Contribution of Bette Davis as an Actor and Her Role as a Female in her Time Period
I was a legendary terror. I was insufferably rude and ill-mannered in the cultivation of my career. I had no time for pleasantries. I said what was on my mind and it wasn’t always printable. I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile, and oft-times disagreeable. I suppose I’m larger than life. (Bette Davis)
Larger than life she was with a career spanning six decades, including Broadway, film and the small screen; having made more than a hundred films and receiving ten Best Actress nominations and being the first woman to be honored with the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award and equally larger in death, was Bette Davis. Fearless, ambitious and daring, her strong-mindedness won her a few friends and many enemies in her lifetime, but continues to draw audiences to her appeal and aspiring actresses everywhere look up to her as a role-model.
In this report, I will focus on Bette Davis’s contribution as an actor and her role as a female icon of her time.
Contribution of Bette Davis as an Actor and Her Role as a Female in her Time Period
One of the most talented and the biggest stars of the thirties was Bette Davis. Her strong personality off-screen often found its way into the characters she played. She made her wide range of roles realistic, from a sixty-year old queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex to a young beauty in Jezebal. Olivia de Havilland called Bette Davis a basically benevolent volcano. Jack Warner described her as an explosive little girl with a sharp left. Bette ruffled a few feathers in her career, but looking back, any trouble she caused was usually for the betterment of her films rather than from her merely playing the prima donna. Off-screen, her life was filled with as much drama as any role she played, having weathered a broken home, four failed marriages, literary revenge brought forth by her daughter and frail health in her later years (Bubbeo, 2001, p. 43 51). In this report, I will highlight the important contributions as well as this screen diva’s achievements in a male-dominated industry, and how her success paved the way for many other women, who emulated her example to carve a niche for themselves in the traditionally male-dominant world.
Bette Davis once joked that her epitaph should read, Here lies Ruth Elizabeth Davis She did it the hard way (Ware, 1993, p. 180). An actress first and a star second and in no way a conventional beauty- she invented a jagged, sincere, many-sided style of film acting that continues to reverberate through the generations. At her best, Bette Davis put complicated, conflicted women on the screen at a time when most screen characters were still melodramatic simplifications. A small (five foot three) blue-eyed blonde, she was unfazed by the cant of her era that considered screen acting inferior to acting on the stage. An actress first and a star second and in no way a conventional beauty- she invented a jagged, sincere, many-sided style of film acting that continues to reverberate through the generations.
Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts, she was the elder of two daughters of Harlow Morrell Davis, a patent lawyer from a Yankee family of long standing, and Ruth Favor, a homemaker of French Huguenot descent. The couple, incompatible almost from the start, divorced when Bette was ten. As a result, she and her younger sister, Barbara, were educated in a patchwork of public and private schools in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts- wherever Ruth Davis could find work as a professional photographer. Popular and active as child, Betty changed the spelling of her name in imitation of Balzac’s La Cousine Bette and finally graduated from Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, in 1926.
By 1927, a nineteen-year-old Bette Davis was attending the John Murray Anderson-Robert Milton School of Theatre and Dance in New York. Bette was temperamentally restless and eager to earn a living. She left school before her first year was over, rushing headlong into professional engagements on and off Broadway on tour, and with numerous stock companies, among them George Cukor’s repertory theatre in Rochester, New York.
Bette Davis in Hollywood
After opening on Broadway in Solid South (1930), she received her first offer from a Hollywood film studio. With a few exceptions most notably Cabin in the Cotton (1932) Davis’s first years in Hollywood produced nothing extraordinary. Then, in 1934, after a long campaign, she convinced Warners to loan her to RKO, an American film production and distribution company, to play the sociopathic cockney Mildred Rogers in their adaption of Of Human Bondage, and got her first star-making notices. The next year she won an Oscar for Best Actress for Dangerous (1935), in which she played an alcoholic actress patterned on the Broadway legend Jeanne Eagels.
Contribution to the Media Industry
In 1936, Warners had to sue to prevent her from violating her contract and making a film in England for the Italian producer Ludovico Toeplitz. When she returned to Warners, however, she was treated generously, starring next in Jezebel (1938), a finely wrought study of the anger and ambivalence of a southern belle. The performance brought her a second Oscar, as best actress of 1938. The next year she played the role that she sometimes referred to as her favorite, Judith Traherne, the mortally ill heroine of Dark Victory (1939). After Dark Victory, Bette Davis starred in an unbroken string of sixteen box-office successes, playing everything from genteel novelists to murderous housewives to self-hateful spinsters to a sexagenarian Queen Elizabeth I. her most memorable films from this remarkably productive period included The Old Maid (1939), The Little Foxes (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), Watch on the Rhine (1943), and The Corn is Green (1945).
In 1932, she married her high school sweetheart, Harmon Nelson, a freelance musician. But the marriage was as rocky as her parent’s and in 1938 ended in a divorce. She married again in 1940, to New England hotelier Arthur Farnsworth; he died in 1943 from a skull fracture.
The war years were Bette Davis’s prime, and not only on screen. In 1941 she became the first woman president of the Academy of Motion picture of Arts and Sciences, quitting when she realized she was little more than a figurehead. In 1942, with John Garfield, she co-founded the Hollywood Canteen. Totally committed to her role as the organizations president, she danced, ate, and clowned almost nightly with the servicemen passing through Los Angeles.
After the war, her career began to sink, with terrible films such as Beyond the Forest (1949). Released from her Warners contract, she freelanced. At 42, she believed her career was over, until her performance in All about Eve (1950), where she played an explosive theatrical prima donna who was terrified of aging. For her performance as Margo Channing, New York Film Critics named her the year’s best actress. In 1962, no longer a box-office name, she took a role in an offbeat, low-budget psychological thriller, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, poignantly playing a homicidally demented middle aged former child star. The film was a megahit, brining Davis her tenth, and, final, Oscar nomination.
In the new era of made for TV films and miniseries, worthwhile roles came to her, including a part as a pathetic recluse in Strangers (1979), which won her a best actress Emmy. In 1977, the American Film Institute bestowed on her its Life Achievement Award; she was the first woman to receive it. Almost more prominent than she had been in her zenith, she now found herself hailed by a new generation of film critics who were seeing her classic films for the first time, and new stars praised her warmly as an influence and a role model.
In 1983, she suffered breast cancer and a stroke. Despite permanent damage to her speech and gait, she continued making films. In 1985, Davis was shattered when her daughter B. D. Hyman, published a contemptuous family memoir, My Mother’s Keeper. She feebly tried to respond in her own book, This ‘n That (1987). Then looking dismayingly frail, she played a scrappy octogenarian in The Whales of August (1987), a sensitive study of old age.
She died of cancer in Paris in 1989, having gone to Europe to accept an award at a Spanish film festival. Eighty-one at the time of her death, she left behind on film a brilliant constellation of contrasting and vibrant figures, the legacy of sixty years of hard work and dedication to what she liked to call total realism on the screen.
Bette Davis- the Independent Female
Bette Davis, outspoken, direct, and totally concentrated on her career, was a shrewd businessperson who expected good scripts and demanded the best in production support and working conditions. She was one of the few actresses able to take on unsympathetic roles, such as Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934) and Julie Marsden in Jezebel (1938) (Ware, 1993, p. 180).
Being a fighter, Bette was no stranger to bad times, and she knew how to keep going even when everything seemed to be against her. In 1962, when work became scarce, Bette took out an advertisement in Variety and other trade papers:
MOTHER OF THREE 10, 11 & 15 DIVORCEE. AMERICAN. THIRTY
YEARS EXPERIENCE AS AN ACTRESS IN MOTION PICTURES. MOBILE
STILL AND MORE AFFABLE THAN RUMOR WOULD HAVE IT. WANTS STEADY EMPLOYMENT IN HOLLYWOOD (HAS HAD BROADWAY.)
Bette Davis, c/o Martin Baum, G.A.C. REFERENCES UPON REQUEST
This was Davis at her best, and demonstrated her no-nonsense approach to her career and life in general. She knew that only she could improve her situation; no one else would do it for her (Moseley, 1989, p. 148). She was an over-achiever and the advertisement is who she was : bold, fearless and focused some would say obsessed about her career. She wouldn’t take no for an answer and got her way more often than not in the ruthless world of Hollywood politics. She was a success story, due to her single-minded purpose of succeeding. The highly competitive Davis explained, I always had the will to win. I felt it baking cookies. They had to be the best cookies anyone baked.
She was demanding, temperamental, and self-indulgent. By the early 1940s, she had become the First Land of the Screen (Parish, 2007, p.49). Bette Davis married four times, but claimed her matrimonial choices had been ill-considered because her mates were unable to stand up to her or, as an alternative, congenially sank into the background as Mr. Davis. Ironically, while she failed on the matrimonial front, she found great success as a woman in a man’s world. She is thought to be the first- and finest- presentation of an independent woman on celluloid (Brabazon, 2002, p. 85).
Contemporary feminism needs a Bette Davis, a firebrand woman who is tough, resolute, and passionate. She worked hard, thought deeply and spoke out while post-war masculinity congealed around her (Brabazon, 2002, p. 85). Almost to the day she died, Bette never stopped working. Work was her life and her passion and she embraced it like no other actress before or since. In 1972 Bette said, “I’ll never make the mistake of saying I’m retired. You do that and you’re finished. You just have to make sure you play older and older parts. Hell, I could do a million of those character roles. But I’m stubborn about playing the lead. I’d like to go out with my name above the title.” She kept her word.
Brabazon, T. (2002). Ladies who Lunge: Celebrating Difficult Women. Sydney: UNSW Press.
Bubbeo, D. (2001). The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies : with Filmographies for each. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.
Moseley, R. (1989). Bette Davis: An Intimate Memoir. New York: D.I. Fine.
Parish, J. R. (2007). The Hollywood Book of Extravagance: The Totally Infamous, Mostly Disastrous, and Always Compelling Excesses of America’s Film and TV idols. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley.
Ware, S., & Braukman, S. L. (2004). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.
Ware, S. (1993). Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism. New York: W.W. Norton.