I think I first heard the name Bette Davis from my mother's lips. Ma loves Bette. For certain, the first of Bette's films I saw was Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Thus, at tender age, I was able to derive two things about her: she was awesome, and she was scary. The first verdict was based upon the fact that what was all right with my mom was all right by me; the second, by the fact that I had watched this brassy, caustic, and intense female push a stone onto Olivia De Havilland and Joseph Cotten's heads with a smirk on her face. As you can see, I was introduced to the Bette of later years: withering, bitter, tough, and a bit unsettling to look at. What is interesting is, despite her hostile outward appearance and demeanor, I still loved her too. Bette Davis didn't take sh*t from nobody! At least, that's the persona she projected. It would take me a long time to unlearn the cinematic, boastful tricks she used to deflect from her true nature. It would take time to undo the caricatured performances she gave from All About Eve onward-- which were both self-congratulatory and self-lacerating-- to find the supreme and gifted actress underneath. The conundrum of Bette Davis is her own seemingly willful undoing, as if she chose to go from an accomplished artiste to a hell-bent monster. If we can agree on anything about Bette Davis today, it is usually that she was a total "Bitch." But this is more than the result of a post-WWII reaction to her ambitious, self-serving tendencies-- far from what men were looking for when they came home. It turns out that 'bitch' Bette became the greatest and longest-running performance she ever gave.
Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born on April 5, 1908. As a youngster, she changed her name to "Bette," because its sounded more glamorous. This was befitting, because in her youth, she was a true Yankee Princess. No, a Queen, who was doted on and always got her way-- or else. Her father, Harlow Morrell Davis was an extremely intelligent and successful law student who became head of the Patent Department at United Shoe Machinery Corp. Her mother, Ruthie Favor, was a passionate and artistic woman who had left a life of performance behind to become a wife and mother. Both adored "Princess Bettina." Everything was perfect in Lowell, MA-- until the divorce. Harlow's busy work schedule and his wife's increasing dissatisfaction with family life led to the male party's infidelity. Soon, Harlow was married to his former nurse, Minnie Stewart-- who had taken care of him during a bout with asthma-- and Ruth was raising two daughters, including the younger Bobby Davis, on her own. Bette never forgave her father for his transgressions, nor truly forgave her mother for losing him. Any mental proclivities that Bette had toward order and control were thus turned up full-throttle, as she sought to find balance and comfort in an undependable world. Her constant attention to detail and cleanliness make some believe that she suffered from an undiagnosed case of OCD her entire life. Such a theory is not unfounded, as both her mother and sister suffered mental and emotional breakdowns that led to their temporary stays in sanitariums. As she went through life with less money than her friends and the embarrassment of living in a broken home, the anger and resentment Bette felt manifested itself against her sister Bobby-- who was a shelled turtle beside Bette's she-wolf-- and her mother, who seemed to go out of her way to please her constantly emotionally distraught and insecure eldest daughter.
The result was a willful young woman accustomed to unquestionable appeasement. It was Bette who wore the pants in the family. Ruth worshipped her, and worked her fingers to the bone to give her eldest daughter whatever she wanted, as if to make up for her botched marriage and thus botched life. After she got work as a photographer, Ruth created in Bette a little Narcissus, taking romantic photo after romantic photo of the pre-Raphaelite-like beauty with large, intense eyes and glowing skin. As Bette blossomed, she became popular at school, where she used her feisty personality to win people to her side. She too enjoyed charming the opposite sex and pitting them against each other for her affections. It was her way of proving that, while she had lost Harlow, she could have any other man that she wanted. Revenge was sweet, but beneath the assertive, sensuously charged veneer was an insecure little girl putting on a great show. So intense was her need to keep the performance going that she never learned to relax, to settle down, to be herself. The world was her audience, and if she broke character for even a second-- if she let her vulnerability show-- she would lose her power and thus her sense of safety. The incredible stress she put on herself resulted in earth-shattering fits of anger and unstoppable crying jags. She once, in a fit of hysteria, even bit her own mother!
the homely old maid in Now, Voyager is an example of this. Here she is with
Claude Rains prior to her character's astonishing make-over.
Finally, Bette found release. After Ruth had moved the family to Newton, she took Bette (Bobby remained always in the shadows) to see "The Wild Duck." Starring in this Henrik Ibsen play was none other than Peg Entwistle, the woman who would later end her life by leaping from the Hollywood sign. In this moment, Bette saw none of that despair nor the tragedy that was to come. She saw only Peg in all her glory: a fully fleshed-out, complicated, emotional woman who captivated her audience. Peg's acting transcended acting. It was being. This is what Bette wanted. Mostly she wanted to openly be emotional with the excuse of it being in character. She vowed to play the same role of Hedvig in "The Wild Duck." It was a promise she intended to keep, and then some. The pressure fell on Ruth to enroll her daughter in acting class. Since she had already encouraged Bette in artistic pursuits, including a tenure at the exclusive dance academy Mariarden, the idea was definitely not unpalatable to the senior lady, but the money was. As always, Ruth made it work. The idea of having her beautiful daughter succeed where she had failed was perhaps the only fuel keeping her going. Riding on an exultant high, Bette landed at the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton School with a ferocious appetite that propelled her quickly to the top of the class. So lauded were her sensitive and courageous classroom performances that she was awarded a full scholarship for her second term. Despite her glowing status at the Academy, she took a risk and dropped out, pushing herself immediately into the world as a working actress. There was no question of failure, for Bette's mindset only received signals of success. This thinking, they say, is the thinking of winners. She went on to perform in stage successes like "The Earth Between" and, of course, "The Wild Duck." Then came the call to Hollywood that would change everything...
It is possible, had Bette never come to Hollywood, that she could have gone on in this same brazen, inexplicably blessed fashion. Had she never come to Hollywood, perhaps she never would have started questioning or doubting herself. Her career may have soared continually instead of burning out mid-flight and ending in a battle of self-destruction. Hollywood breaks hearts, and indeed it would even break the unbreakable Bette Davis. Having spent her life as the toast of every occasion, lauded for her beauty and talent, she landed in Tinsel Town only to be told that she was "ugly," awkward, giftless. Her first screen-test for Samuel Goldwyn was a disaster. For any other girl, this would mean defeat. For Bette, it meant war. After David Werner called her back to Universal after seeing her perform in "Solid South" (this Yankee often found herself in Southern Belle roles), she landed a three month contract with the studio. The casting department fretted: What to do with her? She's not conventionally beautiful... She's not conventionally anything... Each snipe cut her to the quick, but more than ever, Bette needed to prove to herself that she was better than anyone else, if only to show her father-- who objected to her career decision-- that she didn't need him or anyone else. It was power that she was after. Though her ego was severely damaged by this un-Christian greeting from the City of Angels, Bette was determined to get to a place where she could tell everyone to go to Hell. She would find that place on her throne as the leading lady of Warner Brothers.
After a series of bit parts that took her nowhere, Bette was signed with Warners in 1931. After making over twenty films, she would finally reach success in what remains one of her finest performances. In fact, at the time, it was deemed "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress ." Her elusive, selfish, and at times repulsive take on W. Somerset Maugham's anti-heroine Mildred in Of Human Bondage was a sensation. Never had acting been so raw or unapologetic. Other actresses had shied from the intense and unflattering material. Bette latched onto it with desperation, knowing that it was her last chance to prove her mettle. To stand out in Hollywood, she was thus agreeing to be just what they thought she was: ugly. It was a gamble that worked. Her stature on the lot and in Hollywood in general climbed after this film, leading to critically acclaimed collaborations (and an affair) with William Wyler in Jezebel and The Letter. Nominated five years in row for her work, after an initial snub for Of Human Bondage, Bette would take home 2 trophies for Dangerous and Jezebel.
An unlikely starlet, her appeal to women in particular-- who were craving an escape from societal expectations and gender shackles-- made her one of the biggest names in entertainment. She used her intelligence, abandon, and amazing understanding of physicality to inject pathos into her roles in Now, Voyager and Dark Journey. She was the actress other actresses wanted to be. With her strength, she was the woman other women wanted to be. The champion of "women's pictures," Bette's harshness projected a realism that gave her soul sisters comfort. Her atypical features too gave her a place with the common women of the world, who were elevated by Bette's uncommon ability to translate their secret pains, fears, and yearnings. One watches films like Old Acquaintance or Marked Woman today and still willingly absorbs the Bette Davis punch. She is solid in her shoes, unapologetic, authentic, flawed, human, and not to be trifled with. To see a woman take charge so naturally was a much needed breath of fresh air, making Bette the female answer to Warner's typically male-heavy gangster films. She was a social gangster.
Yet, slowly over time, Bette's aim faltered. Her aforementioned 'punch' stopped smacking sense into the public and suddenly seemed to become self-inflicted. Some would say that the "actress" became a "star;" some could say money and not art became her agenda. In any case, Bette Davis seemed only to be playing Bette Davis after awhile. Always an unfalteringly strong performer, her technique dwindled and her characterizations suffered. Her formerly calculated mannerisms became little more than nervous ticks and old tricks. She wanted to maintain her power, but seemed to be surrendering it at the same time. Her well recorded disputes with Warner Brothers allegedly revealed a woman who wanted better opportunities, but in retrospect we see that she sabotaged every chance for elevation she received. She turned down interesting work and feigned illness to get out of compelling pictures, as if her faith in her talent was waning. She became a victim of her own internal battle: the pressure of staying on top became too much, and so she subconsciously started to jump the plank.
Her personal relationships too give a key into her descent. Never trusting of the familial environment, considering her own broken home, she tried and failed to have marriages with every type of man on the list: sweet pushover "Ham" Oscar Nelson, social ladder climber Arthur Farnsworth, overbearing beefcake William Grant Sherry, and the abusive macho Gary Merrill. But no man would ever be as important to her as her career. Like so many of her film characters, she tried to be a woman who "had it all," only to find the push and pull between home and career to be far too abusive for her psyche. She wanted more than she was able to be a loving wife and mother. She lacked trust: trust in men and trust in herself. A great majority of her marriages became abusive, and Bette willingly seemed to instigate most of her physical punishments, particularly with Gary Merrill, who too beat her daughter, "B.D." Partially terrified and partly gratified at the bruises she received, Bette seemed to be seeking absolution for her failure as a woman. Then again, perhaps as a woman who had reached such great heights, she just wanted to feel pain to feel human again.
Being Bette Davis, in the end, destroyed Bette Davis. As her career started dwindling, she made All About Eve-- which remains one of her classic performances-- then disappeared into maladjusted family life with Gary Merrill, daughter B.D, and her two adopted children Michael and Margot, who were essentially bought to be toys for B.D. Michael would be abused by his eldest sister as Bette had and continued to abuse her sister Bobby, and Margot would be ostracized after it was discovered that she was brain damaged and thus unmanageable. Bette assuaged herself the only way she knew how: in her constant cleaning and in booze. The result was a woman who appeared far beyond her years. It was no surprise, therefore, that she made her brief career renaissance in horror films. Her lipstick scowl still painted across her constantly disappointed face, Bette howled vengefully at the fading Hollywood moon with another never-say-die lady, Joan Crawford, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It was a sleeper sensation and led to a reawakening in Bette's career. But glory was not to last. Age, poor health-- including a battle with cancer-- and a foiled sense of self-esteem would work against the icon. Her last major triumph in The Whales of August is a great example of this. She spent the entire filming period ostracizing herself from the rest of the cast, including Vincent Price and Lillian Gish, who tried and failed to befriend her. She had become too isolated in her cocoon of self-doubt and desperately resorted to antagonism for a sense of control. Her final effort in The Wicked Stepmother was cut short when she dropped out after seeing her aged face in the rushes. It was as if she was finally forced to recognize the monster she had created, and instead of flaunting it and feeding it as she used to, she became terrified of it and let it eat her alive. Her death in 1989 was a sad end to a woman who had shined so brightly at her zenith. But then, Bette would never have admitted to this defeat.
In retrospect, all of these hell-raising, intimidating qualities, which became exaggerated in her later years, only served to endear Bette to us more. We counted on her to be over-bearing, to be pushy, to live out a side of ourselves on and off screen that we were always too afraid or too polite to personally unleash. We sometimes need a devil to wreak havoc for us. Perhaps this was Bette's purpose, and why we continue to love her. Despite the aged caricature that seems to sometimes eclipse the slender, petite, beauty she once was, one cannot deny this woman's talent, nor the way she influenced an era of women undergoing another social renaissance. To watch the nuances she gave her characters takes the breath away. Her turn as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter expanded upon Jeanne Eagles's original villainess by eliminating Leslie's mania and making her a calculating woman one-card-short of a full-on sociopath. Her martyred Charlotte Lovell in The Old Maid reveals one woman living two lives-- one as a frigid aunt, bitter and overbearing, and the other as a secret mother who yearns for her beloved child's affection. Had Bette continued to trust her intuition, her natural scent for character, her downward slide after The Little Foxes wouldn't have been as rapid. Her need for control affected her ability to cooperate and collaborate. Instead she disappeared into overly manufactured characters, and became the woman of only one face: the Bette Davis face. It is a testament to her as the vital force she was that that face was the only one we needed and the one we continue to search for in all of her dangerous, uplifting, and life-changing portrayals. As "bad" as Bette was, she's still so good. Incomparable. Perfect. Beautiful... Especially when she gets ugly.