Oscar: Best Actress–Davis, Bette in Dangerous (1935)

Bette Davis specialized in portraying suffering actresses, and four out of her ten Oscar nominations were for playing such roles.

In her first Oscar-winning role, in the 1935 mawkish “Dangerous,” which was directed by Alfred E. Green, scripted by Laird Doyle from an original story, Davis plays Joyce Heath, a bottle-swigging, once-famous stage actress. She’s bent on self-destruction until she meets an admiring young architect named Dan Bellows (Franchot Tone), who befriends her and sponsors her comeback.

Joyce is aware that Bellows is engaged to socialite Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay), but she encourages his attentions and he falls for her. When her husband Gordon (John Eldredge) refuses Joyce a divorce, so she can marry the architect, she attempts to kill both of them by driving into a tree. They survive, but her husband is crippled for life. Returning triumphantly to the stage, Joyce now understands the values of sacrifice and commitment, giving up her real love for the architect to serve the needs of her husband.

Formulaic and trashy as “Dangerous” is, Davis is such a skillful actress, particularly in melodramas, that she brings an incredible emotional intensity to the role.

The part of Joyce Heath, the self-destructive, hard-drinking actress, was possibly modeled on Jeanne Eagles, who died of drugs overdose at the height of her career.

A couple of sequences stand out, such as Davis’s remarkable gone-to-the-dogs barroom scene. Tough and surly with Alison Skip, she says, “I don’t want any of your greasy food; give me a drink.” When Tone’s architect compliments Davis on revealing the truth, like a real gentleman, She replies, “Perhaps I’m not lady enough to lie.”

At first, Joyce holds that she has the talent to jinx all the people she gets involved with. Joyce’s ensuing transformation from a sodden, despairing barfly to a loving and hopeful woman is only semi-credible, though it meets the conventions of the time for the portrayal of women on and off screen. At one point Joyce says, “The way not to be a jinx is to pay my debts,” a lesson she absorbed from the kind architect. In the film’s upbeat last image, Joyce is seen with bouquet of flowers going to visit husband in hospital

Oscar Context

In 1935, Davis won the Oscar in a context that included Elizabth Bergner in “Escape Me Never,” Claudette Colbert in “Private Worlds,” Katharine Hepburn in “Alice Adams,” miriam Hopkins in “Becky Sharp,” and Merle Oberon in “The Dark Angel.”

 

Some people considered Davis’ 1935 Best Actress Oscar for “Dangerous” a compensation or consolation prize from the Academy for losing out the year before for “Of Human Bondage,” in 1934; Davis was a write-in candidate. Consensus in the industry, including Davis herself, held that Katharine Hepburn gave the strongest female performance that year, in George Stevens’ “Alice Adams.”