Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bette Davis Turns 100

One hundred years ago today a child was born named Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts. If the name "Ruth Elizabeth Davis" seems unfamiliar to you, then you are probably familiar with the name by which she came better known: "Bette Davis."

Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born to Harlow Morrell Davis, a patent attorney, and Ruth Augusta Davis. Sharing her mother's first name, the family simply called the child "Betty," short for her middle name "Elizabeth." Her parents separated when Betty was only seven years old. In 1921 her mother, Ruth, moved to New York to work as a portrait photographer. It was there that Betty discovered the movies. She decided to become an actress after seeing The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse starring Rudolph Valentino and Little Lord Fauntleroy starring Mary Pickford in 1921. She also changed the spelling of her name from "Betty" to "Bette" after encountering La Cousine Bette by Honoré de Balzac.

While Davis wanted to be an actress, the path to her chosen career would not be easy. After graduating from Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, she tried getting admitted to the Manhattan Civic Repertory, the repertory founded by actress and director Eva Le Gallienne. La Gallienne rejected Davis, telling her "I can see your attitude toward the theatre is not sincere..You are a frivolous little girl." Although dismissed by La Gallienne, she was accepted into the John Murray Anderson's acting school. There one of her classmates was none other than Lucille Ball. There Davis also studied dance under choreographer Martha Graham.

Despite studying at a prestigious acting school, Davis's path to acting would still not be easy. She left school and even gave up a scholarship to do so when offered a part in a play at the Provincetown Playhouse by director Unfortunately, production of the play was postponed several times, making Davis unable to return to school and very much in need of a job. With a letter of recommendation from director Frank Conroy, Davis met with director George Cukor, then casting for the play Broadway in Rochester, New York. Cukor was not particularly impressed with Davis, but cast her in the small part of a chorus girl as a favour to Conroy. Advised by her mother to study the whole play because the lead actress might have an accident, Bette Davis did just that. As it turned out, her mother was right. Only two days after Broadway opened the lead actress, Rose Lerner, twisted her ankle after a part of the play in which she was to fall down a staircase. Davis soon found herself cast in the lead role because she already knew the part. Davis would go onto play Hedwig in Wild Duck. She made her debut on Broadway in The Earth Between in 1929 and appeared in Broken Dishes on Broadway the same year.

It was on Broadway that Davis was noticed by a Universal talent scout. Following two screen tests, she was signed to a contract and went to Hollywood. Davis was not met by anyone from the studio at the train station. It was later revealed that the Universal employee sent to fetch her had not done so because he saw no passengers who looked like a movie actress. As it turned out, Universal may have been a very poor fit for Davis. Universal production chief Carl Laemmle Jr. considered terminating her contract and once said she had as much sex appeal as comedy actor Slim Summerville. She was saved only by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund, who thought she had beautiful eyes. It was because of Freund that she was cast in her debut film, The Bad Sister. The film flopped. Sadly, all of the films she made at Universal and the ones for which she was loaned to Columbia and Capital Films failed. After only about a year, Universal terminated Bette Davis's contract.

Fortunately for Davis, actor George Arliss was looking for an actress to play his love interest in the film The Man Who Played God, being shot at Warner Brothers. He chose Davis, whose performance was impressive enough that Warner signed her to a five year contract. It would be with the 1934 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage that Davis would receive her first critical acclaim, even being nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Sadly, the nomination would not lead to great roles for Davis. While she was cast in The Petrified Forest opposite Humphrey Bogart, for the most part she was being cast in mediocre films that did poorly at the box office. As a result Bette Davis took off for England where she had been offered roles in two films, feeling that she was being misused by Warner. Unfortunately for Davis, Warner Brothers brought suit against her for violating her contract. Ultimately, Bette Davis lost her case against Warner Brothers.

It seems possible that the lawsuit may well have resulted in Davis being cast in better films. Her next film, Marked Woman, recieved good reviews. It was in 1938 that Davis would become a bona fide star. That year she appeared in the film Jezebel. A success at the box office, it earned her critical acclaim and the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In fact, from 1939 to 1943 Davis would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role every single year, for Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), and Now, Voyager (1942). She was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress for her role in Mr. Skeffington in 1945.

Here we should perhaps digress to discuss something other than movies which was pivotal to the legend of Bette Davis--her long standing feud with Joan Crawford. Supposedly it began in 1935 when Bette Davis fell in love with actor Franchot Tone. Sadly, for Davis, it seems that Tone was already taken by another actress, Joan Crawford, then a star at MGM. It would be in the mid-Forties that events would unfold to add fuel to the rivalry between the two actresses. Throughout the Thirties Joan Crawford had made a number of successful films at MGM. By the early Forties, however, her career had stalled. It was then in 1943 that Crawford jumped ship for Warner Brothers, the studio that was home to Bette Davis. Soon Crawford was taking parts that had been meant for Davis

Unfortunately, while Davis's career was still quite strong in the late Forties, it also was not what it had once been. Much of this may have been because of bad career choices on Davis's part. She turned down the parts in Mildred Pierce and was unable to appear in Possessed because she was pregnant at the time (Joan Crawford took Davis's parts in both films). Her film A Stolen Life was critically lambasted, while Deception became the first Bette Davis movie in literally years to bomb at the box office. She clashed with the studio during the making of Winter Meeting, clashed with Robert Montgomery during June Bride, and begged to be released from the film Beyond the Forest. Davis's instincts regarding Beyond the Forest appear to have been right. The film received universally bad reviews. Despite this it contains what may be Davis's most famous line: "What a dump!"

Davis was released from her contract at Warner Brothers following the release of Beyond the Forest in 1949. Many at the time thought that Davis's career was over. And in fact, Davis was not receiving many offers. It was then that Darryl F. Zanuck offered Davis the role of Margo Channing, the ageing theatre star, in All About Eve. The film did very well with critics. The Cannes Film Festival, the New York Film Critics Circle ,and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle all gave her their awards for Best Actress. Amazingly, although she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Leading Actress for All About Eve, she did not win (Judy Holliday did for Born Yesterday).

Despite her success in All About Eve, Davis's film career would not return to the heights it had once been. She still made movies. During the decade she appeared in The Virgin Queen and The Catered Affair. But she was not the movie star she had once been. Perhaps for this reason she returned to Broadway, playing in Two's Company in 1952, The World of Carl Sandburg, and The Night of the Iguana in 1960. She also appeared on television, guest starring on The Twentieth Century Fox Hour, Studio 57, General Electric Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Wagon Train.

Fortunately for Bette Davis, she would make a comeback in the Sixties. Director Robert Aldrich cast her in the horror movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane opposite her long time rival Joan Crawford. The movie centred on two ageing sisters, a former child star Jane (Bette Davis) and former movie star Blanche (Joan Crawford). Now paralysed from the waist down, Blanche is now at the mercy of her long envious sister. The hatred of the two actresses for each other was apparent during the making of the film--each would call Aldrich every night to snipe about the other. And that hatred fuelled the performances of both actresses. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is one of the most intense movies of the era. As to Davis, she was nominated for another Oscar. Her rival, Crawford, wasn't.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was so successful that it was decided the thwo should be teamed for a similar film, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Initially Davis baulked at the idea of performing with Crawford again, but later relented. Crawford simply insisted that her name appear first in the credits. As filming began, however, Joan Crawford fell ill and was admitted to hospital. Her part then had to be recast. It was offered to Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Vivien Leigh. Ultimately, it was Olivia de Havilland received the role.

In addition to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Davis made several notable films in the latter part of her career. She appeared in the crime drama Dead Ringer, the horror movie The Nanny, the Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile, and The Whales of August. She also continued to appear on television. She guest starred on Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and Laugh In. She also appeared in several telefilms, including Scream, Pretty Peggy, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, Family Reunion, and A Piano for Mrs. Cimino.

Having had breast cancer in 1983, in 1989 it was discovered the cancer had returned. It was on October 6, 1989 that Bette Davis died.

Of the actresses of the Twentieth Century, Bette Davis is one of the most legendary. She was the first actress ever to receive ten nominations for Best Actress. She was one of the biggest box office draws of the Thirties and Forties. What is more, she still maintains a following to this day, among Gen Xers who first encountered her in the horror movies and TV movies she made in the Sixties and Seventies. This is all the more remarkable given that Bette Davis was not what one would call a beautiful woman. Davis herself said that she had made her career without the benefit of beauty. What is more, Bette Davis often took very unsympathetic roles, playing everything from murderers to schemers. If Bette Davis became a star, it was perhaps largely due to her talent.

Indeed, Bette Davis has permeated pop culture in a way that many of her contemporaries have not. Her rivalry with Joan Crawford is the stuff of legend, and has been referenced in everything from Laverne and Shirley to Iki-jigoku. She has been mentioned in at least two songs, "Vogue" by Madonna and "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes (not to be outdone, Joan Crawford is mentioned in song too--"Joan Crawford" by Blue Oyster Cult--personally, I think Joan got the better end of the deal when it came to songs...). Scenes from her movies, from the cigarette lighting scene in Now Voyager to the scene in which she serves a dead rat to Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are still well known. One hundred years after her birth, Bette Davis is still a star. One has to wonder if the same will be said of many actresses today?

1 comment:

Bobby D. said...

I have to say she was one of my favorite actresses --I think "All About Eve" is a great film-- and last night I watched her in "Dangerous" with Franchot Tone.
I recall as a kid being afraid of her because of "The Nanny" and "Of Human Bondage"

I just saw an interview with her son and he said she was a great mother with a good sense of humor--her only failing was really spoiling her kids-- he said she was too much of a pushover.

She was one of those actresses who worked hard for the studio and was under appreciated.