[ b e t t e d a v i s b i o g . ]
'What a fool I was to come to Hollywood where they only understand platinum blondes and where legs are more important than talent'
- Bette Davis
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- Name: Bette Davis
- Birthname: Ruth Elizabeth Davis
- Nickname: The First Lady of Film, The Fifth Warner Brother
- Profession: Actress
- Date of Birth: 5 April 1908
- Place of Birth: Lowell, Massachusetts, USA
- Height: 5' 3" (1.60 m)
- Measurements: 36C-25-35 (in 1940)
Gary Merrill (1950 - 1960) (divorced)
William Grant Sherry (1945 - 1950) (divorced) 1 daughter
Arthur Farnsworth (1940 - 1943) (his death)
Harmon Nelson (1932 - 1939)
- Died: 6 October 1989
- Place of Death:
American Hospital in Neuilly, France (metastasized breast cancer)
Forest Lawn (Hollywood Hills), Los Angeles, California, USA
b i o g r a p h y : a l l a b o u t b e t t e
On December 3, 1930, Bette Davis arrived in Hollywood. Originally, from Lowell, Massachusetts (she was born in 1908 or 1903), she had studied drama at the John Murray Anderson school, acting in summer repertory. She had won a modest but growing reputation as a promising young actress in two Broadway plays - Broken Dishes and Solid South - and had come to the attention of Universal Studios, who had put her under contract.
It was hardly an auspicious time for someone like Davis to break into films; she was pretty enough, in an odd way, but hardly fitted any of the moulds by which either the studios or the public judged beauty. The fact that she was, or wanted to be, a serious actress was irrelevant, if not actually a handicap to success. When she got off the train, no-one from the studio was there to meet her. In fact, a representative had been at the station but later reported that he had seen 'no-one who looked like an actress.' When the head of the studio saw the first film in which she was cast, Bad Sister (1931), he said, 'Can you picture some poor guy going through hell and high water in a picture and ending up with her in the fade-out?'
Five undistinguished films later, Universal stopped her contract. Just as she and her mother were packing to return to New York and the theatre, George Arliss, then a leading star at Warner Brothers telephoned. A friend of his, Murray Kinnell, had worked with Davis in her fifth film The Menace (1932) and had thought she might be right for Arliss' upcoming The Man Who Played God (1932). In his autobiography, Arliss recalled:
'I did not expect anything but a nice little performance. But...the nice little part became a deep and vivid creation...I got from her a flash that illuminated mere words and inspired them with passion and emotion. That is the kind of light that cannot be hidden under a bushel.'
Warners, however, either didn't see that light, or didn't care; she was put under contract, but given a series of roles in mediocre pictures which today have few, if any, redeeming qualities except Davis' presence.
She was, of course, noticed by critics and the public, and her reputation as a solid actress continued to grow. She was a convincing vixen in Cabin in the Cotten (1932), and managed to make even the most ludicrous Southern dialogue - 'Ah'd luv ta kiss yo, but ah jes washed mah hayuh' - sound believable. She fought with director Archie Mayo over the way she should play her mad scene in Bordertown (1935); she won, as she often did in battles with directors, and was proved right, as she often was in such cases, when the film was well received. Critics pointed to the subtlety of her portrayal of 'a fiery-souled, half-witted, love-crazed woman' (Film Weekly) in their reviews.
Davis has claimed that 'There wasn't one of my best pictures I didn't have to fight to get.' Of Human Bondage (1934), from the novel by Somerset Maugham, was one of the first. Director John Cromwell wanted her for the role of Mildred, a scheming waitress who ensnares a sensitive medical student, but Warners was reluctant to loan her to RKO for the film. Bette hounded Jack Warner every day for six months, and he finally gave in simply to be left in peace. She recalled in her autobiography The Lonely Life:
'My employers believed I would hang myself playing such an unpleasant heroine...I think they identified me with the character and felt we deserved each other.'
It is, seen now, perhaps not one of Davis' best performances; her Mildred is so constantly overwrought and nasty that one begins to wonder what even the obsessed student Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) could see in her. Put in historical perspective, however, the performance is both effective and courageous; at a time when 'movie star' meant glamour and sympathy, Davis had dared to look terrible and to be unsympathetic. All were surprised when she was not even nominated for an Academy Award. When she won an Oscar for Dangerous (1935), she claimed it was given her because she had been overlooked the previous year.
In spite of the acclaim she received for Of Human Bondage, Warners threw her into five melodramas of variable quality before giving her the script of Dangerous. Davis said that she thought it 'maudlin and mawkish, with a pretense at quality', and that she had to work hard to make something of her role as an alcoholic actress bent on self-destruction. She was undoubtedly right about the screen play, but she gave a performance of such intensity that one overlooks everything that is going on around her on screen.
Those critics who had begun to complain that she was fast developing a set of mannerisms and was playing too broadly for the screen were surprised at her tender and restrained Gaby in The Petrified Forest (1936). Yet, in spite of her obvious power at the box-office and her critical standing as a serious actress, Warners insisted that she make an empty comedy, The Golden Arrow (1936), and a flat and confused version of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon called Satan Met a Lady (1936). Davis was understandably angry. To preseve her self-respect and her popularity, she wanted to make fewer films each year and to act only in those with scripts she thought intelligent. Warners reply was to cast her in something called God's Country and the Woman (made in 1936 with Beverley Roberts as the female lead), with the promise that if she made it she could have the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939. She refused and the studio put her on suspension for three months. Shw held out, refusing two other scripts offered her, with the comment 'If I continue to appear in mediocre pictures, I'll have no career worth fighting for'.
With the Davis-Warners feud now an impasse, Ludovico Toeplitz, who produced films in England, offered her a two-picture contract at £20,000 for each film, with script approval. She signed, but upon her arrival in Lomdon found herself under injunction from Warners. They claimed that she was contracted to work exclusively for that studio and was not allowed to make films for others. The entire film industry watched the ensuing court battle (which all actors applauded) as the outcome would determine how the studio system would work in the future. Davis lost her suit and was forced to return to Warners or to give uo films until her long-term contract expired - but she did not lose out in the long run. Warners paid her legal fees and began to take her more seriously; the standard of her material temporarily rose.
Her first film upon her return to Hollywood was Marked Woman (1937), an above-average social-problem (prostitution) film which gave her a chance to show a wider range of emotion than usual. Jezebel (1938) began a long series of films specially tailoured for Davis. They were for the most part what was then called 'women's pictures', melodramatic soap operas turning on romantic conflict and sacrifice. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss them in the light of the wider freedom of expression allowed in today's films. In the Thirties and Forties such films were taken seriously and accorded more than a little respect. The best of them attempted to illuminate areas of emotion, sexuality and human situation which could not be portrayed on the screen at that time in any other way. Those that Davis made were certainly among the best - she continuously fought for a certain level of intelligence in plot and dialogue, and insisted on as much realism as possible in her portrayals of disturbed or troubled women.
In Jezebel she was convincing as a wilful Southern belle who is made to suffer for her own strange perversity. Un Dark Victory (1939) she alone lifted a maudlin tale of a woman slowly dying into an illuminating study of human understanding and sacrifice. In Now Voyager (1942) she made a repressed spinster's transformation into a compassionate, mature woman believale and moving.
In 1946 she decided to set up her own production company with the films thus made to be released through Warners. A single film came from the company - A Stolen Life (1946) in which she played twins, one good, one evil, both in love with the same man. She found she was uncomfortable in the role of producer. She said:
'I never really produced. I simply meddled as usual. If that was producing, I had been a mogul for years.'
From 1946 onward, Davis seemed to have a problem finding suitable material, and her popularity began to slip. Winter Meeting (1948) is a talky film about a poetess meeting a naval officer who wants to be a priest. Beyond the Forest (1949) was forced upon her by Warners in spite of her warning that 'I'm too old and too strong for that part'. The film was savaged by the critics and the public stayed away. Nonetheless, it is one of the most enjoyable bad movies ever made. ('There never was a woman like Rosa Moline, a twelve-o'clock girl in a nine-o'clock town.') Davis pulls out all the stops and turns in one of the finest Bette Davis carricatures ever seen. She asked for her release from the studion and got it, although Jack Warner was considering her for Blance in A Streetcar Named Desire (later made in 1951).
She was completing a rather ordinary melodrama about divorce, Payment on Demand (1951) at RKO, when she was offered the part of ageing actress Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950). Davis later recalled:
'I can think of no project that from the outset was as rewarding from the first day to the last...It was a great script, had a great director, and a cast of professionals all with parts they liked...After the picture was released I told Joe [Mankiewicz, the director] he had resurrected me from the dead.'
Davis was never better in a role that allowed her to play an actress larger than life, and at the same time to reveal the self-pity and vulnerability beneath. But this upswing in her career was not maintained; throughout the decade she was cast in poor roles...continued