April 5th marks what would have been Bette Davis’s 106th birthday, if she were still with us. Alas, Davis passed away in France in 1989, but her career —spanning over 50 years— left us with a body of work so impressive she’ll always be considered one of the greats. Davis is, of course, known for her eyes (you can thank Kim Carnes for cementing that into history) but also for her bold career choices. She fought against the mold set for the actresses of her time and took the roles she knew she would excel at. Bette Davis would play the shrew, the schemer, the bitch, the villain, all the characters audiences supposedly didn’t want to see their favorite actress do, and she did them gloriously. There are, as with any star, a few trademark roles of hers that helped to cement her status as a timeless icon, so let’s take a look at a few of those:
Of Human Bondage (1934)
Of Human Bondage served as Davis’s breakout role after years of struggling to find respect and secure the parts she deserved. It was the 24th film she’d made since her arrival in Hollywood three years earlier, and earned her significant critical praise. In fact, her performance was so good in the film that it resulted in a change regarding the way Academy Award nominations and voting took place.
Everyone, including Davis, expected her to be nominated for the role. When she wasn’t there was a huge uproar, led partially by Norma Shearer (who actually was nominated that year), and for the first time in history, the Academy decided to allow write-in votes. Though Claudette Colbert ended up winning, the Academy decided that for future years they would change the voting process to one that allowed the nominees to be decided on by a larger group of eligible members and to have the votes counted by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In one of her trademark “bad girl” roles, Davis plays the scheming Southern Belle Julie Marsden, opposite Henry Fonda. Davis was not happy when she heard William Wyler was going to direct the film, since she remembered an incident years before when, in a rush to get to a screen test, she had thrown on a tight-fitting dress that revealed a bit of cleavage. Upon running into Wyler in the hallway he remarked to a friend, “What do you think of these dames who show their tits and think they can get jobs?” They irony is that Davis was never known for her sex appeal, something she was very adamant about, and later, she and Wyler began a relationship on the set of the film.
The role of Julie won her a second Academy Award for Best Actress (the first being for Dangerous in 1935, which she viewed as a consolation prize for losing out the year before for Of Human Bondage). This film truly marks one of the first times Bette was able to play the villain and be praised for it.
Now, Voyager (1942)
By 1942, Bette was a major Hollywood star, and her bad girl persona was her trademark. Now, Voyager offered a break from her villainous roles as one of the few films in which she didn’t have the play the strong and unlikeable character. It also offered women of that time an inspirational story of a mousy woman who, after a mental breakdown and a stay in sanatorium, is able to completely reinvent herself into the woman she wants to be.
Initially, Bette wanted nothing to do with the project, but changed her mind after being convinced by producer Hal Willis that the American women needed romantic films as a distraction from the daily life and troubles of Europe at the time. It payed off, since the film became the biggest box office success of her career, despite lukewarm reviews from critics. The film was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 2007.
All About Eve (1950)
If there was ever a quintessential Bette Davis movie, All About Eve would be it. She’s in her finest form as the demanding and aging Broadway diva Margo Channing. Not only was Davis playing another strong woman, she was also addressing the issues that aging brings for actresses, something that many chose to ignore.
The film was a major comeback for Davis who had spent the last part of the 1940’s starring in a string of bombs, as well as beginning a divorce with her third husband. The film resurrected her career and earned her another Academy Award nomination, but due to the campaigning of co-star Anne Baxter to also be nominated in the Leading Actress category, the vote was split between them and they both lost to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Another loser that year was Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. It’s ironic because both performances in both films are widely regarded as classics while history has largely forgotten about Holliday’s performance.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
In a cinematic grudge match for the ages, decades long arch rivals Davis and Joan Crawford were cast opposite each other as fading Hollywood star sisters. While Crawford plays a wheelchair bound former screen siren of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Davis is the desperate former child star Baby Jane Hudson, whose prime was 1917 on the vaudeville circuit.
It’s clear from the beginning that Baby Jane is more than a bit unstable, but as the film progresses she makes a clear break from reality in her last Academy Award nominated performance. On set, the tensions between the two women were high, with Davis “accidentally” kicking Crawford in the head during one scene and Crawford retaliating by wearing a weighted belt during the scenes where Davis was required to drag her, thus throwing out her back. The hatred behind the scenes, however, only made their performances better as bitter rivals - they weren’t just acting, they were living it!
About the Author: Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment, pop culture, and lifestyle blogger for Directtelevisionspecials.org. He, of course, became interested in Davis after seeing her dazzling performance in All About Eve, one of his favorite old films. He lives and works in Chicago, where he’s always on the lookout for screenings of films from The Golden Age.