Nationality: American. Born: Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts, 5 April 1908. Education: Attended Cushing Academy, Ashburnham, Massachusetts; Mariarden School of Dancing; studied acting at Robert Milton-John Murray Anderson School of the Theatre, New York. Family: Married 1) Harmon Nelson, 1932 (divorced 1938); 2) Arthur Farnsworth, 1941 (divorced 1943); 3) William Grant Sherry, 1945 (divorced), daughter: Barbara Davis Sherry; 4) the actor Gary Merrill, 1950 (divorced 1960). Career: 1928—professional stage debut in George Cukor's stock production of Broadway in Rochester, New York; 1929—acted with Blanche Yurka Company in stock productions; Broadway debut in The Lady from the Sea ; 1930—contract with Universal; 1931—film debut in Bad Sister ; 1932—after series of unsuccessful films, dropped by Universal; long-term contract with Warners; 1934—critical acclaim for role in Of Human Bondage ; 1936—refused to appear in poor
quality films and suspended without pay from Warners; attempt to act in Alexander Korda film thwarted by Warners; sued Warners over situation but lost long court battle; 1941—president of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences; co-founder and president of Hollywood Canteen; 1946—formed production company B.D., Inc.; 1949—terminated contract with Warners with Jack Warner's approval after series of unsuccessful films; 1952—returned to stage in musical revue Two's Company ; 1956—television debut; early 1960s—change in direction of career occurs after appearances in low-budget horror films; 1978—in TV mini-series The Dark Secret of Harvest Home , and, briefly, in the TV series Hotel , 1983. Awards: Best Acress Academy Award, for Dangerous , 1935; Best Actress, Venice Festival, for Marked Woman and Kid Galahad , 1937; Best Actress Academy Award, for Jezebel , 1938; Best Actress, New York Film Critics, and Best Actress, Cannes Festival, for All about Eve , 1951; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1977. Died: In Neuilly sur Seine, France, 6 October 1989.
Films as Actress:
Bad Sister (Henley) (as Laura Madison); Seed (Stahl) (as Margaret Carter); Waterloo Bridge (Whale) (as Janet)
Way Back Home ( Old Greatheart ) (Seiter) (as Mary Lucy); The Menace (Neill) (as Peggy); Hell's House (Higgin) (as Peggy Gardner); The Man Who Played God (Adolfi) (as Grace Blair); So Big (Wellman) (as Dallas O'Mara); The Rich Are Always with Us (Alfred E. Green) (as Malbro); The Dark Horse (Alfred E. Green) (as Kay Russell); The Cabin in the Cotton (Curtiz) (as Madge Norwood); Three on a Match (LeRoy) (as Ruth Westcott)
20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Curtiz) (as Fay); Parachute Jumper (Alfred E. Green) (as Alabama); The Working Man (Adolfi) (as Jenny Hartland); Ex-Lady (Florey) (as Helen Bauer); Bureau of Missing Persons (Del Ruth) (as Norma Phillips)
Fashions of 1934 (Dieterle) (as Lynn Mason); The Big Shakedown (Dillon) (as Norma Frank); Jimmy the Gent (Curtiz) (as Joan Martin); Fog over Frisco (Dieterle) (as Arlene Bradford); Of Human Bondage (Cromwell) (as Mildred Rogers); Housewife (Alfred E. Green) (as Patricia Barclay/Ruth Smith)
Bordertown (Mayo) (as Marie Roark); The Girl from Tenth Avenue (Alfred E. Green) (as Miriam Brady); Front Page Woman (Curtiz) (as Ellen Garfield); Special Agent (Keighley) (as Julie Carston)
Dangerous (Alfred E. Green) (as Joyce Heath); The Petrified Forest (Mayo) (as Gabrielle Maple); The Golden Arrow (Alfred E. Green) (as Daisy Appleby); Satan Met a Lady (Dieterle) (as Valerie Purvis)
Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon) (as Mary Dwight/Strauber); Kid Galahad (Curtiz) (as Louise "Fluff" Phillips); That Certain Woman (Goulding) (as Mary Donnell); It's Love I'm After (Mayo) (as Joyce Arden)
Jezebel (Wyler) (as Julie Marsden); The Sisters (Litvak) (as Louise Elliot)
Dark Victory (Goulding) (as Judith Traherne); Juarez (Dieterle) (as Empress Carlotta von Habsburg); The Old Maid (Goulding) (as Charlotte Lovell); The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Curtiz) (as Queen Elizabeth)
All This and Heaven Too (Litvak) (as Henriette Deluzy Desportes); The Letter (Wyler) (as Leslie Crosbie)
The Great Lie (Goulding) (as Maggie Patterson); The Bride Came C.O.D. (Keighley) (as Joan Winfield); Shining Victory (Rapper) (as nurse); The Little Foxes (Wyler) (as Regina Hubbard Giddens)
In This Our Life (Huston) (as Stanley Timberlake); Now, Voyager (Rapper) (as Charlotte Vale); The Man Who Came to Dinner (Keighley) (as Maggie Cutler)
Watch on the Rhine (Shumlin) (as Sara Muller); Thank Your Lucky Stars (David Butler) (as herself); Old Acquaintance (Vincent Sherman) (as Kitty Marlowe); Stars on Horseback (Swartz—doc, short); A Present with a Future (Swartz—short)
Mr. Skeffington (Vincent Sherman) (as Fanny Tellis Skeffington); Hollywood Canteen (Daves) (as herself)
The Corn Is Green (Rapper) (as Miss Lilly Moffat); Second Victory Loan Campaign Fund (Vincent Sherman—short)
A Stolen Life (Bernhardt) (as Kate Bosworth/Pat Bosworth, + pr); Deception (Rapper) (as Christine Radcliffe)
Winter Meeting (Windust) (as Susan Grieve); June Bride (Windust) (as Linda Gilman)
Beyond the Forest (King Vidor) (as Rosa Moline)
All about Eve (Mankiewicz) (as Margo Channing)
Payment on Demand (Bernhardt) (as Joyce Ramsey)
Another Man's Poison (Rapper) (as Janet Frobisher); Phone Call from a Stranger (Negulesco) (as Marie Hoke); The Star (Heisler) (as Margaret Elliot)
The Virgin Queen (Koster) (as Queen Elizabeth)
Storm Center (Taradash) (as Alicia Hull); The Catered Affair ( Wedding Breakfast ) (Richard Brooks) (as Aggie Conlon Hurley)
John Paul Jones (Farrow) (as Catherine the Great); The Scapegoat (Hamer) (as the Countess)
Pocketful of Miracles (Capra) (as Apple Annie)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich) (as Jane Hudson)
Dead Ringer (Henreid) (as Margaret de Lorca/Edith Philips); La noia ( The Empty Canvas ) (Damiani) (as Dino's mother); Where Love Has Gone (Dmytryk) (as Mrs. Gerald Hayden); Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Aldrich) (as Charlotte Hollis)
The Nanny (Holt) (title role)
The Anniversary (Baker) (as Mrs. Taggart)
Connecting Rooms (Gollings) (as Wanda Fleming)
Bunny O'Hare (Oswald) (title role); Madame Sin (David Greene—for TV) (title role); Lo scopone scientifico ( The Scientific Cardplayer ) (Comencini) (as Millionairess); The Judge and Jake Wyler (Rich—for TV) (as Judge Meredith)
Scream, Pretty Peggy (Hessler—for TV) (as Mrs. Elliott)
Burnt Offerings (Curtis) (as Aunt Elizabeth); The Disappearance of Aimee (Harvey—for TV) (as Aimee's mother)
Return from Witch Mountain (Hough) (as Letha); The Children of Sanchez (Bartlett); Death on the Nile (Guillermin) (as Mrs. Van Schuyler); Dark Secret of Harvest Home (Leo Penn—for TV) (as Widow Fortune)
Strangers (Katselas—for TV)
The Watcher in the Woods (Hough) (as Mrs. Aylwood); White Mama (Cooper—for TV) (as Adele Malone)
Skyward (Ron Howard—for TV); Family Reunion (Cook—for TV) (as Elizabeth Winfield)
A Piano for Mrs. Cimino (Schaefer—for TV) (as Esther Cimino); Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last (Hussein—for TV) (as Alice Vanderbilt)
Right of Way (Schaefer—for TV)
Murder with Mirrors (Lowry—for TV) (as Carrie Louise Serrocold)
As Summers Die (Tramont—for TV) (as Hannah Loftin); Directed by William Wyler (Slesin—doc) (as herself)
The Whales of August (Lindsay Anderson) (as Libby Strong)
Wicked Stepmother (Cohen) (as Miranda); As Summer Dies (Tramont—for TV)
Here's Looking at You, Warner Bros. (Guenette—doc for TV) (as herself)
By DAVIS: books—
The Lonely Life: An Autobiography , New York, 1962.
This 'n' That , with Michael Herskowitz, New York, 1987.
I'd Love to Kiss You: Conversations with Bette Davis , with Whitney Stine, New York, 1990.
Bette Davis Speaks (interviews), by Boze Hadleigh, New York, 1996.
By DAVIS: articles—
"I Was Not Found on a Soda Fountain Stool," interview with C. Cole, in Films and Filming (London), May 1956.
"I Think . . . ," in Films and Filming (London), May 1959.
"Meeting Baby Jane," interview with P. J. Dyer, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1963.
"What Is a Star?," in Films and Filming (London), September 1965.
"Bette," interview with Margaret Hinxman in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1971–72.
"Sincerely, Bette Davis," interview with R. C. Hay, in Inter/View (New York), December 1972.
"Bette Davis: A Star Views Directors," interview with P. Gardner, in Action (Los Angeles), September-October 1974.
Interview with M. Henry and C. Viviani, in Positif (Paris), March 1988.
On DAVIS: books—
Noble, Peter, Bette Davis: A Biography , London, 1948.
Ringgold, Gene, The Films of Bette Davis , New York, 1966.
Mankiewicz, Joseph L., with Gary Carey, More about "All about Eve," New York, 1972.
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus , New York, 1973.
Vermilye, Jerry, Bette Davis , New York, 1973.
Stine, Whitney, Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis , with commentary by Bette Davis, New York, 1974.
Affron, Charles, Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis , New York, 1977.
Wallis, Hal, and Charles Higham, Starmaker , New York, 1980.
Higham, Charles, Bette: The Life of Bette Davis , New York, 1981.
Robinson, Jeffrey, Bette Davis: Her Stage and Film Career , London, 1982.
Hyman, B. D., My Mother's Keeper , New York, 1985.
Champion, Isabelle, Bette Davis , Paris, 1986.
Walker, Alexander, Bette Davis: A Celebration , London, 1986.
Hyman, B. D., with Jeremy Hyman, Narrow Is the Way , New York, 1987.
Merrill, Gary, Bette, Rita, and the Rest of My Life , Augusta, Maine, 1988.
Baker, Roger, Bette Davis: A Tribute 1908–89 , New York, 1989.
Considine, Shaun, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud , New York, 1989.
Moseley, Roy, Bette Davis: An Intimate Memoir , New York, 1989.
Brown, Gene, Bette Davis, Film Star , New York, 1990.
Quirk, Lawrence J., Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis , New York, 1990.
Ringgold, Gene, The Complete Films of Bette Davis , New York, 1990.
Leaming, Barbara, Bette Davis , New York, 1992.
Riese, Randall, All about Bette: Her Life from A to Z , Chicago, 1993.
Spada, James, More than a Woman: An Intimate Biography of Bette Davis , New York, 1993.
Baxt, George, The Bette Davis Murder Case (fiction), New York, 1994.
Walker, Alexander, Bette Davis , New York, 1998.
On DAVIS: articles—
Flanner, Janet, "Bette Davis," in New Yorker , February 1943.
"Bette Davis," in Look (New York), August 1946.
Lambert, G., "Portrait of an Actress: Bette Davis," in Sight and Sound (London), August-September 1951.
Current Biography 1953 , New York, 1953.
Baker, Peter, "All about Bette," in Films and Filming (London), May 1956.
Shipman, David, "Whatever Happened to Bette Davis," in Films and Filming (London), April 1963.
Quirk, Lawrence J., "Bette Davis," in Films in Review (New York), December 1965.
Reed, Rex, "Bette Davis," in Conversations in the Raw , New York, 1969.
Carey, Gary, "The Lady and the Director: Bette Davis and William Wyler," in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1970.
Guerin, Ann, "Bette Davis," in Show (Hollywood), April 1971 and May 1972.
Cook, P., "The Sound Track," in Films in Review (New York), November 1973; also December 1984.
"A Toast to Bette Davis!," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1977.
Bessie, Alvah, "Bette Davis: A Lifelong Love Affair," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book , edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
McCourt, J., "Davis," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1978.
Marill, A. H., "An Evening with Bette Davis," in Films in Review (New York), December 1979.
Arnold, Gary, "Bette Davis," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
LaPlace, M., "Bette Davis and the Ideal of Consumption," in Wide Angle (Baltimore, Maryland), vol. 6, no. 4, 1985.
Schatz, Thomas, "A Triumph of Bitchery: Warner Bros., Bette Davis and Jezebel ," in Wide Angle (Baltimore, Maryland), vol. 10, no. 1, 1988.
Schickel, Richard, "Bette," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1989.
Poe, Gregory, "Restless Legend," in Interview (New York), April 1989.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 11 October 1989.
"Freedom Fighter," in Economist (London), 14 October 1989.
Clark, John, filmography in Premiere (New York), November 1989.
O'Toole, Lawrence, "Whatever Happened to Bette Davis?" in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1990.
Pink, Sid, " The Twonky : The Film That Nobody Wants to Love," in Filmfax (Evanston), April-May 1991.
Matthews, Peter, "Profile: Bette Davis," in Modern Review , vol. 1, no. 3, Spring 1992.
"One Classy Lady," in Classic Images (Muscatine), April 1993.
Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 11 March 1995.
Shingler, Martin, "Masquerade or Drag?: Bette Davis and the Ambiguities of Gender," in Screen (Oxford), Autumn 1995.
Ubeda-Portugues, A., "Bette Davis," in Nosferatu (San Sebastian), January 1997.
Sherman, Vincent, "On the Set with Bette," in DGA Magazine (Los Angeles), May-June 1997.
* * *
If Warner Brothers's commitment in the 1930s to films based on "spot news" had any historical justification, it was the creation of Bette Davis as America's most influential female star. After a generation of desuetude, the working-class heroine became not an occasional feature of American film but the role model by which the women of a new generation could measure themselves. Above all Davis exhibited resilience and resource, taking nothing for granted, accepting no statement without its due degree of scepticism. She typified the kind of woman we now think of as a mid-century standard—tough, ambitious, competent, laconic, yet vulnerable, retaining her feminity even as she competed with men. Both in films and in her dealings with the studios she controlled her environment and the people in it to achieve her ends, always reaffirming her strength and independence.
During the 1930s Davis made a dozen minor pictures which established her as a fighter and a survivor, a type in contradistinction to the other female stars then at Warner Brothers: in Three on a Match Ann Dvorak is the socialite who comes to a bad end, Joan Blondell the showgirl who rises in her place, and Davis the stenographer who is simply lucky to be alive at the end. Davis would always survive. She may suffer as Spencer Tracy's self-sacrificing mistress in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing , but it is Tracy who goes gallantly to the electric chair for the crime she had committed in an attempt to save him. And in Dangerous , the unjustly excoriated melodrama for which Davis won her first Oscar, Franchot Tone willingly toys with destruction to rescue her, however embittered and suicidal she might be.
As her range of roles expanded, her technique and style also developed until by 1939 she could play with conviction a queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex . Davis made three films with William Wyler, a director with a meticulous, exhausting style who changed what had become mannerisms into new and adaptable techniques. Resource became calculation, and determination became command.
In Jezebel , Warner Brothers's hurried answer to the threatening success of Gone with the Wind , Davis schemed and sacrificed with a new and potent sensuality. As a coldly dissembling tropical murderess in The Letter , she enmeshes husband Herbert Marshall and solicitous policemen in a net as intricate as the lace she wears mantilla-like around her face. And in The Little Foxes as ruthless, self-regarding Regina Giddens, she shows a precisely perfected seductive skill. The final annihilating confession of The Letter , "I still love the man I killed," and the moment in The Little Foxes where she withholds from her husband the medicine that will prevent his heart attack, are insights into a type of character almost unknown in American movies of the time.
The gallery of classic Davis performances is unmatched by any other screen actress because Bette is impossible to dismiss even in the most wretched circumstances. Garbo had more allure; Stanwyck could play comedy with greater ease; the ageless Kate Hepburn perceptively chose better written vehicles from the fifties onward, but none of these titans bears watching in their bombs. In the campy bitterness of Beyond the Forest (in a Morticia Addams wig, Davis induces a miscarriage and blasts a mealy mouthed caretaker to death) or the souped-up melodrama of In This Our Life (rolling her eyes like a human slot machine, seductive Davis plays an incestuously inclined uncle for a sap), Davis is at her most mesmerizing, like a thespic warrior sumo-wrestling with flawed material. A valiant actress, temperamental Davis broke with the convention of her time and prided herself on sacrificing her looks for the honesty of a characterization; an intuitive grasp of building a role through externals infused her work from Of Human Bondage through Mr. Skeffington all the way up to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and beyond. Although Davis's numerous home runs, such as Empress Carlotta going mad in Juarez or Judith Traherne self-sufficiently facing her Dark Victory are as well—documented as her comeback in the quintessential Davis part of Margo Channing in All about Eve , it is more instructive to examine how the celluloid Duse handled what the industry grudgingly handed her after the title First Lady of the Screen had purely retrospective value. After her unjustly neglected Southern scenery-mastication in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Kenneth Tynan called hers a great performance), Davis's silver-screen opportunities evaporated except for being brilliantly restrained in The Nanny and hilariously out of sorts in Death on the Nile . Having had checkered success on Broadway over the years and having struck out repeatedly in launching her own television series, Davis also chickened out of a stage musical Lazarus-act with Miss Moffat , a Dixie transplant of The Corn Is Green . From the 1970s onwards, Davis retreated to the Land of TV Movies, where she was superbly imperious in a tiny role in Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last and heartbreakingly truculent paired opposite Gena Rowlands in Strangers , for which Davis won an Emmy.
A born scrapper, after surviving the traumas of mastectomies, strokes, cancer, inferior television fodder, and a vicious tell-all book by her ungrateful daughter, Bette was a haunting shell of her former self in The Whales of August which would have been a fine artistic capstone to her career. Then, despite a troubled production history and Davis's unhealthy appearance, The Wicked Stepmother provided a few final rumblings from that Davis volcano. Displeased with the rushes and terminally ill, Davis bowed out of a project that writer-director Larry Cohen had created in response to the movie business's neglect of her. Against the wishes of the actress, Cohen reshot around Davis's existing footage in a manner not seen since Ed Wood Jr.'s heyday. If this legend did not triumph artistically in her swansong, at least willful Davis went out battling a producer/director; that combativeness was the essence of her character and her unassailable artistry.
—John Baxter, updated by Robert Pardi