Bette Davis was a strong–willed actress who wasn’t afraid to play unsympathetic characters on the silver screen in a wide range of film genres.  Her performances earned her many accolades and awards and in 1999 the American Film Institute listed her second behind Katherine Hepburn as the greatest female star in history.

The Early Years

Born Ruth Elizabeth "Bette" Davis on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Davis was the first born of Ruth and Harlow Davis. As a child, Davis was called “Betty.”[2]  A year later the family added another daughter, Barbara.  When Bette was seven, her parents divorced and Bette and her sister attended a boarding school in Lanesborough called Crestalban.   Six years later, Ruth and her two daughters moved to New York City where she supported the single-parent household by working as a portrait photographer.

Seeing Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford in the movies inspired Davis to become an actress.  Her mother was whole-heartedly in favor of the career choice as she herself had aspired to be an actress.  Davis decided to change the spelling of her name to “Bette” at that time.[1]  During those years even though the Davis family lived in New York, Bette attended a boarding school in Massachusetts, the Cushing Academy.

In 1926 Bette attended a showing of the play The Wild Duck starring Blanche Yurka and Peg Entwistle after which she later commented she knew she had to be an actress after seeing the production.[1]  Though rejected for admission into the Eva LeGallienne's Manhattan Civic Repertory due to what LeGallienne described as a "frivolous and insincere attitude;" Bette was accepted into the John Murray Anderson School of Theater and studied dance with Martha Graham.

Davis made her Broadway debut in 1929 in the production of Broken Dishes and then Solid South during which a talent scout for Universal Studios saw her performances and offered a screen test in Hollywood.  She was on her way, but she had a rocky start in Hollywood.

The Beginning of Bette Davis’ Hollywood Career

Bette arrived in Hollywood with her mother in tow.   She failed her first screen test but the studio used her in screen tests for several other actors.  After a second screen test, Universal considered firing Davis, but cinematographer Karl Freud told the head of the studio she had “lovely eyes” and would be suitable for the film The Bad Sister (1931).  Davis finally made her silver screen debut.   The film didn’t do well and the executive producer didn’t think she had any sex appeal. [3] She had a minimal role in her next movie, Seed (1931).

Despite those failed movie roles, Universal renewed Davis’ contract for another three months.  She appeared in another small role in Waterloo Bridge (1931) and then Universal lent her services to Columbia Pictures to make The Menace (1932), and to Capital Films to make Hell’s House (1932).   Davis made six more films for Universal, all unsuccessful and the studio decided not to renew her Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonscontract again.  Davis was ready to leave Hollywood behind and return to New York but fate intervened.

George Arliss asked Davis to meet with him and discuss the lead female role in The Man Who Played God (1932).   Davis consented and later she credited Arliss with helping her break into Hollywood as her performance was given positive reviews and led Warner Brothers. to sign her to a seven-year contract.[1]   In 1934 she was lent to RKO for the role of Mildred in Of Human Bondage. (1934)  She received critical acclaim for the performance and the film was a huge hit.  A year later she starred in Dangerous (1935) and her performance was awarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. [2] First Oscar Nomination and Win for her Role in Dangerous (1935): Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the success of her new films, Davis expected Warner Brothers to offer her substantial roles; however, instead they offered roles unsatisfactory to Davis.  In response, she challenged the studio by going to England to make movies, even though she knew it was against her contract.  Jack Warner sued her and won, forcing her to honor her contract.  On the up side, Davis was offered better roles when she returned to the United States.  

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Watch Bette Davis in four of her classic silver screen performances including Oscar winning "Jezebel."

Success with Warner Brothers

In 1938 Davis was cast as the lead in the movie Jezebel, (1938) which earned her a second Oscar. After the film’s success, Warner offered her services to David O. Selznick who was casting for the movie Gone With the Wind.   Davis wanted the role, but Selznick didn’t consider her a suitable candidate.[1]

Bette Davis on the Silver Screen in Jezebel:  Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commons

Davis stayed with Warner Brothers until 1949 during which she earned five more Academy Award nominations for the films Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Now,Voyager (1942), and Mr. Skeffington (1944).   In 1946 Davis made the film Deception which was the first film of hers to lose money at the box office.  She took the year of 1947 off to have a child and when she returned she clashed with co-stars, directors and writers on her next couple of films.  She turned down roles for various reasons, such as the lead in the African Queen because it was being filmed in Africa. In addition, her popularity with audiences was waning.[1]

In 1949 Davis signed a four-film contract with Warner Brothers who subsequently cast her in Beyond the Forest.  Davis reportedly hated the script, but she didn’t have script approval and her efforts to have Warner recast the role were unsuccessful.[1]  When the film was complete, at Davis’ request, Warner released her from her contract.   The film and Davis’ performance was panned by critics.

Clip from "Jezebel"

Late Career of Bette Davis

In the ensuing years, Davis earned three more Academy Award nominations for All About Eve (1950), The Star (1952), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962).[2]  During this time of her career, Davis was at odds with many of her co-stars.  During the filming of the latter movie, Davis and her co-stBette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962):  Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonsar Joan Crawford were feuding; they truly detested each other and after filming wrapped kept up the lifelong feud.[3]

In the 1970s and 1980s the bulk of Davis’ work was in television.  She made several pilots for television shows as well as made-for-TV movies.   The title role in Wicked Stepmother (1989) was the last performance for Davis.[2]  With failing health and disagreements with writer, producer, and director, Larry Cohen, Davis walked off the set.  Later that year, Bette Davis died at 81 years old having made 100 films over her lifetime career.[2]

Clip from "All About Eve"

Infamous Line "Fasten your seatbelts."

The Oscars, Other Awards and Pioneering Accolades

Bette Davis was richly awarded for her contributions to film.  With her 1962 Academy Award nomination, she became the first person to be nominated ten times for acting.  Since then, this feat has been equaled or surpassed by only four actors.[1]  She was the first Warner Brothers actress to win the Oscar.[2]  She was also the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the first woman to receive the  American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award.  She wasn’t included on the ballot for her performance in “Of Human Bondage,” (1934) causing an uproar by several influential people who campaigned to have her included.  That year is the only year the Academy allowed write-ins.[1]

Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950): Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsIn addition to her Oscar nods, Davis was honored with a Golden Globe nomination (for All About Eve (1950)), two Emmy nominations and one Emmy win, a BAFTA nomination and a host of other awards totaling over 80.[2]  Davis has stars on the Walk of Fame for both motion pictures and television. In 2008, the U.S. Postal Service honored Davis with a commemorative postage stamp.   In 1981, songwriter Jackie DeShannon wrote “Bette Davis Eyes” which became a worldwide hit and best-selling record in the U.S. that year for singer Kim Carne.


Bette Davis Eyes (singer: Kim Carnes)

A Tribute to Betty Davis

Personal Life of Bette Davis

Bette Davis was married four times.  Her first husband Harmon Nelson was a fellow actor, but not near as successful which proved difficult for the man.  During their marriage they had no children, but Davis had several abortions. [1]  After divorcing Nelson, Davis married Arthur Farnsworth, a business man.  He died in 1943 and in 1945 Davis married an artist, Grant Sherry.

Davis and Sherry had one daughter they named Barbara but called B.D.  This marriage didn’t last and Davis married Gary Merrill, another actor, in 1950.  Before they divorced, the couple adopted two children, Michael and Margot.   Davis ended up raising her children as a single parent.

Bette Davis:  Photo courtesy of Ronald Reagan LibraryCredit: Photo courtesy of Ronald Reagan LibraryDuring World War II, Davis helped the effort by selling war bonds and with Warner, Gary Grant, and Jule Styne bought a nightclub they called Hollywood Canteen where stars volunteered to entertain servicemen. She was later given the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal for founding the Hollywood Canteen.[2]

After filming a pilot episode for the television series Hotel in 1983, Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer.   The early 1980s also brought a rift between Davis and her daughter.  B.D. wrote a book, My Mother’s Keeper, which did not put Davis in a positive light.  Many people came to the defense of Davis.  In Davis’ second memoir she comments how hurtful the book was to her and described B.D.’s actions as “a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given".[1]

After her diagnosis of breast cancer in 1983, Davis underwent a mastectomy.  In the following weeks, she suffered four strokes and was paralyzed on the left side of her face and her left arm as well as suffering slurred speech.  After a lengthy physical therapy regime, she partially recovered from the paralysis.   In 1989 her cancer returned, but Davis traveled to Spain as she was being honored at the Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival.  While there she grew increasingly weak and unable to return to the United States, she was hospitalized in France where she died.


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