This outspokenly indomitable, unconventionally pretty New Englander reached Broadway and Hollywood through seeming force of will, and her craftwork and determination ensured a performing legacy that has endured for generations after her heyday.
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts to a patent lawyer father and portrait photographer mother who divorced when she was ten, Ruth Elizabeth Davis’ early aspirations leaned toward a career in dance, but shifted her focus to acting in the latter years of her boarding school education.
Upon graduation, she unsuccessfully sought admittance to Eva Le Gallienne’s Manhattan Civic Repertory, but was taken on by John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School to hone her skills.
She would make her first off-Broadway appearance in 1923, and she would spend five years toiling in stock until her Broadway bow in “Broken Dishes.” Her follow-up the following season in “Solid South” resulted in the offer of a screen test from Universal, and she headed west, now officially known as Bette Davis.
Her nine-month stint at Universal resulted in a handful of largely forgettable opportunities and studio head Carl Laemmle’s famous observation that she had “as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville,” and that might have been it unless a sufficiently impressed George Arliss hadn’t insisted upon her as the female lead for his Warner vehicle The Man Who Played God.
Her efforts were enough for Warner Brothers to tender a seven-year deal, and the studio pressed her into regular service, with early notables including Three on a Match and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing in 1932, Ex-Lady and Bureau of Missing Persons (with Pat O’Brien) in 1933 and Fog Over Frisco in 1934. She lobbied hard for a loan-out to RKO for a project she desired, playing the shabby, shrewish Cockney waitress opposite Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage. The praise followed was universal, culminating in an unprecedented write-in campaign after she was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. The following year did bring her first such nod–and win– for Dangerous.
Afterwards, Davis began to chafe at the caliber of the scripts Warner continued to offer, to the extent that she fled to England, to attempt to continue her film career there, and bring the studio to court in order to get out of her contract. The British bench was less than sympathetic, and Bette had little choice than to return to Hollywood. Warner, for its part, at least tacitly ensured that the prime projects came her way, and the remainder of her run with the studio marked her career peak, with another Academy Award win for Jezebel in 1938 and five more nominations for her performances in Dark Victory with frequent co-star George Brent in 1939, The Letter as a woman choosing adultery over devotion in 1940, The Little Foxes for Goldwyn in 1941, Now, Voyager opposite Paul Henreid in 1942 and with her friend Claude Rains in Mr. Skeffington (1944).
Other highlights of the era included The Old Maid opposite Miriam Hopkins in 1939, All This, And Heaven, Too with Charles Boyer in 1940, The Great Lie with Mary Astor and George Brent in 1941, The Man Who Came to Dinner as the delightful Maggie Cutler with Monty Wooley and Ann Sheridan in 1942, Watch on the Rhine as the wife of an anti-Nazi underground organizer with most of the Broadway cast repeating their stage roles (1943), Old Acquaintance also in ’43, in which she dominates every scene, The Corn is Green as Miss Lilly Moffat in 1945 and as twins with co-star Glenn Ford trying to tell them apart in A Stolen Life (1946).
As the 1940s and her pact with Warner wound down, the returns on her projects started to diminish; she started the ’50s strong with another defining performance as the aging actress Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s acerbic All About Eve.
Her work was hailed, and she received another Oscar nomination; she will always be remembered for her famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
The resultant career traction was fleeting, though, and she was off-screen for a few years after her next Academy-acknowledged performance in The Star. By the back half of the decade, she was segueing into character leads; she appeared with Ernest Borgnine and Debbie Reynolds in The Catered Affair in 1956 and she was unfairly branded as a communist in the highly acclaimed Storm Center (1956). When Frank Capra came calling to make what turned out to be his last film, she was happy to do a supporting role and stole the show in Pocketful of Miracles in 1961.
During the 1950s, sponsors were trying to recruit Hollywood royalty for their small screen presentaions and landed appearances starring Bette Davis along with her then husband Gary Merrill in various omnibus drama TV series (Studio 57 and GE Theater).
She was a frequent (and very entertaining) guest on TV’s “What’s My Line,” which she continued to do into the 1960s. No matter how many different ways she tried to disguise her famous voice, she could never stump the show businesss panel.
The early ’60s brought her revitalizing, over-the-top turn as the demented ex-child star in 1962′s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Her work opposite longtime rival Joan Crawford resulted in her final career Oscar nomination, and launched a subgenre of shockers headlined by long-in-the-tooth divas, to which she’d further contribute with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte with her old Warner Brothers co-star Mary Astor in 1964, as twin sisters again in Dead Ringer (1964) and the title role as The Nanny in 1965.
Through the ’70s, Bette was primarily busying herself with made-for-TV features (Madame Sin, The Judge and Jake Wyler, Scream, Pretty Peggy) with the occasional big-screen supporting turn thrown in (Burnt Offerings, Return from Witch Mountain, Death on the Nile, Watcher in the Woods). She continued to plug away with telefilms into the ’80s, racking up an Emmy win (Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter) and two further nominations (White Mama, Little Gloria…Happy at Last).
Her appearances on The Dick Cavett Show in the ’70s are legendary. In one of the shows from 1971, Cavett asked Bette if her mother ever told her about the “birds and the bees”. Davis responded: “No, there was no sort of real education. If you want to come to my home in Connecticut, some night in front of the fireplace, I’d tell you about my wedding night. You’d be on the floor for three hours”. At that point, the TV audience howled and couldn’t control their hysterical laughter. Realizing why the audience is laughing so hard, Bette quickly said: “No, I didn’t mean that! I meant laughing on the floor!”
Her book, Mother Goddam, written with Whitney Stine in 1974 shows Bette completely unmasked as she placed personal commentaries on each page about anyone and everyone in her life, trying to set straight untruths told about her through the years. For more about the book and about the legend, be sure to check out John Tartaglia’s article, Bette Davis: She Did It The Hard Way.
She had an acclaimed, elegiac big-screen appearance in 1987 with fellow veterans Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern and Harry Carey Jr. in The Whales of August; her last appearance came in 1989 co-starring with Barbara Carrera in Wicked Stepmother, of which she’d walked off the set due to a dispute with the director. Despite her schedule, Davis endured multiple struggles with her health over her last years, and she was in Europe for a film festival tribute when she succumbed to breast cancer at 81. In tribute to a great artist, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Bette Davis postage stamp in 2008.
And now watch Bette chew up the scenery in the theatrical trailer for Old Acquaintance from 1943: