Bette Davis was a movie star when the word “star” meant something. She was quoted as saying, “Today everyone is a star – they’re all billed as ‘starring’ or ‘also starring’. In my day, we earned that recognition.” She was correct. Today actors get “name above the title” status after one hit movie or TV show and then they usually crash and burn…fast. On her tombstone she had inscribed “She did it the hard way.” And she did. Her success wasn’t instantaneous. There were many a turkey in her long career (Parachute Jumper, Beyond the Forest, anyone?), but because of the studio system she was allowed to fail and grow and move on. (Ironically, later in her career she would fight the studio system over the quality of the scripts she was being sent and lose.) Davis didn’t fit the standard of beauty of her day, but she had ‘it”…”it” being that unknown quantity that makes someone riveting to watch on the big screen.
Many years ago a book called Mother Goddam about Davis was released. There have been numerous books about her (she wrote two herself, The Lonely Life and This ‘N That), but the best one in my opinion is Mother Goddam by Whitney Stine. It is filled throughout with a running commentary by Davis (in red ink) either agreeing with author Stine’s assessments of her films or disputing them. It’s fun to watch one of her movies and then read her comments in the book about her co-stars, the director, the costumes, etc. Plus, with Bette, you always get the blunt truth. (When Joan Crawford died, she is supposed to have said “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good…Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”)
On a Dick Cavett Show episode from 1971–smartly dressed in a black beret, black boots and black dress while holding the obligatory cigarette–she said she thought that acting should be a little larger than life and a little theatrical. Her performances bear her out, in a good way. She had range and she also wasn’t afraid of looking (or being) bad on the big screen. (Most actresses now seem to only want to play the noble heroine, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep being the exceptions to this, and I often wonder what Barbra Streisand could have done with an unsympathetic role.)
Davis was noble in Dark Victory, scheming in The Little Foxes, duplicitous in The Letter, defiant in Jezebel, comical and creepy in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and just plain nasty in The Anniversary (“Would you mind sitting somewhere else? Body odor offends me.”) She also had a great sense of humor; once on the Jack Paar Show she spoofed herself by teaching Paar and fellow guests Gisele MacKenzie and Jonathan Winters how to smoke and speak like her. And in the early ’60’s Davis placed the following ad in the daily trade papers looking for employment.
My favorite films of hers are Now, Voyager from 1942 and 1950’s All About Eve. Now, Voyager contains one of the best transformation scenes on film, as Davis’ character Charlotte Vale goes from an overweight, shy, extremely repressed woman to a glamorous, confident one. The film also has a great cast. Gladys Cooper as Charlotte’s cruel, domineering mother and the root cause of her mental breakdown rightfully received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for the role. Claude Rains as her kind psychiatrist, and Paul Henried as Jerry Durrance, her love interest, are perfect. And the great character actress Mary Wickes steals the few scenes she has as a nurse caring for Charlotte’s mother. (Where are the Mary Wickes of today? Joan Cusack, Wanda Sykes maybe?) Charlotte takes a cruise after her stay at the psychiatric hospital and meets the dashing but married Durrance and they fall in love. Jerry also has a young daughter whose situation with her mother mirrors Charlotte’s. When Davis was asked in an interview what she thought happened to Charlotte Vale, she replied she thought the character ended up with Dr. Jaquith. I think most fans of the film hoped that eventually, somehow she would be re-united with Jerry.
In All About Eve, Davis plays Margo Channing, a spoiled veteran theater star worried about her career as she gets older who befriends a younger seemingly benign stage struck Anne Baxter. The part was offered to Davis when Claudette Colbert hurt her back and had to drop out. The screenplay by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz is filled with witty, sharp dialogue about theatre and film folk delivered by a great supporting cast featuring Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Marilyn Monroe (as aspiring actress Miss Caswell, “a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts”) and Thelma Ritter. (Where are the Thelma Ritters….oh well, you know…) At the time of filming, Davis’ film career was considered D.O.A., but All About Eve changed that. Margo Channing was made for her to play. She is childish, worldly, bitchy, flippant, earthy, regal and vulnerable, tossing off one-liners as only a pro can do. Her performance is pure perfection The film was nominated for 14 Academy Awards (1997’s Titanic is the only other movie to achieve that feat), and Davis and Baxter were both nominated in the Best Actress category but lost to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. The theory is they canceled each other out. Baxter was asked to submit her work in the supporting category, but refused and that decision probably cost Davis her much-wanted third Oscar. She had one more shot in 1962 when she was nominated for Best Actress for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but lost to Anne Bancroft of The Miracle Worker (much to Joan Crawford’s glee).
The film did take home the Best Picture Oscar and Mankiewicz won for Best Director and Best Screenplay: George Sanders won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of snarky stage critic Addision DeWitt: and it also received Best Sound and Best Costume Design. The film also re-charged Davis’s career. Some of the better films she made after Eve were Phone Call From A Stranger, The Star and Payment on Demand. In The Star she played an aging actress down on her luck who had been more of a “movie star” than an artist. Davis said she based the character on Joan Crawford, and she received another Academy Award nomination for it. In Payment On Demand she plays a social climbing wife whose husband (Barry Sullivan) asks for a divorce. In flashbacks we see the story of their life together. I don’t think she’s totally convincing in the parts of the film where she is supposed to be younger, and some of the Edith Head costumes do nothing for her. But she gives a good performance even if the ending seems false.
In the ’60s she started doing lots of episodic television. (Wagon Train, The Virginian, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke). When the TV movie was in vogue in the ’70s she made quite a few good ones (The Disappearance of Aimee with Faye Dunaway, Right Of Way with Jimmy Stewart, and won an Emmy award for Strangers: The Story Of A Mother and Daughter, with Gena Rowlands playing her daughter.
In Now, Voyager she comments to her mother’s nurse Mary Wickes, “I suspect you are a treasure.” Many film fans think the same of Bette Davis.
For a complete listing of Bette Davis films available on home video, click here.