Movie Stars: Davis, Bette—Hollywood’s Greatest Actress

Ruth Elizabeth “Bette” Davis was born April 5, 1908; she died October 6, 1989.

A two-time Oscar-winner, for “Dangerous” in 1935 and for “Jezebel” in 1938, Davis performed in every medium, but it was film in which she excelled and left her indelible mark.

Noted for her willingness to play tough, often unsympathetic characters, she was highly regarded for her performances in a range of film genres, from contemporary crime melodramas to historical and period films and even comedies, though her greatest successes–her specialty–was the romantic melodrama.

After appearing in Broadway plays, Davis moved to Hollywood in 1930, but her early films at Universal were unsuccessful. She joined Warner 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.

From the late 1930s to the late 1940s, alongside Katharine Hepburn, Davis was American cinema’s most celebrated leading actresses, known for her forceful and intense style, unusual voice, and sensitive portrayals.

Davis gained a reputation as a hard-working perfectionist who could be combative. Her confrontations with studio execs, directors and costars were often reported in the press. Her forthright manner, clipped vocal style and ubiquitous cigarette contributed to a public image that was admired in the 1940s but was much imitated and satirized in later years.

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 was the first actor to receive ten Oscar nominations and the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, in 1977.

Her career went through several periods of decline, 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, however she continued acting until shortly before her death from breast cancer, with more than 100 film and TV roles to her credit.

In 1999, Davis was placed second, behind Katharine Hepburn, on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest female stars of all time.

Early Career

Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known from early childhood as “Betty,” was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the daughter of Ruth (“Ruthie”) Augusta (ne Favor), 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, Crestalban, in the Berkshires. In 1921, Davis’ mother moved to New York City with her daughters, where she worked as a portrait photographer. Betty said she was inspired to become an actress after seeing Valentino in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and Mary Pickford in “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (both in 1921). She changed the spelling of her name to “Bette” after Honor de Balzac’s La Cousine Bette, a part she always wanted to play.

Encouraged by her mother, an aspiring actress, Davis attended Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, where she met her future husband, Harmon O. Nelson, known as “Ham.” In 1926, she saw a production of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck,” with Blanche Yurka and Peg Entwistle, which inspired her commitment to her chosen career. She later recalled: “Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended, I had to be an actress.”

Davis auditioned for Eva LeGallienne’s Manhattan Civic Repertory, but was rejected for displaying an “insincere” and “frivolous” attitude. She was however accepted by the John Murray Anderson School of Theatre, and studied dance with Martha Graham for a short time.

She auditioned for George Cukor’s stock theater company, and although he was not impressed, he gave Davis her first assignment as a chorus girl in the play, Broadway. She was later chosen to play Hedwig, the character she had seen Peg Entwistle play, in The Wild Duck.

After performing in Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, she made her Broadway debut in 1929 in “Broken Dishes,” followed by “Solid South.” A Universal Studios talent scout invited her to Hollywood for a screen test.

Davis arrived in Hollywood on December 13, 1930. She failed her first screen test but was used in several screen tests for other actors. In a 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, she recalled: “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. I thought I would die.”

A second test was arranged for Davis for the film “A House Divided” (1931). Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, considered terminating Davis’s employment, but cinematographer Karl Freund told him she had “lovely eyes” and would be suitable for “The Bad Sister” (1931), which became her film debut.

Chief of Production Carl Laemmle Jr. noted that Davis 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 also too brief to attract attention.

Nonetheless, Universal renewed her contract for 3 months, and she appeared in a small role in “Waterloo Bridge” (1931) before being loaned to Columbia for “The Menace,” and to Capital for “Hell’s House” (both in 1932). After one year and 6 mediocre films, Laemmle decided not to renew her contract.

Brit actor George Arliss came to the rescue when he chose Davis for the female role in “The Man Who Played God” (1932). For the rest of her life, Davis credited him with getting her “break” in Hollywood. As a result, Warner signed her to a five-year contract.

The Turning Point

After more than twenty film roles, the role of the vicious and slatternly Mildred Rogers in a version of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage, earned Davis her first major critical acclaim. Many actresses feared playing unsympathetic characters, and several had refused the role, but Davis viewed it as an opportunity to show the range of her skills. Her costar, Leslie Howard, was initially dismissive of her, but as filming progressed his attitude changed and he subsequently spoke highly of her abilities.

Director John Cromwell allowed her relative freedom, trusting her instincts.” She insisted to portray realistically her death scene, claiming: “The last stages of consumption, poverty and neglect are not pretty and I intended to be convincing-looking.”

The film was a success, and Davis’s confronting characterization won praise from critics, with Life writing that she gave “probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by an American actress.” Davis anticipated that her reception would encourage Warner to cast her in more important roles, and was disappointed when Jack Warner cast her in the melodrama “Housewife.”

When Davis was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for “Of Human Bondage,” The Hollywood Citizen News questioned the omission and Norma Shearer, herself a nominee, joined a campaign to have Davis nominated. This prompted Academy president Howard Estabrook to suggest that under the circumstances “any voter may write on the ballot his or her personal choice for the winners,” thus allowing, for the only time in the Academy’s history, the consideration of a candidate not officially nominated for an award.

In the end, Claudette Colbert won the Oscar for “It Happened One Night,” but the uproar led to a change in the Academy voting procedures the following year, whereby nominations were determined by votes from all eligible members of a particular branch, rather than by a smaller committee.

The First Oscar

Davis appeared in “Dangerous” (1935) as a troubled actress and received very good reviews. The N.Y. Times hailed her as “becoming one of the most interesting of our screen actresses.” Davis won the Best Actress for the role, but many felt it was a compensation for not winning the year before for “Of Human Bondage.”

Davis maintained that she gave the statue its familiar name of “Oscar” because its posterior resembled that of her husband, whose middle name was Oscar, though her claim was disputed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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