By Omari Bishop
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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!
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.
Jackson's Bette Davis Page -- The Actress Who Could Play Any Role!