Monday, April 5, 2010

Bette Davis: Icon of the Silver Screen

Happy Birthday to screen legend Bette Davis. Called "one of the major events of the 20th century," Bette was intelligent, opinionated, feisty but never boring. During her 60 year career, she was the first person to receive 10 Academy Award nominations, the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Insitute. She was also the co-founder with John Garfield of the Hollywood Canteen. In 1999, Bette was second after Katherine Hepburn on the American Film Institutes list of the greatest female stars of all time.

Bette was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachussetts. Her parents split up when Bette was 7 and her sister Bobby was 6. For the next several years, the little family bounced around from New York City to New Jersey and back to Massachussetts as Ruth tried to make ends meet (Bette's father was not big on the child support payments). Occasionally Bette and her sister Bobby attended boarding schools Crestalban in the Berkshires, and Cushing, her mother's alma mater in Ashburnham where she met her first husband Harmon Nelson.  At the age of 13, Bette changed the spelling of her nickname from the ordinary 'Betty' to Bette after Balzac's novel Cousin Bette, a character that she would have been ideally suited to play in the movies.

Bette was determined to be an actress from a very young age, particularly after her father told her that she wasn't likely to be a success. Rejected by actress Eva Le Gallienne for her Civic Repertory Company, she was accepted by the Anderson-Milton Academy where she studied dance with Martha Graham. She left school early to make her Off-Broadway debut. After a few years of stagework, Bette was seen by a talent scout for Universal Studios and offered a screen test. She failed that first test but was used to screen test other actors for which she was paid abot $150. "They laid me on a couch, and I tested 15 men. They all had to lie on top of me and give me a passionate kiss. Oh, I thought I would die."  She was finally offered a short-term contract with Universal but Carl Laemmle Jr., the Chief of Production didn't think she was sexy (She'd already been fired from one theatrical repertory company for not putting out.). She appeared in several small roles including the original film version of Waterloo Bridge but after 9 months and 6 films, she was let go. 

Fortunately for Bette actor George Arliss chose her for the female lead in his next film The Man Who Played God. She was soon offered a 5 year contract with Warner Brothers. But they didn't know what to do with their new star either. She made 20 films for the studio that she felt were mediocre and beneath her talent. In 1934, she begged Jack Warner to loan her out to RKO for the film version of Somerset Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage. Warner had no idea why she wanted to play a slatternly and unlikeable character like Mildred Rogers, but Bette knew that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. But Bette never let a thing like whether a character was sympathetic or not to get in the way when it came to acting. She later fought with William Wyler when they made The Little Foxes because she thought he wanted her to make the character more likeable.

Despite the glowing reviews that she received for Of Human Bondage and the Academy Award she recieved for her role as an alcoholic actress in Dangerous, Warner Brothers was not giving her the roles that she felt that she deserved, nor was she getting paid as much as others at the studio, who made fewer films a year than she did. Taking matters in her own hands, Bette signed a contract to appear in two films in England, hoping to break her contract with Warners. However the studio was not willing to let such a valuable asset go, they sued her, and the case went to court in England. The barrister for Warner Brothers and the press portrayed her as an ungrateful actress.  Davis tried to explain her viewpoint, "I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for."  Bette not only lost the case but had to pay her legal fees and Warner Brothers. But her courage in taking on the studio led to Olivia de Haviland's successful suit years later.

The upshot was that her roles did get better.  The next 10 years were the halcyon days for Bette at Warner Brothers. She won another academy award for her role of Julie Marsden in Jezebel. Dark Victory, The Letter, Now Voyager, The Old Maid, The Great Lie, The Little Foxes, Old Acquaintances, A Stolen Life, The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex (where she shaved her hairline and eyebrows to portray the 60ish Queen) are just some of the films that she made. She became the studio's most profitable star. There were some disappointments, she longed to play Scarlett O'Hara in GWTW, although not with the possibility of Errol Flynn as Rhett Butler. She also wanted to play Mary Lincoln (what an interesting film that would have been with Henry Fonda or Raymond Massey opposite her as Lincoln).

While Bette's career was going great guns, her private life suffered. Her first marriage ended in divorce, but Bette remarried a few years later to Arthur Farnsworth.  Tragedy struck when Farmsworth collapsed while walking along a street in Hollywood. An autopsy revealed that he had suffered a head injury two weeks before his death. Although she testified that she didn't know how he had gotten the injury, she later allegedly told a lover, director Vincent Sherman, that she had accidently pushed her husband from a moving train. Her next husband, artist Wiliam Grant Sherry was the father of her only biological child, Barbara known as B.D.  Sherry played Petruchio to her Kate, only more abusive. Bette claimed that he threw a trunk at her on their honeymoon. Sherry claimed that Bette belittled him, threw the fact that she was the breadwinner in his face, and provoked his anger, that she wanted to be tamed.  Her last husband, Gary Merrill, she met on one of her best films All About Eve.  This marriage was equally tempestuous, as both became heavy drinkers. They adopted two children Michael and Margo before divorcing after 10 years. There were other lovers including Howard Hughes (she apparently cured him of his sexual dysfunction) and the man she considered the great love of her life, William Wyler. Due to her career, Bette also had several abortions. She also apparently turned down Leslie Howard and Errol Flynn, when they made passes at her. If Bette realized that finding lasting love alluded her, calling her first biography "The Lonely Life," in which she openly admitted her flaws.

In 1949, Bette and Warner Brothers parted ways after 18 years and 52 films. Bette was now on her own. The last 32 years of her life was filled with ups and downs. While married to Gary Merrill, she tried to be just a housewife for a few years but she couldn't live without acting. Ironically, several of her characters gave up their careers for marriage. Her adopted daughter Margo was discovered to be mentally handicapped and spent her life living in a home. Bette still had some good pictures ahead of her including A Catered Affair, Death on the Nile, The Whales of August and the two horror films that she did Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. She made guest appearances on many television shows, and was in the pilot for the series Hotel which starred James Brolin (Anne Baxter eventually replaced her). In 1983, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a masectomy but two weeks later suffered 4 strokes. Despite this, Bette fought back and managed with physical therapy to keep on working until the end of her life.  She when she tried to explain that she had a short fuse, because of the stroke, a friend good-naturedly told her that she'd always had a short fuse. Although she became even more difficult at times in her later years, she could also be a loyal friend and daughter, supporting her mother and sister throughout their lives, and giving generously of her time during the war at the Hollywood Canteen, hectoring stars into doing some of those menial tasks like washing dishes.

She became well known to new generation when the Kim Carnes' song 'Bette Davis Eyes' was released. It was the best-selling record of 1981. Bette, of course, considered it a compliment and wrote to Carnes and the songwriters. However, in 1985, her oldest daughter B.D. Hyman published a tell-all entitled My Mother's Keeper that accused her of being a drunken and overbearing mother. Bette Davis died on October 6, 1989 at the age of 81 in Neuilly, France. She had been in Europe to attend the San Sebastian International Film Festival when she fell ill. She is buried in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetary, with the epitaph 'She did it the hard way.'

During her lifetime, Bette Davis earned the reputation for being 'difficult' because of her tendency to fight with studio exeuctives, directors, writers, costume designers, and co-stars. Highly strung, Bette Davis cared about the work, and her fights were always about how to make it better. "Until you're known in my profession as a monster, you are not a star," she said, "I've never fought for anything in a treacherous way. I've never fought for anything but the good of the film." Often the crappier she thought a film, the harder she fought to make it better. She is probably one of the most imitated stars in movie history, the opening of Edward Albee's classic play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Martha does an impersonation, demanding of her husband George what film the line 'What a dump!" comes from. She once famously took an ad out in the tradepapers that read "Situations wanted - women artists, Mother of 3-10,11, 15-divorcee, American. 30 years experienced as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood (Has had Broadway). " What serious actress would have the chutzpah to do that today?

Interesting Trivia: Steven Spielberg bought both of Bette Davis' Oscars for Dangerous ($207,500) and Jezebel ($578,000)at auction, donating them to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 1942, she sold $2,000,000 worth of war bonds in 2 days.

When Bette Davis disliked someone, she usually disliked them for life. Although they made 2 films together, she heartily disliked Miriam Hopkins, accusing her of constantly upstaging her. She also disliked Joan Crawford, starting apparently when Bette had an affair with Joan's husband Franchot Tone during the making of Dangerous, continuing when Joan came to Warner Brothers (Bette turned down the role of Mildred Pierce that won Joan her only Academy Award) but reached its peak during the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Joan allegedly faked being sick to get out of making Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

For further reading:

Ed Sikov - Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, Henry Holt 2007
Charlotte Chandler - The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography. Simon and Schuster, 2006
Whitney Stine, Bette Davis- Mother Goddamn: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis. W.H. Allen, 1974
Sam Staggs - All About 'All About Eve'. St. Martin's Press (2000) (One of the best books on film ever written).


Shell said...

Bette is one of my favorite actresses.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

She's one of mine as well. I've been catching up with her movies on Turner Classic Movies.