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The incomparable Bette Davis is the focus of our “Happy birthday, you’re…” treatment today. Just because someone has passed, that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate. Party?
When Bette Davis walked onto the stage of the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House one night in March 1975, the first words to come from her mouth were, “What a dump!”
The audience went into paroxysms of delight, this sentence being the standout line from her 1949 movie Beyond the Forest. Truth be told, it’s a pretty bad film, but what a line. And the fact that the Opera House was only 18 months old and the nation’s newest source of pride gave her remark added piquancy.
I was a young girl in the Concert Hall that night – it was an incredible thrill to see one of my screen idols in the flesh. Bette Davis, a truly commanding presence, chatted to the crowd and later took questions. The highlight of the evening was when she autographed a page in her program for me.
Why was I so enamoured of this legend of the silver screen? After all, most of her important films were made well before I was even born. There was something about Bette Davis – her wide, penetrating eyes, her manic smoking and her sometimes exaggerated acting style. It’s difficult to put a finger on her appeal. She was simply magnetic and I, like so many others, was drawn to everything she did.
My favourite Davis film is Dark Victory (1939) about a rich, happy-go-lucky young woman diagnosed with a brain tumour. She’s told the surgery is a success, but later discovers that her doctor fiancé (George Brent) and her best friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) have been keeping the truth from her. She’s furious about being kept in the dark and meets them in a restaurant where she makes snide remarks about how they know her state of health better than she. As the waiter stands by she scans the menu, then dramatically and defiantly announces: “I think I’ll have a large order of prognosis negative!” Gasp!
Part-melodrama, part kitsch, this brilliant line captures her character’s changing emotional state, from relaxed, confident socialite to angry betrayed patient. She’s simultaneously stoic and distraught at the knowledge she is soon to die. No one but Bette could ever do that line.
That performance earned her a third Oscar nomination, one of eleven she received in her long career. She won her first best actress Oscar for Dangerous (1936); by the time Dark Victory was made, Bette Davis was one of the biggest names in Hollywood.
She’d worked extremely hard to get there, and for a time she and the Warner Bros studio bosses were constantly at loggerheads because they insisted on giving her roles she thought inferior. The studio even went so far as to suspend her without pay, so she went to England to work, only to find that the terms of her contract forbade this.
Davis didn’t take this lying down and sued them, but who could fight the studio system? Yet they saw she meant business; they gave her more respect and more importantly, better roles. Towards the end of her life, Davis admitted that she was often uncompromising and even blatantly rude. He career came first and if the studio wasn’t going to look out for her best interests, then she sure as hell would.
After this altercation with Warner Bros, she starred in Jezebel (1938) opposite Henry Fonda. Her portrayal of a wilful Southern belle who defies social convention and suffers for it, won her a second best actress Oscar.
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Davis, who was born on 5 April 1908, played all her roles with conviction, from a bitchy waitress in Of Human Bondage (1934) to the English queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), the murderous adulterous Leslie in The Letter (1940), and a dowdy retiring spinster transformed by love into a confident, fashionable woman in Now, Voyager (1942). In spite of all that smoking, or maybe because of it, that movie has one of the most romantic endings in movie history.
All About Eve (1950) was another landmark role for Davis, earning her a ninth Oscar nomination. Playing a middle-aged actress fending off a conniving wannabe young actress, Davis’ line, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” has almost become part of the vernacular.
It was multi-faceted role – the character of Margo Channing is both hard as nails and a pussy cat. It’s a wonderful film with a stellar cast, including Anne Baxter as Eve and a young Marilyn Monroe. Gary Merrill, who played Bette’s love interest in the movie, became her fourth husband.
Her previous three marriages obviously didn’t pan out well. She had a daughter, Barbara, with her third husband, and she and Merrill adopted two children. In 1985, Barbara (as BD Hyman) wrote My Mother’s Keeper, accusing Davis of being domineering, drunken and neurotic. It was a damning picture painted with undisguised hostility, but at the time of publication, Davis had recently had a mastectomy and a stroke and the book was seen as the emotionally immature outpourings of a petulant child. Her fans stood by Davis, showing the extent of her popularity across the demographics.
Speaking of demographics, in 1962 Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? starring Davis as a former child star, introduced her to a whole new audience. Her performance is unforgettable, combining the little girl she wanted to remain and a bitter spiteful old woman terrorising her wheelchair-bound sister, played by another giant of the silver screen, Joan Crawford. This iconic thriller was a great showpiece for Davis who earned yet another Oscar nomination for her role as Baby Jane. She was scary, over-the-top crazy at times but also able to arouse compassion. The unexpected twist at the end of the film is a corker. No wonder it’s become a cult classic.
There’s so much more to say about Bette, but alas, space doesn’t allow. The star, who died in 1989, had a strong work ethic; all told, she made nearly 100 films, and later appeared on comedy shows, talk shows and in episodes of popular television programs including Wagon Train, Gunsmoke and Perry Mason. If you have a spare 45 minutes, sit back and watch this 1971 interview with Dick Cavett. Bette was 63 at the time and her candour and humour went down a treat with the audience. While some opinions are perhaps a bit dated now, her wit, charm, intelligence and sheer charisma shine through. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.