, Janet, "Bette Davis," in New Yorker, February 1943.
"Bette Davis," in Look (New York), August 1946.
Lambert, G., "Portrait of an Actress: Bette Davis," in Sight and Sound (London), August-September 1951.
Current Biography 1953, New York, 1953.
Baker, Peter, "All about Bette," in Films and Filming (London), May 1956.
Shipman, David, "Whatever Happened to Bette Davis," in Films and Filming (London), April 1963.
Quirk, Lawrence J., "Bette Davis," in Films in Review (New York), December 1965.
Reed, Rex, "Bette Davis," in Conversations in the Raw, New York, 1969.
Carey, Gary, "The Lady and the Director: Bette Davis and William Wyler," in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1970.
Guerin, Ann, "Bette Davis," in Show (Hollywood), April 1971 and May 1972.
Cook, P., "The Sound Track," in Films in Review (New York), November 1973; also December 1984.
"A Toast to Bette Davis!," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1977.
Bessie, Alvah, "Bette Davis: A Lifelong Love Affair," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book, edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
McCourt, J., "Davis," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1978.
Marill, A. H., "An Evening with Bette Davis," in Films in Review (New York), December 1979.
Arnold, Gary, "Bette Davis," in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
LaPlace, M., "Bette Davis and the Ideal of Consumption," in Wide Angle (Baltimore, Maryland), vol. 6, no. 4, 1985.
Schatz, Thomas, "A Triumph of Bitchery: Warner Bros., Bette Davis and Jezebel," in Wide Angle (Baltimore, Maryland), vol. 10, no. 1, 1988.
Schickel, Richard, "Bette," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1989.
Poe, Gregory, "Restless Legend," in Interview (New York), April 1989.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 11 October 1989.
"Freedom Fighter," in Economist (London), 14 October 1989.
Clark, John, filmography in Premiere (New York), November 1989.
O'Toole, Lawrence, "Whatever Happened to Bette Davis?" in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1990.
Pink, Sid, "The Twonky: The Film That Nobody Wants to Love," in Filmfax (Evanston), April-May 1991.
Matthews, Peter, "Profile: Bette Davis," in Modern Review, vol. 1, no. 3, Spring 1992.
"One Classy Lady," in Classic Images (Muscatine), April 1993.
Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 11 March 1995.
Shingler, Martin, "Masquerade or Drag?: Bette Davis and the Ambiguities of Gender," in Screen (Oxford), Autumn 1995.
Ubeda-Portugues, A., "Bette Davis," in Nosferatu (San Sebastian), January 1997.
Sherman, Vincent, "On the Set with Bette," in DGA Magazine (Los Angeles), May-June 1997.
* * *
If Warner Brothers's commitment in the 1930s to films based on "spot news" had any historical justification, it was the creation of Bette Davis as America's most influential female star. After a generation of desuetude, the working-class heroine became not an occasional feature of American film but the role model by which the women of a new generation could measure themselves. Above all Davis exhibited resilience and resource, taking nothing for granted, accepting no statement without its due degree of scepticism. She typified the kind of woman we now think of as a mid-century standard—tough, ambitious, competent, laconic, yet vulnerable, retaining her feminity even as she competed with men. Both in films and in her dealings with the studios she controlled her environment and the people in it to achieve her ends, always reaffirming her strength and independence.
During the 1930s Davis made a dozen minor pictures which established her as a fighter and a survivor, a type in contradistinction to the other female stars then at Warner Brothers: in Three on a Match Ann Dvorak is the socialite who comes to a bad end, Joan Blondell the showgirl who rises in her place, and Davis the stenographer who is simply lucky to be alive at the end. Davis would always survive. She may suffer as Spencer Tracy's self-sacrificing mistress in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, but it is Tracy who goes gallantly to the electric chair for the crime she had committed in an attempt to save him. And in Dangerous, the unjustly excoriated melodrama for which Davis won her first Oscar, Franchot Tone willingly toys with destruction to rescue her, however embittered and suicidal she might be.
As her range of roles expanded, her technique and style also developed until by 1939 she could play with conviction a queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Davis made three films with William Wyler, a director with a meticulous, exhausting style who changed what had become mannerisms into new and adaptable techniques. Resource became calculation, and determination became command.
In Jezebel, Warner Brothers's hurried answer to the threatening success of Gone with the Wind, Davis schemed and sacrificed with a new and potent sensuality. As a coldly dissembling tropical murderess in The Letter, she enmeshes husband Herbert Marshall and solicitous policemen in a net as intricate as the lace she wears mantilla-like around her face. And in The Little Foxes as ruthless, self-regarding Regina Giddens, she shows a precisely perfected seductive skill. The final annihilating confession of The Letter, "I still love the man I killed," and the moment in The Little Foxes where she withholds from her husband the medicine that will prevent his heart attack, are insights into a type of character almost unknown in American movies of the time.
The gallery of classic Davis performances is unmatched by any other screen actress because Bette is impossible to dismiss even in the most wretched circumstances. Garbo had more allure; Stanwyck could play comedy with greater ease; the ageless Kate Hepburn perceptively chose better written vehicles from the fifties onward, but none of these titans bears watching in their bombs. In the campy bitterness of Beyond the Forest (in a Morticia Addams wig, Davis induces a miscarriage and blasts a mealy mouthed caretaker to death) or the souped-up melodrama of In This Our Life (rolling her eyes like a human slot machine, seductive Davis plays an incestuously inclined uncle for a sap), Davis is at her most mesmerizing, like a thespic warrior sumo-wrestling with flawed material. A valiant actress, temperamental Davis broke with the convention of her time and prided herself on sacrificing her looks for the honesty of a characterization; an intuitive grasp of building a role through externals infused her work from Of Human Bondage through Mr. Skeffington all the way up to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and beyond. Although Davis's numerous home runs, such as Empress Carlotta going mad in Juarez or Judith Traherne self-sufficiently facing her Dark Victory are as well—documented as her comeback in the quintessential Davis part of Margo Channing in All about Eve, it is more instructive to examine how the celluloid Duse handled what the industry grudgingly handed her after the title First Lady of the Screen had purely retrospective value. After her unjustly neglected Southern scenery-mastication in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Kenneth Tynan called hers a great performance), Davis's silver-screen opportunities evaporated except for being brilliantly restrained in The Nanny and hilariously out of sorts in Death on the Nile. Having had checkered success on Broadway over the years and having struck out repeatedly in launching her own television series, Davis also chickened out of a stage musical Lazarus-act with Miss Moffat, a Dixie transplant of The Corn Is Green. From the 1970s onwards, Davis retreated to the Land of TV Movies, where she was superbly imperious in a tiny role in Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last and heartbreakingly truculent paired opposite Gena Rowlands in Strangers, for which Davis won an Emmy.
A born scrapper, after surviving the traumas of mastectomies, strokes, cancer, inferior television fodder, and a vicious tell-all book by her ungrateful daughter, Bette was a haunting shell of her former self in The Whales of August which would have been a fine artistic capstone to her career. Then, despite a troubled production history and Davis's unhealthy appearance, The Wicked Stepmother provided a few final rumblings from that Davis volcano. Displeased with the rushes and terminally ill, Davis bowed out of a project that writer-director Larry Cohen had created in response to the movie business's neglect of her. Against the wishes of the actress, Cohen reshot around Davis's existing footage in a manner not seen since Ed Wood Jr.'s heyday. If this legend did not triumph artistically in her swansong, at least willful Davis went out battling a producer/director; that combativeness was the essence of her character and her unassailable artistry.
—John Baxter, updated by Robert Pardi
Considered by some to be unappealing in her first screen tests, Bette Davis (1908-1989) went on to become one of Hollywood's greatest actresses. She won two Best Actress Academy Awards and was nominated eight other times.
Bette Davis's career, which spanned some 60 years, included 86 films and 15 television movies. In addition to the countless honors and awards, she earned the respect and admiration of audiences and colleagues alike. She was best known for playing strong and often scheming characters. Her large, expressive eyes, exaggerated mannerisms, distinctive voice and diction, and ubiquitous cigarettes became her trademarks. She is often credited with broadening the range of roles available to actresses as well. Her fans can still recite her most memorable lines, such as when Davis, portraying an aging stage legend in All About Eve, (1950) tells her guests to "fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"
The elder daughter of Harlow Morrell, a lawyer, and Ruth (Favor) Davis, she was christened Ruth Elizabeth, but was called Bette as a child and kept the name throughout her career. Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on April 5, 1908. After her parents divorced in 1916, she and her sister Barbara moved frequently throughout New England while their mother pursued a photography career.
Both girls attended boarding school in the Berkshires and high school in Newton, Massachusetts. Davis graduated from a finishing school, Cushing Academy, in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, with an idea that she might try acting. Not the so-called conventional beauty of the day, she received little encouragement, but in what would become typical Davis style, she made up her own mind and headed for New York City.
Her experience in New York City was not encouraging either. In fact, Davis was rejected when she tried to enroll in the famed acting school of Eva Le Gallienne, noted actress, director, and producer. Le Gallienne told her to study some other field. Undaunted, Davis was admitted to the John Murray Anderson's drama school instead. She got a role with George Cukor's stock company in Rochester, New York.
For the next four years, she hung around New York City and the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, where she worked as an usherette in between playing bit parts. Her first major role was in an off-Broadway production of The Earth Between (1928). After a brief tour in The Wild Duck, Davis reached Broadway. The comedy Broken Dishes opened in November of 1929 and ran for six months. That led to a 1930 production of Solid South, which led to a screen test in Hollywood. She failed the screen test.
Critics who viewed Davis's 1930 screen test at Goldwyn studios said she had no audience appeal. So, she tested at Universal and was hired, even though it was said that studio boss Carl Laemmle also didn't think she had appeal. However, she was cast in two films in 1931, Bad Sister and Seed. The critics ignored her in both.
With her strong resolve about to cave in and force her to leave Hollywood, Davis got a break when George Arliss offered her the part opposite him in The Man Who Played God from Warner Brothers. She won good reviews and a long-term contract. Thus began a succession of films with Warner, most mediocre and unmemorable. But poor as the films were, the talent and unique quality of Davis began to emerge so that critics started to praise her while panning her movies.
Fighting the studio for better roles became a way of life for Davis as she clawed her way to the top of the film world. She fought for and won the right to be loaned out to RKO in 1934 to play Mildred, the selfish waitress who manipulates an infatuated medical student, in John Cromwell's Of Human Bondage. Suddenly, the world was introduced to a brilliant new actress.
One might have thought that Davis's career was on the upswing, but Warner continued to cast her in poor quality films. There were two exceptions. In Dangerous, Davis played a failed actress who tries to murder her husband. For this role, she won her first Best Actress Academy Award in 1935. She also appeared with Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard (her co-star in Of Human Bondage) in The Petrified Forest in 1936. Growing disgusted with the studio's offerings, Davis refused any more roles and was suspended without pay. She sued. Warner Brothers and the movie world were astounded; this was not expected behavior of the time. Although Davis lost her battle in court, Warner Brothers apparently got the message for they paid her legal fees and began offering her more suitable roles.
The stature of Davis, the actress, continued to grow. Ty Burr of Entertainment Weekly noted that "Davis was a top box office draw throughout the '30s and '40s, and in 1948 she was the highest paid star in Hollywood." Among her memorable roles in the 1930s and 1940s were: Jezebel, 1938, for which she won her second Academy Award for her portrayal of "a witchy Southern belle" according to Burr; Dark Victory, 1939, which she once told Harry Bowman of the Dallas News was her favorite film; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Juarez, also 1939; All This and Heaven Too and The Letter, both 1940; The Little Foxes, 1941; Now Voyager, 1942; Watch on the Rhine, 1943; The Corn Is Green, 1945; Deception and A Stolen Life, both 1946; and the delightful June Bride, (1948) which showed her comic touch.
Despite the praise and awards, by the end of the 1940s, Davis's career seemed to be slowing down, mainly for lack of good material. But in true Davis style, she came through with perhaps the greatest performance of her career as the troubled, aging star, Margo Channing, whose life and career are being taken over by a cunning newcomer, Eve, played by Anne Baxter in All About Eve (1950). It was a biting satire on the world of the theater. Davis won the New York Film Critics best actress of the year award.
After a number of films in the 1950s, Davis's career seemed to slow down again. But she was back on top in the early 1960s, with two shockers. In 1962, Davis appeared in the smash Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, playing opposite Joan Crawford. Crawford played the physically handicapped sister at the mercy of her demented sister, Baby Jane Hudson (Davis), a former child star. It was ghoulish and audiences loved it. This was followed by Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, (1965) with Davis (co-starring Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotton) playing a recluse who is haunted by the unsolved murder of her lover many years earlier.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Davis continued to appear in films, mainly on television. As she marched cantankerously into old age, she appeared on many talk shows, delighting her audiences with her feisty, undaunted in the face-of-aging spirit. She was the fifth recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1977, the first woman to be so honored. In 1979, she won an Emmy Award for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter. One her best features became the inspiration for a number one pop song, "Bette Davis Eyes," in 1982.
Davis wrote two autobiographies, The Lonely Life (1962) and This 'N That (1987), the latter to refute her daughter's (Barbara Davis [B.D.] Hyman) 1985 tell-all book My Mother's Keeper, which portrayed Davis as an abusive alcoholic. She was also married four times. In 1932, she married Harmon Oscar Nelson, Jr.; they divorced in 1938. Her second marriage was to Arthur Farnsworth, a businessman from Boston who died in 1943. She married and divorced artist William Grant Sherry in 1945; they had a daughter named Barbara. In 1950, she married actor Gary Merrill, whom she met while making All About Eve. They adopted two children, Michael and Margot, and were divorced in 1960.
In the last five years of her life, Davis had a mastectomy, suffered with cancer and had several strokes. She probably was not kidding when she, according to an on-line biography commented, "Old age is not for sissies." Davis died on October 6, 1989, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, outside of Paris. She had just attended the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain where she had been honored for a lifetime of film achievement. In the late 1990s, her son Michael created the Bette Davis Foundation and awarded American actress Meryl Streep the first ever Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award.
Davis, Bette, and Michael Herskowitz, This 'N That, Putnam, 1987.
Hadleigh, Boze, Bette Davis Speaks, Barricade Books, 1996.
Chicago Tribune, October 9, 1989.
Dallas News, March 20, 1974.
Entertainment Weekly, August 13, 1993; Fall 1996.
Los Angeles Times, October 7, 1989.
Modern Maturity, July/August 1994.
New York Times, October 8, 1989.
"Bette Davis," All-Movie Guide,http://220.127.116.11/cgi-win/AVG.exe?sql=2P_IDP17295 (May 14, 1998).
"Bette Davis," Database-Katz Biography,http://www.tvgen.com/movies/katz/1789.sml (May 14, 1998).
"Bette Davis," Internet Movie Database,http://us.imdb.com (May 14, 1998).
"Bette Davis," Welcome to the Golden Years-the Superstars,http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/9766/davis.html (May 14, 1998).
"Connery, Streep, Davis Honored," (April 17, 1998), http://www.mrshowbiz.com/ (May 14, 1998).
Born: April 5, 1908
Died: October 6, 1989
Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on April 5, 1908, the eldest daughter of Harlow Morrell Davis, a lawyer, and Ruth Favor Davis. She was called Bette as a child and kept the name throughout her career. After her parents divorced in 1916, she and her sister, Barbara, moved frequently throughout New England with their mother, who was pursuing a photography career. Both girls attended boarding school in the Berkshires and went to high school in Newton, Massachusetts. Bette started acting in plays and taking drama classes while she was in school. She graduated from Cushing Academy, in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, with an idea that she might try acting. But she received little encouragement, as she was not considered very beautiful. She had made up her mind, though, and she headed for New York City.
Slow start to career
Davis enrolled in John Murray Anderson's drama school and found some work with George Cukor's acting company in Rochester, New York. She also worked at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, as an usherette (a female guide who escorts people to correct seats in theaters or in other events) and a bit-part player. Her first major role was in a stage production of The Earth Between (1928). After a brief tour in The Wild Duck, Davis reached Broadway. The comedy Broken Dishes opened in November 1929 and ran for six months. That led to a 1930 production of Solid South, after which she failed a screen test in Hollywood.
Davis was also tested at Universal Studios and hired, even though studio executives were not very supportive. She appeared in two films in 1931, Bad Sister and Seed. The critics ignored her in both. Davis got a break when she was offered a part in The Man Who Played God. She received good reviews and a long-term contract from the Warner Brothers studio. This began a series of films with Warner, mostly unremarkable and insignificant, but critics began to notice Davis's talent and unique quality. Davis began to claw her way to the top of the film world. She fought for and won the right to appear in another studio's production of Of Human Bondage. Suddenly, the world was introduced to a brilliant new actress.
Warner continued to cast Davis in poor-quality films, with two exceptions. Playing a failed actress who tries to murder her husband in Dangerous, she won her first Best Actress Academy Award in 1935. She also appeared with Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957) and Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest in 1936. Growing disgusted with the studio's offerings, Davis refused any more roles. The studio suspended her. She sued, which shocked the movie world. Although Davis lost her battle in court, Warner Brothers apparently got the message—they paid her legal fees and began offering her better roles. Her performance in Jezebel (1938) won her a second Academy Award.
By the end of the 1940s, Davis's career seemed to be slowing down. But she came through with a great performance in All About Eve (1950), winning the New York Film Critics best actress of the year award. After a number of films in the 1950s, Davis's career seemed to slow down again. But in 1962, Davis appeared in the smash hit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, acting opposite Joan Crawford (1904–1977). This was followed by Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte in 1965.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Davis continued to appear in films, mainly on television. She also appeared on many talk shows, delighting her audiences by her refusal to give in to old age. She was the fifth person to receive the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1977 and the first woman to be so honored. In 1979 she won an Emmy Award for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter.
Davis wrote two books about her own life, The Lonely Life (1962) and This 'N That (1987) (the second of which answered charges by her daughter that Davis was an alcoholic who had abused her children). She was also married four times. In the last five years of her life, Davis suffered from cancer and had several strokes. She died on October 6, 1989, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. She had just attended the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, where she had been honored for a lifetime of film achievement. In 1997 her son Michael created the Bette Davis Foundation. A year later he awarded American actress Meryl Streep (1949–) the first ever Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award.
For More Information
Davis, Bette, and Michael Herskowitz. This 'N That. New York: Putnam, 1987.
Hadleigh, Boze. Bette Davis Speaks. New York: Barricade Books, 1996.
Spada, James. More than a Woman: An Intimate Biography of Bette Davis. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.
Bette Davis (bĕt´ē), 1908–89, American film actress, b. Lowell, Mass., as Ruth Elizabeth Davis. One of the most durable stars of the American screen, she made her debut in 1931. With a strikingly artificial yet emotionally compelling acting style and distinctive features that gave her an unconventional beauty, Davis was difficult to promote as a romantic figure. Her successful early roles included Of Human Bondage (1934) and Dangerous (1935, Academy Award). Frustrated at the lack of better roles, she broke her contract with Warner Brothers and lost a subsequent court case in which the standard seven-year contract binding a performer to one studio was upheld. But Davis found her niche as the troubled woman in search of romance in such films as Jezebel (1938), for which she won another Academy Award, and The Little Foxes (1941). Among her other outstanding films are Dark Victory (1939), Now, Voyager (1942), and the superb All about Eve (1950). When her popularity began to decline in the 1950s, she responded by accepting offbeat, even bizarre, roles in The Catered Affair (1955), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1961), and other 1960s films. With fellow screen legend Lillian Gish, she gave a graceful valedictory performance in The Whales of August (1987).
See her autobiography (1962); biographies by J. Vermilye (1972), C. Higham (1981), B. Leaming (1992), J. Spada (1993), C. Chandler (2006), and E. Sikov (2007).