Bette Davis was a Hollywood star whose talent was evident in every role she played, from acerbic bitches to long-suffering heroines.
Bette Davis, the “First Lady of the Silver Screen”, enjoyed a film career spanning six decades and, through her work, helped to modernise the way in which the industry viewed women.
She was born Ruth Davis in 1908. Her father left just before she was ten years old, and her mother, despite limited money, sent Bette and her sister to boarding school at Cushing Academy. The family moved to New York City in 1921.
After graduating from high school, Davis attended Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School, and made her Broadway debut in 1929 in ‘Broken Dishes’.
She then went to Hollywood, to screen test for Universal Studios, which was successful. However, after making only six small films, Davis’ contract with Universal was not renewed.
After deciding to return to Broadway, Davis received a phone call from Warner Bros. and decided to stay in Hollywood, where she signed a seven-year contract with the studio in 1932. Davis married Harmon ‘Ham’ Nelson that same year.
‘The Man Who Played God’, released the same year, was the first film to make Davis popular and, two years later in 1935, she won an Oscar for Best Actress for the film ‘Human Bondage’.
Davis also received positive reviews for the 1935 film ‘Dangerous’. Writing for the Picture Post at the time, E. Arnot Robertson said: “I think Bette Davis would probably have been burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet”.
The New York Times declared that she was becoming one of the most interesting actresses of the era.
However, by 1936 she was becoming disillusioned with Hollywood, as Warner Bros. were offering her roles that she found small and unchallenging. Davis headed for England to continue her career there, but was promptly sued by Jack Warner, so she was obliged to return to the studio and honour her contract with Warner Bros. Speaking to a journalist at the time, Davis said she was concerned that she would have no career left if she continued to star in mediocre films.
In 1939, Bette Davis won her second Oscar for the film ‘Jezebel’, and by 1942 she was the highest paid woman in the US.
During World War II, Davis helped to organise the ‘Hollywood Canteen’, and was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal in 1980, the highest civilian honour to be granted by the Defence Department. She also helped transform an abandoned nightclub into an entertainment venue for soldiers during the conflict. Davis later commented: “There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.”
Davis made a roaring comeback to Hollywood playing Margo Channing in ‘All About Eve’ in 1950 for which she received her eighth Oscar nomination. She then appeared in ‘Phone Call From A Stranger’ and ‘The Star’ in 1952 before portraying the embodiment of female power – Elizabeth I – in ‘The Virgin Queen’ (1955).
Bette Davis was married four times during her life, and had a daughter, B.D., with her third husband, William Grant Sherry. She and her fourth husband Gary Merrill then adopted Margot and Michael.
Davis made over 100 films during her career, including the 1962 classic ‘Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?’ She then embarked on a second career as a ‘horror maven’ and welcomed the opportunities that TV brought. She appeared in ‘Perry Mason’ (1963) and ‘It Takes A Thief’ (1970).
She went on to star in several horror films including ‘Dead Image’ and ‘Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte’ in 1964 as well as ‘Scream Pretty Peggy’ (1974) and ‘Murder with Mirrors’ in 1985.
In 1977, she became the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement award. Davis had a mastectomy in 1983 at the age of 75 due to breast cancer. She suffered a stroke nine days later but continued to work until her death. Her last appearance was in ‘Wicked Stepmother’ in 1989.
Davis died in 1989 at the age of 81. She is buried alongside her mother and sister at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Her burial stone reads “she did it the hard way”.
Her son Michael and Kathryn Semark, who was a friend and personal assistant of the actress, are in charge of her estate and established the Bette Davis Foundation in her memory.
The Foundation provides financial assistance to promising young actors and actresses, with Meryl Streep receiving the first Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award at Boston University in 1998.