D is for Davis
There could never be another Bette Davis. Her petite frame and saucer eyes might make you think briefly of an imp or a pixie: her voice and presence and sheer authority would quickly disabuse you of that idea. Physically she was tiny but she dominated the screen. She could be a shrew, a tragic heroine, a bitter wife, an unfaithful lover, a gangster’s moll, or a legendary monarch.
She was often wrapped in furs, drink in hand and wreathed in cigarette smoke. She was an elegant, ladylike smoker onscreen; at home, though, she held cigarettes cupped in her fist like a working man. That’s only apt as she worked for Warner Bros., the working man’s studio, and she was, after all, a tough broad.
Over a long-running career marked by some of the strongest performances in Hollywood history, she came to redefine what to meant to be an actress in an industry that treated women as ornaments, sex objects and prostitutes.
As David Shipman noted, every screen actress working today owes her a debt. Without her dedication to the craft, modern acting as we know might not exist.
She broke the old mould for female stars: she didn’t want to get up on screen and be decorative, to be glamorous like Garbo, to be sympathetic like Janet Gaynor, to pose like an actress Norma Shearer: she wanted to act, to illuminate for audiences all the women she found within her – waitresses, dowagers, spinsters, harridans, drunks. She fought to play them. All subsequent screen stars owe her a debt, in that she proved that an actress could be an excellent judge of material, and her dedication destroyed a lingering belief that stage acting was ‘superior’ to film acting.
She had a fearsome reputation but many of her co-stars adored her work ethic and her generosity as an actress. She ruled the Warner Bros lot for eighteen years, and although she was in many old-fashioned kinds of movies, and although she herself was old-fashioned (she was a prim and proper Yankee girl and a virgin when she married), she helped usher in an era a realism into cinema.
In Marked Woman she plays a woman viciously beaten by thugs. She thought the bandaging that they wanted to put on her looked silly, so she drove off the lot and went to her doctor, asking him to bandage her the way you would if she had been beaten up; when she returned to the studio, the guard thought she’d been in a horrific car accident.
She did sudsy melodramas, romantic tragedies, historical epics (she played Queen Elizabeth twice), an array of “women’s pictures”, and the occasional light comedy. She was nominated for the Oscar ten times and won twice.
Because of her range, it’s difficult to pick the definitive Davis role – her own personal favourite was in Dark Victory.
She was a backwoods girl yearning for Leslie Phillips in The Petrified Forest, and a slatternly waitress who ruins his life in Of Human Bondage.
In Jezebel she scandalised Southern high society and ruined her life by wearing a red dress to a ball. She was a mousey spinster transformed by a kindly psychiatrist and a romantic cruise in Now Voyager, a melodrama made famous for the moment Paul Henreid lights her cigarette.
She was the beautiful but cruel wife of Mr. Skeffington. She was a spoiled heiress with a mysterious illness in Dark Victory, and a spoiled heiress who lets someone else take the blame for her killing someone with a car in In This Our Life.
She was the aging stage actress threatened by an ingenue in All About Eve.
And she co-starred with her great rival Joan Crawford in the psycho-melodrama What Ever Happened To Baby Jane (she said that her greatest joy on that set was pushing Crawford down the stairs).