Bette Davis: Love Her or Hate Her – She’s a Hollywood Legend!

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.

Bette Davis (1942)

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.

Bette Davis (1950)

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:

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  • Jackie Romagnano

    how can you have just ONE favorite Bette Davis movie? The woman was absolutely amazing…Another Man’s Poison is outstanding…Dead Ringer is amazing and The Bride Came C.O.D. was absolutely delightful..it’s like potato chips..youca n’t have just one!

  • Wanda jones

    All about eve

  • bogart10

    HAVE EVERY DAVIS FILM AVAILABLE ….MY FAVORITE IS “ALL ABOUT EVE”….A NOTE ABOUT THIS CASTING….CLAUDETTE COLBERT WAS ORIGINALLY DUE TO PLAY MARGO BUT BROKE HER BACK BEFORE FILMING BEGAN…..BETTE WAS THRU WITH WARNERS (“REMEMBER “BEYOND THE FOREST”?), AND WALKED INTO THIS ROLE AS A SECOND CHOICE….I CAN’T IMAGINE ANYONE ELSE EVER PLAYING MARGO…IT SEEMS TAILOR MADE FOR MS. DAVIS, AND NEVER GET TIRED OF WATCHING HER IN IT….

  • Mario Brescio

    My first encounter with Bette Davis was when my mother took the family to a drive-in theater back in 1965, I was seven-years-old. My mother had four children and at $3.00 a car load, drive-ins were a bargain.

    One of the films playing that night was Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and I don’t remember being as scared as I was fascinated with Bette Davis and her character, Miss Charlotte Hollis.

    In the beginning of the picture when Charlotte looks down on George Kennedy and says, “Where you are I could spit in your eye, with no strain at all,” I was hooked.

    Bette is the best and it still kills me that she did not win the Best Actress Oscars for All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I have everything that is available to have on DVD including the Dick Cavett interview mentioned in this article, however, I’m still anxiously waiting for the release of Right of Way a TV movie she made with Jimmy Stewart in 1983.

    Sorry about the rant, but I just love Bette.

  • al bruffett

    for anyone who does not like bette davis, they should see her in “skyward”

  • Ellen Badders

    I have seen every Bette Davis made (that I could find!). She was the best actor hollywood ever saw. There are good actors, but ONE Bette!

  • ww

    I love Bette Davis. My favorites of her films are “All About Eve,” “Now, Voyager,” “Jezebel,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” “The Old Maid,” and “The Letter.”

  • Trippy Trellis

    What a shame that the term “Hollywood Legend”, like “Diva”, has become so commonplace. I can think of at least thirty actresses from the golden age of Hollywood who are known as Hollywood legends- and they are- but Bette Davis is so far above the rest that she needs a different title. Let’s all think of one.
    The obvious one would be “Four-time Academy Award Winner” but that was stolen by a lesser Hollywood Legend.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000472580319 Max Gantt

    Simply, the best and most versatile actress in the history of the movies!!

  • Ryan X Rubio

    1] All About Eve 50
    2] Dark Victory 39
    3] Now, Voyager 42
    4] The Letter 40
    5] The Little Foxes 41 or Jezebel 38

  • Lois Moake

    Her best moviie was “Now Voyager” then “Dark Victory.

  • Graeme Collins

    Warner’s should consider releasing another BD collection with previously unreleased DVD titles such “The Corn is Green”, “Juarez”, “Man who played God” et al, with more extras. The ‘Archive’ Collection whilst being great are really too overpriced for mainly unrestored movies.

  • richard hart

    There is nothing more to say she is truly “The Greatest”.

  • Peter Reinertsen

    It would be unfair to say that all of Bette Davis’ films were spectacular. As a star who’s career spanned almost 60 years, she had her fair share of mediocre fare. But, regardless of the film’s caliber, you would find it hard to ignore her performance. What made her special was that she was also a great entertainer, and knew very well what people wanted to see, especially from her. That instinct, in addition to her great talent, was what kept that career going for all those years. Bette’s talk show, or game show appearances were every bit as rewarding to view as were her performances on film. Personal problems, or disputes with directors, co-stars or studio heads never affected her drive to entertain her audiences, and thus more than aptly repay the loyalty she received from them. She is deservedly a legend, since she continuously strove to be worthy of that status. To say that she was an inspiration to those who followed her would not be an exageration. As Bette Davis’ epitah says, “She did it the hard way.” Her audiences were certainly the grateful recepients of that dedication.

  • jim

    Great, Great, Actress!

  • xDJ@V.YouBraveWorld.Tube

    The Old Maid vs. Jezebel = goddess in distress.

  • Tom S

    Bette is hands down my favorite actress. I own so many of her films its hard to pick one that is her best. Jezebel,Marked Woman,Dark Victory,Now Voyager,The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,The Old Maid,The Great Lie and The Letter. In The Letter, she just pulls you in and doesn’t let go of you until the fade out.

  • gail

    I love Betty Davis and Joan Crawford together. There are a lot of good actors and actress back in the day. I’m old fan of B/W movies. I can watch them all day. The movies today have nothing on them.

  • Jeff

    Being A fan of television movies, I was wondering when two of Bette’s movies would be available on DVD. “Stranger’s-A Mother and Daughter Story” and “Little Gloria…Happy at Last”. Thank You!!

  • charlotte vale

    Now Voyager and All About Eve are my favorite Bette Davis Films. They don’t make em like her anymore.

  • Tlynette

    How can you NOT like Bette Davis?!?!?!

  • tim

    love bette davis my favorite was and is in this our life (1942) as stanley timberlake the kind of villainess audiences love to hate. with olivia de havilland, george brett,charles coburn, hattie mcdaniel, frank craven, and billie burke. fits todays world it’s all about me. a must see if you like bette

  • tim

    in this our life with george brent (sorry george) thought you played baseball, a warner bros.- first national picture directed by john huston.

  • Kate

    Bette Davis – THE GREATEST I’VE EVER SEEN! She played her parts to the limit and more. I have often wanted to express my complete admiration for this actress who was simply the best!!!!! I am happy to be able to do this now.

  • Abby

    Bette Davis had something that today’s actresses do not — TALENT!

  • Martin Stumacher

    How terribly difficult to chose anyone of her fims. Bette Davis made the Golden Age of Films the most breath-taking ever. With Max Steiner film scoring and the film industry’s greatest leading men, Ms. Davis was the best. Dark Victory,Jezebel, All About Eve. I could go on and on.

  • Steve in Sacramento

    Somehow thought I’d never get into Bette Davis movies, as I sort of expected them to play as “chick flicks” (or “women’s pictures”), even though I recognize that’s kind of a demeaning cliche. But recently started watching–and so glad I did. While I retain somewhat mixed feelings about Davis, her talent and force of personality are undeniable, and the “empowerment” she exudes surely transcends gender. Especially recommend In This Our Life, The Letter, Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, Marked Woman. Been a little while since I’ve seen Dark Victory, Now, Voyager or All About Eve, but obviously those are very highly regarded (often apparently considered her very best).

  • greeneyes

    She was a wonderful actress with alot of guts. I admire her for appearing on camera in her final days.

  • Ray

    How about Mr. Skeffington with Claude Rains? Great performance by Bette Davis yet this movie (great movie too) and performance gets little mention. I happened to stumble upon it and enjoyed it very much.

  • Mary

    The first time I saw Ms. Davis was in “Of Human Bondage.” She honestly scared the sh** out of me! I kept wanting to dope-slap Leslie Howard upside the head for subjecting himself to a crazy broad like that time and again. But after getting over my case of the willies, I came to a stern realization: I, too, was hooked on her! Bette Davis was my favorite actress and, from that moment on, I vowed to see her in every movie/TV program she has ever been in. I’m happy to report that I’m well on my way to achieving my goal, and have yet to be disappointed in a single performance. Whether she’s “love-worthy” (Old Acquaintance, The Man Who Came to Dinner), “hate-worthy” (The Letter, the -yikes!- aforementioned Of Human Bondage) or just worthy of some serious psychotropic medication (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), you’ve just gotta love her! I can’t wait to get to heaven so I can sit around with Ms. Davis, smoke a cigarette (or 50!) and be amazed first-hand. (Of course, what I’d learn from her would probably scare the sh** out of me all over again!)

  • John George

    In my opinion, Davis is undoubtedly the ultimate screen actress. One of my favorite films of hers is “Deception” also starring Claude Raines and Paul Henreid.

  • MARSHA ROBINSON

    Two of my favorite films of hers are ” A Stolen Life” and “Winter Meeting”. Jim Davis Starred in
    Winter Meeting, and also had a role on “Dallas” as
    JR’s father.

  • scotty

    Unquestionably the best versatile actress there ever was. Never afraid to tackle any role no matter how it made her look , she was incredible on the screen, She made many films that should have been nominated her for best actress despite her ten other nominated ones and should have won many more Oscars than her two. All About Eve, Baby Jane,Dark Victory,and Pocketful of Miracles were my favorites along with many others. Thank God all these films are still available to see! I even saw her live once in Boston and enjoyed itwhen shetoured there.

  • Sandra Berry

    Bette Davis will NEVER be replaced! She was a fantastic actress, she could play any part to the hilt! Loved her with Errol Flyn in Virgin Queen, fantastic in Mrs. Skeffington, could go on but would run out of space. Today actors have nothing in comparasion to what Bette Davis did and how she lived each character. She is most likely playing to the angels in heaven all the roles and then some. Bravo Bette!!!

  • MLW

    Sorry to be a party-pooper, but Olivia de Havilland was the co-star in Hush, Hush

  • John Lewis

    As the saying goes “when she was good, she was good, but when she was bad, she was better”. When is Beyond the Forest going to be released on DVD? A must for any hardcore Bette Davis fan!

  • Chrissy S

    Betty was good in everything she played. I miss her.

  • Judy

    I especially loved to watch Bette Davis playing Queens Elizabeth I. What better actress in all of Hollywood could possibly play such a strong, long-reigning, beloved Queen of the British Empire than she played her, and others must have agreed, because she played Elizabeth twice. Check those two performances against the more recent movie Elizabeths, and see whose portrayals were more vividly in character for a mighty queen of history.

  • June Stolebarger

    My dad was a projectionist in a small East Texas town, so from the time I was born (1930) I could see all the movies free. I don’t remember the first Bette Davis picture I saw, but I saw all of them. To me, she was the best of them all…..and still is. She really had a flair for the dramatic and to see one of her temper tantrums was a performance in itself…….There will never be another. I have almost all of her pictures and my favorite is “The Letter” which I watch quite often. Max Steiner’s background music certainly contributed to the feel of the picture and Davis’ performance.

  • Kitsu

    I’ve always struggled to come up with an answer to “Who’s your favourite actress?” Then I got into old movies and saw Bette Davis (can’t remember which movie was my first) and can finally answer that question. Hands down she is my one and only favourite actress and I get excited whenever there’s a movie with her playing in that I haven’t seen yet; and have a hard time ignoring those I have already seen.

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  • bogart10

    “WHAT A DUMPPPPPP”,,,,YES I WANT “BEYOND THE FOREST”…BETTE DAVIS IN A BAD MOVIE (AND THIS WAS A “BAD” MOVIE), NEEDS TO BE IN MY DAVIS COLLECTION…SO ISSUE IT OR RUN IT ON TV….PULEEZE……

  • Mary

    Mario Brescio,I love your rant! I too collect Bette Davis movies.At last count,I believe it was 64,but now I’m trying to remember if I included my recent purchases of “Fog over Frisco”,”The Golden Arrow” and “The Girl from 10th Avenue”?Silly me lol

  • Pamela Anderson

    Damn Great Actress! Betty had it all: talent, looks, guts and style!
    Her facial expressions, body language and her voice were magic; you could not take your eyes off her. Betty Davis had more talent in her little finger than all todays actors have in their entire physical makeup!

  • Sally

    Everyone seems to have forgotten MARKED WOMAN from 1937. “I’ll GET you…if I have to crawl back from my GRAVE to do it!!!”

    Don’t forget OLD AQUAINTENCE, either, where she gives a certain Ms. Hopkins a well deserved belt.

    Thank you for EVERTTHING, “Queen Bess”… some of the stuff WB gave you was real c**p, but YOU never were.

  • jan

    bette davis is one of the best. i have so many favorites but not one favorite. there was not a role she could not play. shame those types of actors and actresses have all but disappeared.

  • Cee .Jones

    I love Bette Davis as if she were kin for the countless hours of pleasure her movies gave to me. Her presence on film is what making motion pictures is all about. No one ever came close to Bette. Next best,for me, was Clark Gable in GONE WITH THE WIND. What Bette Davis did with the song “THEY’RE EITHER TOO YOUNG OR TOO OLD” in the movie STAGE DOOR CANTEEN is monumental. Cee

  • E. Moore

    I grew up seeing Bette the small screen and the big screen and I’ve never seen anyone like her.It keeps changing but for a while now my favorite pic is Baby Jane .I’ts a shame that so many people think of it as a cheap horror film but i’ts not.Bette gives a allout performence as Jane taking no prisoners.She should have gotten the Oscar for it.She wuz robbed!To see truley great acting whatch her during her husbands death scene in Little Foxes she does more great acting without saying a word than anyone I can think of!All hail the great Bette Davis we will not see her likes again.

  • Laurence Almand

    Bette once remarked that her career had two phases: “Before Maugham and after Maugham,” referring to the key role in OF HUMAN BONDAGE that boosted her to stardom. She also starred in Maugham’s THE LETTER.

  • jbourne5181

    My first two Bette Davis movies were “Whatever happened…….. and “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and I have to say she scared the crap out of me. But it did push me a clittle later on when I got older to check out a lot of her other films.She was an amazing actress and woman. Won’t be seeing the likes of her again for a long time