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Dynamic, Distinctive and Difficult Queen of Screen Drama

Bette Davis

By David Wolfe

With a style of acting so different that she inspired many, many impersonators to imitate her distinctive way of spitting out words while smoking, blinking and gesturing emphatically, Bette Davis was a unique actress and a memorable personality.

Born in 1908, the woman who would become a screen legend and make over 100 films came from tough New England stock. Perhaps that background accounts for her astonishing grit and staying power. Her stardom spanned decades.

She made her debut on Broadway and soon after, in 1930, Hollywood beckoned. After an unsuccessful year with Universal Studios Bette signed a long term contract that she came to later regret. Warner Brothers Studio didn’t quite know what to make of this strange creature who didn’t look or act like anybody else. Her big, protruding eyes blinked, she spoke with an unusually forceful cadence and seemed emotionally supercharged. She was a dynamic screen presence from her very first roles although the studio tried to transform her into a typical starlet by turning her into the world’s most unconvincing blonde glamour girl and casting her in fluffy vehicles like “Fashions of 1934.” Bette rebelled as she would so often during her long career. “Of Human Bondage” allowed her to show her dramatic mettle as Mildred, the histrionic shrew. To the industry’s surprise, she was overlooked for an Academy Award nomination but won the following year for “Dangerous,” the first of her two wins and her ten nominations.

It was in the late 1930s and early war years that Bette Davis reigned supreme as the Queen of Drama. She gave legendary performances in what became known as “women’s pictures,” wherein her over-the-top emoting underscored the high drama. She was terminally ill in “Dark Victory,” a long-suffering Cinderella type in “Now Voyager,” a murderess in “The Letter,” a vain beauty in “Mr. Skeffington,” a ruthless vixen in “The Little Foxes,” both twins in “A Stolen Life” and she ruled the British Empire in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” An unlikely musical cameo in “Thank Your Lucky Stars” turned into a triumph when Bette sang (well, sort of) “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old.” Playing “Jezebel,” the tempestuous Southern belle, made up for the fact that Bette just missed landing the plum role of Scarlett O’Hara because of studio conflicts.

Even though her meaty roles were unlikely to be considered entertainment for youngsters, she was so popular that this paper doll book, featuring many outfits from her films, was originally issued in 1942.

Bette Davis was a feisty woman and when the studio gave her scripts that she did not think worthy of her talent, she rebelled and fought for better roles. Her battle against Warner Brothers in 1937 set precedents and though she lost the judgment to get out of her iron-clad contract, she won a great moral victory and gained more control of her career.

Her personal life was almost as fraught with drama as her screen roles. She married and divorced four times, mothered three children (one of whom later wrote an unflattering tell-all tale) and bravely battled cancer for many years.

Because she was never pin-up pretty, Bette Davis’ star continued to shine brightly as she aged. Possibly her most memorable performance came in 1950 when she played Margo Channing in “All About Eve” and won yet another Academy Award nomination. Every imitation of her inevitably includes her reading of the line; “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

When her movie career slowed down, the star returned to the stage and to everyone’s surprise, dared to sing and dance on Broadway in “Two’s Company” Then in 1962, her career was revitalized when she took on a daring role. Who else but Bette Davis would have relished the role of Baby Jane Hudson looking grotesque in clown-like make-up and ringlets? “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” co-starring Joan Crawford turned Bette into a cult figure for a new generation of fans. She continued acting, often in TV movies, almost until her death in 1989. Her final completed film appearance was in “Whales of August” co-starring another movie legend, Lillian Gish.

In 1977 Bette was the first star to be presented with the American Film Insititute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. A pop song, “Bette Davis Eyes,” recorded by Kim Carnes in 1981 became a big hit, much to Bette’s amusement.

Many movie stars are referred to as Legends, but Bette Davis truly deserves the accolade. She fought for and earned her status as a Hollywood Great, an actress so distinctive that there will truly never be anyone like her. Throughout her long career and the scores of varied characters she portrayed, her own unique persona always upstaged them all. The one and only...Bette Davis!

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