Happy birthday, Bette!
My favorite actress is, and has always been, Bette Davis. She had an awesome talent, an unbreakable will, a razor-sharp tongue, and an invincible spirit. She starred in some of my favorite films – from Marked Woman to All About Eve – and, for my money, was one of the greatest performers ever to come out of Hollywood. In celebration of what would have been her 105th birthday, I offer you some tantalizing trivia and tempting tidbits – all about Bette.
The woman with the Bette Davis eyes was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts, on April 5, 1908. She changed her name to “Bette” after high school.
Davis got her start on Broadway – while performing there, she was spotted by a talent scout from Universal Studios. After a screen test, she signed a contract, but the studio dropped her less than a year later.
When she first arrived in Hollywood, Universal execs wanted to change her name to Bettina Dawes. She refused, telling the studio that she didn’t want to go through life with a name that sounded like “Between the Drawers.”
She got her first big break when she was tapped to star opposite George Arliss in The Man Who Played God (1932). After this role, she signed a five-year contract with Warner Bros. Two years later, on loan to RKO, she earned accolades for her performance in Of Human Bondage, opposite Leslie Howard. When the Academy Award nominations were announced and her name was not included, there was such a public outcry that the Academy permitted write-in votes that year. (Davis came in third in the voting – the Oscar was won by Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night.)
Davis had a rocky experience at Warners, and at one point, she sued the studio in an effort to garner better roles. She lost. But years later, she said of studio head Jack Warner: “We had a pretty smashing relationship . . . he did respect me because at least I came out and said what was what.”
Davis was nominated for a total of 10 Academy Awards – she was also nominated for five consecutive years – from 1939 to 1943, for Jezebel , Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes, and Now Voyager. Along with Greer Garson, she holds the record for the most nominations in a row. She won the Oscar twice – for Jezebel and for Dangerous, for which she was nominated in 1937. She was also nominated for Mr. Skeffington (1944), All About Eve (1950), The Star (1952), and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962).
Reportedly, the true love of Davis’s life was William Wyler, who directed her in Jezebel, The Letter, and The Little Foxes. Wyler, however, was married and would not leave his wife.
Davis was married four times; her last marriage was to her All About Eve co-star Gary Merrill. She later said, “I’d marry again if I found a man who had fifteen million dollars, would sign over half to me, and guarantee that he’d be dead within a year.”
Davis played spinsters named Charlotte in three films: The Old Maid (1939), Now, Voyager (1942), and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).
During her career, Davis reportedly did not get along with Susan Hayward and Celeste Holm, but her more famous feuds were with Miriam Hopkins and Joan Crawford. Davis had an affair with Hopkins’s husband, director Anatole Litvak; of the actress, Davis once said, “She was a real bitch . . . a terribly good actress, but terribly jealous.”
As for Davis and Crawford, the two appeared in just one film together: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? During the filming of the movie, Davis had a Coca-Cola machine installed on the set (Crawford’s late husband was the CEO of Pepsi), and Joan got her revenge by putting weights in her pockets during the scenes when Davis had to drag her across the floor. Davis once said, “The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
In October 1941, Davis was elected the first female president of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She resigned less than two months later, publicly stating that she was too busy to fulfill the duties of the president, but privately protesting that the Academy merely wanted her to serve as a figurehead.
Among Davis’s close friends were Greer Garson, Ginger Rogers, George Brent, Henry Fonda, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan, Claude Rains, Olivia de Havilland and Gladys Cooper.
Davis was a lifelong Democrat who staunchly supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter.
Davis was the first woman to receive the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. She received it in 1977.
In 1983, Davis underwent a mastectomy and nine days later, she suffered a stroke. She once said, “Old age is no place for sissies.”
Davis’s last movie, Wicked Stepmother, was completed and released in 1989. She died later that year, at the age of 81.
Davis is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles. On her tombstone is written: “She did it the hard way.”