“Why am I so good at playing bitches?” Bette Davis, the legendary Hollywood actress, once asked in an interview. “I think it’s because I’m not a bitch”, she answered in the same breadth and did not forget to add, “Maybe that’s why [Joan Crawford] always plays ladies.” Yes, that was Bette Davis; straight and to the point; never mincing her words. In fact, many of her friends believed that she actually enjoyed being labeled as an “A Class Bitch” and that too in an era when ladies who spoke their mind were sent home as difficult. However, her personality and her acting talent were such that she could be despised, but never dismissed. Instead, she went on to become the “First Lady of Film” and won innumerable awards all through her acting career and beyond. From historical and period movies to contemporary crime thrillers and romantic cinemas, this two-time Academy Award winner had acted in more than one hundred films. Moreover, she never flinched from taking up unsympathetic roles; instead she took them as a great challenge. Yes, Bette Davis was truly a genius whom the world pays tribute even so many years after her death
Childhood & Early Life
Bette Davis was born as Ruth Elizabeth Davis on 5 April 1908 in Lowell, a city in the state of Massachusetts in the United States of America. Her father, Harlow Morrell Davis, was a patent attorney and her mother, Ruth Augusta, became a portrait photographer. Bette also had a younger sister named Barbara Harriet or Bobby.
Her parents separated in 1915, when Bette was barely seven years old. She and Bobby were raised by their mother Ruth. They were initially sent to Crestalban, a Spartan boarding school in Lanesborough. Later Bette attended Cushing Academy, which is said to be the oldest coeducational boarding school in the United States.
In 1921, Bette moved to New York City with her mother and sister. Here Bette was introduced to the glamorous world of entertainment. However, she initially wanted to become a dancer, but later found acting to be more alluring. To hone her acting skill, she joined the John Murray Anderson School of Theatre.
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In 1928, Bette Davis started her career as a chorus girl in the play ‘Broadway’ George Cukor's stock theater company. It was only a one-week stint; nonetheless, it was the first paid acting assignment she got.
She made her stage debut in the 1929 play ‘The Earth Between’ at Greenwich Village's Provincetown Playhouse.
In 1929, Bette made her Broadway debut with a role in the comedy ‘Broken Dishes’. She also acted in ‘Solid South’. While acting in these shows, Bette Davis was spotted by a talent scout from Universal Studio and was invited for a screen test.
Accompanied by her mother, Bette set out for Hollywood in 1930. However, she not only failed the initial screen tests, but was also humiliated in every possible way. Yet, she did not give up.
In 1931, she made her film debut in the movie ‘Bad Sisters’. The film failed at the box office. In the same year, she acted in two other films under Universal Studio: ‘Seed’ and ‘Waterloo Bridge’.
1932 was an important year in the life of Bette Davis. Still on the pay role of Universal Studio, Bette was first lent to Columbia Studio for a role in the movie ‘The Menace’ and then to Capital Films for the movie ‘Hell’s House’. However, none of the movie succeeded at the box office and so her contact with the Universal Studio was terminated. Bette decided to go back to New York. But the fate willed otherwise.
As Bette was packing to go back to New York she received a call from the actor and filmmaker George Arliss, who offered her the lead role in the Warner Brothers movie ‘The Man Who Played God’ (1932). She accepted the offer and played the character of Grace Blair in the film and this became the turning point in her life. Warner Brother also offered to employ her, starting with a weekly salary of $400. The contract was signed or five years.
In 1934, Bette Davis played the character of Mildred Rogers in the movie ‘Of Human Bondage’ and earned huge critical acclaim for her performance. It was a negative character, which many other actresses had refused. However, Bette Davis found in it an opportunity to showcase her versatility and willingly took it up. She received a significant number of ‘Write-in-Votes’ for the Best Actress Oscar for her role in this film; but ultimately failed to win the award.
Bette won her first Academy Awards for Best Actress in 1935 for the role in the movie ‘Dangerous’. However, she was mostly offered mediocre role during this period. Neither did the production house allow her to work independently. Consequently, she tried to cancel her contact with Warner Brothers.
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In 1936, Bette Davis was entangled in a legal case with Warner Brothers. Ultimately, she lost the case and had to resume acting under their banner. Their relationship too became cordial once more.
From 1937 to 1949, she appeared in many successful films and even received Academy Awards nomination for her role in the movie ‘Jezebel’ (1938). The movie ‘All these and Heaven Too’ (1940) also earned a huge profit at the box office. The movie ‘The Letter’ (1940) is another hugely popular film of this period. However, when her contract with Warner Brothers ended in 1949, her career graph has once again reached all time low. She did not have many good roles.
Bette Davis made a comeback in 1950 with the role of an aging actress in the movie’ All About Eve’. However, very soon, her career came to a standstill; but it never died.
She again surfaced in 1962 and received an Oscar nomination for her role as a former child star in the movie ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’. ‘Stangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter’ (1979) also brought her rave reviews.
In 1980s too she worked in several TV shows and films. ‘The Whale’s of August’ (1987) is one such film, which received much critical acclaim.
Bette Davis’ performance in the movies ‘Of Human Bondage’ and ‘Dangerous’ garnered her rave reviews. She received an Oscar nomination for the former and won an Oscar Award for the Best Actress for the latter. Her performance as the spoiled Southern belle in the movie ‘Jezebel’ was also highly appreciated and earned her, her second Oscar Award.‘A Lonely Life’ is the first autobiography written by Bette Davis. The book, published in 1962, talks about the most important part of her acting career as honestly as possible.‘This 'N That’ is her second memoir. It has been co-authored by Michael Herskovitz and was first published in 1987. The book mainly talks about her life post 1962. Apart from her acting career of the 1970s and 1980s, it also talks about illness and recovery from a major stroke.
Awards & Achievements
In 1935, Bette Davis won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her role of a troubled actress in ‘Dangerous’.
In 1939, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in ‘Jezebel’. In this movie she played the part of Julie Marsden, a spoiled and strong willed girl.
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In 1951, Bette won Cannes Best Actress for her Role in All About Eve.
In 1978, Bette won Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie for her role in ‘Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter’.
For her outstanding contribution to the world of entertainment Bette won Golden Globe Cecil B. De Mille Award in 1974 and AFI Life Achievement Award in 1977.
Bette also won Honorary Creaser in 1986 and Kennedy Center Honors in 1987.
In 2008, the United States Postal Service honored her with a commemorative postage stamp.
Personal Life & Legacy
Bette Davis had four spouses. She married Harmon Nelson in 1932. However, Nelson was not as successful as Bette in his career and this had a negative repercussion on their married life. They ultimately divorced in 1938.
In 1940, Bette married Arthur Farnsworth, an innkeeper from New England. Unfortunately, while walking along in Hollywood, he had a fall and died two days later on 5th August, 1943 from head injury.
Bette next met William Grant Sherry. The couple got married in 1945 and had a daughter called Barbara Davis Hyman. This marriage too did not last long. They divorced in 1945. Her relationship with her daughter too deteriorated in later years. Ultimately, Bette disinherited her.
In 1950, Bette married Garry Merrill, an American character actor with around fifty titles to his credit. Apart from Barbara, the couple adopted two more children; Margo and Michael. However, this marriage too ended in a divorce. They parted ways in 1960.
Bette died from breast cancer on October 6, 1989 at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. She was then aged 81 and was returning home from Spain after attending Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival. However, her body was brought back to Hollywood to be interred alongside her mother, Ruth Davis, and sister, Bobby. The epitaph on her grave stone sums up her life. It says, “She earned it the hard way”, which she certainly did