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BETTE DAVIS

By Omari Bishop

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Considered one of if not the best American actress of our time, screen legend Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908 in Massachusetts.  Bette Davis began her acting quest after graduating from high school and studying drama in New York.  Her professional career began when she signed with Universal Pictures but do to the poor box office performances of her early pictures, she signed with Warner Brothers and the legend began to take shape.

Although Warner Brothers provided the opportunity to hone her acting chops, there were several flops among a few hits during this early period as well.  Davis hit her stride, though, when she was loaned out by the studio to RKO Pictures to work on “Of Human Bondage” co-starring Leslie Howard in 1934.  Based on the classic novel by W. Somerset Maugham, Davis won raves from the public and critics alike for her saucy performance as Mildred Rogers.  Many believe that Davis’ performance should have garnered the actress an Academy Award but her home studio, Warner, did not support an Oscar campaign simply because the actress was technically performing for a rival studio.  Davis was livid and this was the beginning of bad blood with Warner Brothers.

1940 Bette Davis Brown and Williamson Golden Grain Card 1930's Bette Davis Bridgewater Trading Card

The following year, Warner released “Dangerous” with Davis tackling the role of Joyce Heath, a drunken actress attempting to make a comeback on the stage with the help of the man she was falling in love with.  Typical 30’s melodramatic fare but Davis’s acting carried the 1936 Bette Davis Godfrey Phillips Tobacco Cardmovie so well that she received her firs Oscar in 1935 for her performance.  Many, including Davis, thought of the win as a consolation for her performance in “Of Human Bondage” the previous year.  Davis then left for England when challenging roles were not coming her way from the powers-that-be at Warner Brothers and a legal fight ensued; Warner had a contract with her wanted her back.  After losing the battle, Davis returned to the studio with a renewed respect and Hollywood learned that this was one lady who was not to be messed with!

Davis then began to churn out some quality films with the studio and like just about every other actress in Hollywood; she tested for the much sought after role of Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”.  Word has it that she did not get the part because Warner would not loan her out unless the producers of the film cast Errol Flynn (another Warner player) the role of Rhett Butler.  The producers nixed that idea and the roles of Scarlet and Rhett went, respectively, to Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable.  Needless to say, Davis was again upset with Warner although she had the opportunity to play another southern belle in 1938’s “Jezebel” co-starring Henry Fonda and won her second Oscar.

Large Bette Davis iron-on transferMaking numerous films and garnering several Oscar nominations throughout the ‘40s, Davis portrayed a variety of strong-willed women: socialite (“Mr. Skeffington”); the mousy girl turned into the sophisticated lady (“Now, Voyager”); the schemer (“Little Women”) just to name a few.  However, as the years progressed, her films were lackluster and Davis bought herself out her contract with Warner in 1949.

Being the trooper and survivor that she was, Davis made a huge comeback in 1950 with “All About Eve” playing the role of Margo Channing – Broadway diva who takes a seemingly naïve and doe-eyed Broadway hopeful under her wing only to later regret that action.  The movie was a huge success garnering numerous Academy Award nominations including one for Davis’ performance.  Many of Davis’ fans believe she lost because her Best Actress votes were split with her co-star Anne Baxter.Bette Davis 8x10 Photograph

Oddly enough and probably due to her age, quality roles diminished for Davis in the ‘50s after the mega success of “All About Eve”.  This changed, if only temporarily, with the 1962 release of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” co-starring rival Joan Crawford.  The relationship between the two stars was notoriously volatile and is part of Hollywood legend.  The film’s director has compared the two women to Sherman tanks.  Davis played ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson to Crawford’s Blanche Hudson – two vaudeville and screen actresses of varying talent who resented each others success and talent.  Strangely, Davis’ character was deemed the less talented to Crawford’s sophisticated and glamorous Blanche.  After Blanche is crippled from the waist down as the result of a car accident, Jane becomes her caretaker (although bitterly) because of the guilt she feels for her sister’s circumstances.  The performances are superb with Davis earning another Oscar nod and yet so over-the-top that the film has become something of a cult classic.  Davis followed this performance up with several other gothic type roles but was unable to garner much success throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Acting was so much a part of her being, in fact, that she even took out an ad in one of the Hollywood trade papers in search of work.  It must have worked because she continued to work in both television and film well into the ‘80s.

A true spitfire and force to be reckoned with up until the very end, the actress succumbed to cancer in 1989 at the ripe age of 81.  Still, her legacy and intense dedication to her craft has left shoes yet to be filled by any contemporary actress.

Thanks for the bumpy ride Bette!
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Omari Bishop is a freelance writer from the state of Maryland.

Other Bette Davis Pages:

A Tribute to Bette Davis Often brilliant, sometimes annoying, but always fighting the good fight, Bette Davis was one of the greatest stars in Hollywood, as demonstrated by ten Oscar nominations for Best Actress.
Denny Jackson's Bette Davis Page -- The Actress Who Could Play Any Role!