After appearing in Broadway plays, Davis moved to Hollywood in 1930, but her early films for Universal Studios were unsuccessful. She joined Warner Brothers in 1932 and established her career with several critically acclaimed performances. In 1937, she attempted to free herself from her contract and although she lost a well-publicized legal case, it marked the beginning of the most successful period of her career. Until the late 1940s, she was one of American cinema's most celebrated leading ladies, known for her forceful and intense style. Davis gained a reputation as a perfectionist who could be highly combative, and confrontations with studio executives, film directors and costars were often reported. Her forthright manner, clipped vocal style and ubiquitous cigarette contributed to a public persona which has often been imitated and satirized.
Davis was the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, and was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress twice, was the first person to accrue 10 Academy Award nominations for acting, and was the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Her career went through several periods of eclipse, and she admitted that her success had often been at the expense of her personal relationships. Married four times, she was once widowed and thrice divorced, and raised her children as a single parent. Her final years were marred by a long period of ill health, but she continued acting until shortly before her death from breast cancer, with more than 100 films, television and theater roles to her credit. In 1999, Davis was placed second, after Katherine Hepburn, on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest female stars of all time.
Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known from early childhood as “Betty“, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the daughter of Ruth Augusta and Harlow Morrell Davis, a patent attorney; her sister, Barbara, was born October 25, 1909. The family was Protestant, of English, French, and Welsh ancestry. In 1915, Davis's parents separated and Betty and Bobby attended a Spartan boarding school called Crestalban in Lanesborough, which is located in the Berkshires. In 1921, Ruth Davis moved to New York City with her daughters, where she worked as a portrait photographer. Betty was inspired to become an actress after seeing Rudolph Valentino in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921) and Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), and changed the spelling of her name to “Bette” after Honore de Balzac’s La Cousine Bette. She received encouragement from her mother, who had aspired to become an actress.
She attended Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, where she met her future husband, Harmon O. Nelson.. In 1926, she saw a production of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” with Blanche Yurka and Peg Entwistle. Davis later recalled that it inspired her full commitment to her chosen career, and said, “Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended, I had to be an actress ... exactly like Peg Entwistle.”
She auditioned for admission to Eva LaGallienne’s Manhattan Civic Repertory, but was rejected by LeGallienne who described her attitude as “insincere” and “frivolous“. She was accepted by the John Murray Anderson School of Theatre, and studied dance with Martha Graham.
She auditioned for George Cukor’s stock theater company, and although he was not very impressed, he gave Davis her first paid acting assignment anyway - a one-week stint playing the part of a chorus girl in the play “Broadway”. She was later chosen to play Hedwig, the character she had seen Entwistle play, in “The Wild Duck”. After performing in Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, she made her Broadway debut in 1929 in “Broken Dishes”, and followed it with “Solid South”. A Universal Studios talent scout saw her perform and invited her to Hollywood for a screen test.
Accompanied by her mother, Davis traveled by train to Hollywood, arriving on December 13, 1930. She later recounted her surprise that nobody from the studio was there to meet her; a studio employee had waited for her, but left because he saw nobody who “looked like an actress“. She failed her first screen test but was used in several screen tests for other actors. In a 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, she related the experience with the observation, “I was the most Yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth. They laid me on a couch, and I tested fifteen men. They all had to lie on top of me and give me a passionate kiss. Oh, I thought I would die. Just thought I would die.” A second test was arranged for Davis, for the film “A House Divided” (1931). Hastily dressed in an ill-fitting costume with a low neckline, she was rebuffed by the director William Wyler, who loudly commented to the assembled crew, “What do you think of these dames who show their chests and think they can get jobs?” Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, considered terminating Davis's employment, but cinematographer Karl Freund told him she had “lovely eyes” and would be suitable for “The Bad Sister” (1931), in which she subsequently made her film debut. Her nervousness was compounded when she overheard the Chief of Production, Carl Laemmle Jr., comment to another executive that she had “about as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville”, one of the film's co-stars. The film was not a success, and her next role in “Seed” (1931) was too brief to attract attention.
Universal Studios renewed her contract for three months, and she appeared in a small role in “Waterloo Bridge” (1931) before being lent to Columbia Pictures for “The Menace” and to Capital Films for Hell’s House” (all 1932). After nine months, and six unsuccessful films, Laemmle elected not to renew her contract. George Arliss chose Davis for the lead female role in “The Man Who Played God” (1932), and for the rest of her life, Davis credited him with helping her achieve her “break” in Hollywood. The Saturday Evening Post wrote, “she is not only beautiful, but she bubbles with charm“, and compared her to Constance Bennett and Olive Borden. Warner Bros. signed her to a five-year contract.
In 1932, she married Harmon Nelson, who was scrutinized by the press; his $100 a week earnings compared unfavorably with Davis's reported $1,000 a week income. Davis addressed the issue in an interview, pointing out that many Hollywood wives earned more than their husbands, but the situation proved difficult for Nelson, who refused to allow Davis to purchase a house until he could afford to pay for it himself. Davis had several abortions during the marriage.
Convinced that her career was being damaged by a succession of mediocre films, Davis accepted an offer in 1936 to appear in two films in Britain. Knowing that she was breaching her contract with Warner Bros., she fled to Canada to avoid legal papers being served upon her. Eventually, Davis brought her case to court in Britain, hoping to get out of her contract with Warner Bros. Davis explained her viewpoint to a journalist, saying “I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.” Davis's counsel presented her complaints - that she could be suspended without pay for refusing a part, with the period of suspension added to her contract, that she could be called upon to play any part within her abilities regardless of her personal beliefs, that she could be required to support a political party against her beliefs, and that her image and likeness could be displayed in any manner deemed applicable by the studio. Jack Warner testified, and was asked, “Whatever part you choose to call upon her to play, if she thinks she can play it, whether it is distasteful and cheap, she has to play it?” Warner replied, “Yes, she must play it.” The case, decided by Branson J. in the English High Court, was reported as Warner Bros. Studios Incorporated v. Nelson. Davis lost the case and returned to Hollywood, in debt and without income, to resume her career. Olivia de Havilland mounted a similar case in 1943 and won.
Davis began work on “Marked Woman” (1937), as a prostitute in a contemporary gangster drama inspired by the case of Lucky Luciano. For her performance in the film she was awarded the Volpi Cup at the 1937 Venice Film Festival. Her next picture was “Jezebel” (1938), and during production Davis entered a relationship with director William Wyler. She later described him as the “love of my life“, and said that making the film with him was “the time in my life of my most perfect happiness”. The film was a success, and Davis's performance as a spoiled Southern belle earned her a second Academy Award, which led to speculation in the press that she would be chosen to play a similar character, Scarlett O’Hara, in “Gone With The Wind”. Davis expressed her desire to play Scarlett, and while David O. Selznick was conducting a search for the actress to play the role, a radio poll named her as the audience favorite. Warner offered her services to Selznick as part of a deal that also included Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, but Selznick did not consider Davis as suitable, and rejected the offer, while Davis did not want Flynn cast as Rhett Butler.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Davis spent the early months of 1942 selling war bonds. After Jack Warner criticized her tendency to cajole crowds into buying, she reminded him that her audiences responded most strongly to her “bitch” performances. She sold two million dollars worth of bonds in two days, as well as a picture of herself in “Jezebel” for $250,000. She also performed for black regiments as the only white member of an acting troupe formed by Hattie McDaniel, which included Lena Horne and Ethel Waters. During the early 1940s, several of Davis's film choices were influenced by the war.
In August 1943, Davis's husband, Arthur Farnsworth, collapsed while walking along a Hollywood street and died two days later. An autopsy revealed that his fall had been caused by a skull fracture he had suffered two weeks earlier. Davis testified before an inquest that she knew of no event that might have caused the injury. A finding of accidental death was reached. Highly distraught, Davis attempted to withdraw from her next film, but Jack Warner, who had halted production following Farnsworth's death, convinced her to continue. Although she had gained a reputation for being forthright and demanding, her behavior during filming of “Mr. Skeffington” was erratic and out of character. She alienated Vincent Sherman by refusing to film certain scenes and insisting that some sets be rebuilt. She improvised dialogue, causing confusion among other actors, and infuriated the writer, who was called upon to rewrite scenes at her whim. Davis later explained her actions with the observation, “when I was most unhappy I lashed out rather than whined.”. Some reviewers criticized Davis for the excess of her performance, but despite the mixed reviews, she received another Academy Award nomination.
In 1983, after filming the pilot episode for the television series “Hotel”, Davis was diagnosed with nreast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Within two weeks of her surgery she suffered four strokes which caused paralysis in the left side of her face and in her left arm, and left her with slurred speech. She commenced a lengthy period of physical therapy and, aided by her personal assistant, Kathryn Sermak, gained partial recovery from the paralysis.
During this time, her relationship with her daughter, B. D, Hyman, deteriorated when Hyman became a born-again Christian and attempted to persuade Davis to follow suit. With her health stable, she traveled to England to film the Agatha Christie mystery “Murder With Mirrors” (1985). Upon her return, she learned that Hyman had published a memoir, “My Mother’s Keeper”, in which she chronicled a difficult mother - daughter relationship and depicted scenes of Davis's overbearing and drunken behavior. Several of Davis's friends commented that Hyman's depictions of events were not accurate; one said, “so much of the book is out of context“. Mike Wallace rebroadcast a “60 Minutes” interview he had filmed with Hyman a few years earlier in which she commended Davis on her skills as a mother, and said that she had adopted many of Davis's principles in raising her own children. Critics of Hyman noted that Davis had financially supported the Hyman family for several years and had recently saved them from losing their house. Despite the acrimony of their divorce years earlier, Gary Merrill also defended Davis. Interviewed by CNN, Merrill said that Hyman was motivated by “cruelty and greed“. Davis's adopted son, Michael Merrill, ended contact with Hyman and refused to speak to her again, as did Davis, who also disinherited her.
During 1988 and 1989, Davis was fêted for her career achievements, receiving the Kennedy Center Honor, the Legion of Honor from France, the Campione d’Italia from Italy and the Film Society of Lincoln Center Lifetime Achievement Award. She collapsed during the American Cinema Awards in 1989 and later discovered that her cancer had returned. She recovered sufficiently to travel to Spain where she was honored at the Donostia-San Sebastian International Film Festival, but during her visit her health rapidly deteriorated. Too weak to make the long journey back to the U.S., she traveled to France where she died on October 6, 1989, at 11:20 pm, at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Davis was 81 years old. She was interred in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, alongside her mother, Ruthie, and sister, Bobby, with her name in larger type size. On her tombstone is written: “She did it the hard way“, an epitaph that she mentioned in her memoir “Mother Goddam” as having been suggested to her by Joseph L. Mankiewicz shortly after they had filmed “All About Eve”.
"Bette Davis Eyes" By Kim Carnes
Source: Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bette_Davis
This work is released under CC 3.0 BY-SA - http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/