Miss Davis's Life
Fasten your seat belts, it was a bumpy ride.
Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By RACHEL DICARLO
The Girl Who
There are two ways to assess Bette Davis's legacy. The easiest involves comparing her with today's A-list actresses. Try to imagine Julia Roberts or Nicole Kidman pulling off the famous smirk that conveyed both pleasure and disgust, usually accompanied by flashing eyes seen through a cloud of cigarette smoke. Or picture Lindsay Lohan playing the Southern belle Julie in Jezebel, or the vulgar cockney waitress Mildred in Of Human Bondage, and winning two Academy Awards--all by the age of 30.
The better way to make the case for Davis's legacy is to stack her up against her peers who emerged from the Hollywood studio system. She didn't have the astonishing beauty of other iconic actresses of the time like Ingrid Bergman, Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh, or Carole Lombard. As Davis's friend Joan Blondell would recall, "She had to take a lot of cracks about her looks."
She was never part of a legendary acting team, a la Lombard and Clark Gable; Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart; Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. It's unlikely she could have worked well with a partner. Nor did she have all those "independent woman" parts of the late 1930s and 40s to herself. Hepburn, too, dazzled when she played them. Hepburn also won more Academy Awards than any actor in history (four to Davis's two).
But no one had a greater depth and range, or did more to electrify audiences, than Bette Davis, who, over the course of a 59-year career, smoked, sashayed, seduced, and schemed her way through more than 100 films.
Her trajectory was far from standard. She began in Hollywood playing the plain sister and soon graduated to the passionate, Type-A ingénue. Her star continued to rise in the roles she got as the scorned and bitchy middle-aged diva who has been imitated by drag queens for half-a-century. And in later films she was a smash playing deranged hags and maniacs. As Leonard Maltin has written, "By the time she died Bette Davis had won a status enjoyed by no other Hollywood actress."
In The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, Charlotte Chandler, whom Davis contacted in 1980 after reading her biography of Groucho Marx, tells the story of Davis's legacy once again. This time Davis herself relates much of the narrative--"to set the record straight"--through a series of interviews with the author before she died.
Bette Davis grew up in Massachusetts, the descendant (she claimed) of a Salem witch. Even her entrance into the world was dramatic: "A bolt of lightning hit a tree in front of the house the moment I was born." Her father, a Harvard Law School graduate, spent much of his time away from home. The family suspected he had a mistress. Unhappy with her marriage, Bette's mother Ruthie briefly checked herself into a sanatorium, but quickly bucked up and threw herself into photography as a therapeutic hobby.
When Bette was seven, her father left the family for good, which put her on course to set up her relationships with men so they'd always disappoint her. Ruthie supported Bette and her younger sister Bobby with money she earned from photography and cleaning houses.
Bette found her inspiration to be an actress after seeing the plain-looking Peg Entwistle--most famous for leaping to her death from atop the 50-foot "H" in the famous Hollywood sign--star in a stage production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck. "Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended I had to be an actress," she said. Ruthie wrote to Bette's father to tell him Bette wanted to be an actress. He responded by saying that she would be a more successful secretary.
When Bette got out of finishing school--her mother paid the tuition by photographing the graduates--she drove to New York to enroll in theater school. Ruthie couldn't afford tuition, but talked the prestigious John Murray Anderson School of Theater into accepting her daughter anyway. (A classmate, Lucille Ball, was sent home for being too shy.)
In drama school, she learned to wring the thick New England accent from her voice and enunciate: "The first day in class I was given a sentence to read: 'Parker parked the car in Harvard Square.' The class would still be laughing if the bell hadn't rung," she remembered. Bette also learned how to sit, walk, and fall down a flight of stairs without hurting herself--a skill she believes launched her career.
One of her first big breaks came when the not-yet-famous director George Cukor cast her in a tiny part in a play called Broadway. When the lead had an accident, Bette, who had been encouraged by Ruthie to learn the lead's lines, stepped in. Cukor didn't know her name, but said he'd take her as long as she could fall down a flight of stairs without breaking her neck. She got rave reviews, but was fired two months later.
She next did a Broadway play--during which time she and her mother barely managed to scrape by--and in 1930 landed a short contract with Universal Pictures for $300 a week. There they tried to convince her to change her name to Bettina Dawes. (Bette refused, saying she wouldn't go through life with a name that sounded like "between the drawers.")
Her film performances failed to impress the studio heads. She overheard one executive complain that she had "about as much sex appeal as [gawky silent movie actor] Slim Summerville." At the end of her contract, they dropped the actress they dubbed "the little brown wren." As she was packing her things to leave town, George Arliss called and insisted she be his leading lady in The Man Who Played God. Later she accepted a contract with Warner Brothers, where she made many of the best films of her career, but brawled endlessly with studio head Jack Warner.
She received dozens of Academy Award write-in votes in 1934 for Of Human Bondage and won the following year for Dangerous. She then starred in a series of mostly forgettable films; being a contract player meant she had to play any part a director assigned her. In 1936, unhappy with her roles, she staged a one-woman strike and went to England to work. There was a famous court case in England for breach of contract; the studio paid her damages, and Bette went back to work. The only role she wanted that she didn't get was Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara.
In the celebrated film year of 1939, she made her favorite film, Dark Victory, with Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Reagan, in which she played a dying socialite. She was on the longest hot streak of her life, and got an Academy Award nomination every year from 1938 to 1943. Yet, while her career sparkled, her personal life had begun to unravel. In 1938, she divorced her first husband, her second husband died in 1943, and she began a series of affairs with director William Wyler, Howard Hughes, George Brent, and many others.
Indeed, everyone Chandler interviews agrees that Davis's favorite topic of discussion was men. "I never met a woman who loved men more than Bette did," Blondell told her, and Davis litters her stories with musings about the men she loved ("[Laurence] Olivier was my dream man") and slept with in Hollywood. She married again, gave birth to a daughter, divorced her third husband and then married her All About Eve costar, Gary Merrill. When that marriage fell apart, she announced that she'd only "marry again if I found a man who had $15 million, would sign over half to me, and guarantee that he'd be dead within a year."
She sought relationships with dominant men, but consistently went for the ones she could dominate and humiliate. "I confused muscle with strength," she tells Chandler. "I was a four-time loser. . . . In many respects my husbands were the same men."
In 1962, following a decade of misses, her performance as the crazy sister of a former movie star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? boosted her career. And her on-set feud with costar and longtime rival Joan Crawford provided much fodder for the press. "Miss Crawford wanted to look as nice as she could," Davis explained to Chandler of the hag makeup required for the two leads. "I wanted to look as terrible as I could. Miss Crawford was a glamourpuss. I was an actress."
Davis believed she could "mop the linoleum" with Crawford, and told a reporter, "Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it's because I'm not a bitch. Maybe that's why Miss Crawford always plays ladies." She also let it be known she believed Crawford had "slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie."
From most accounts, it seems Davis could be a terror to work with, but for whatever reason, picked people she would treat well. Robert Aldrich, the Baby Jane director, said she was "a real lady and not only a professional, but a very honorable person." Debbie Reynolds and Geraldine Fitzgerald adored working with her. But Douglas Fairbanks Jr. described her as "not lovable," and Lillian Gish, who worked with her in The Whales of August (1987), told Chandler that "I can't imagine why Bette Davis seemed to dislike me and made our scenes difficult, even beyond normal scene-stealing techniques. Worse yet she was hostile. We had no personal rapport at all."
Davis had her own take: "They said I was a monster, but if I became a monster it's because I was in a monstrous business."
In the early 1980s illness sidelined Davis after she had a stroke, and then a mastectomy. She had no idea that during this time her daughter, whom she had described to Chandler as "the person in the whole world I know I can trust," was at work on a Mommie Dearest-style memoir. In My Mother's Keeper, B.D. Hyman portrays her mother as an overbearing tyrant, who imposed her own ambition on her, showered her with presents to buy her love, and used her as a traveling companion. The daughter offered reconciliation, but only on her own terms, which involved Bette finding religion. The book devastated Bette and she disinherited her daughter and her two grandsons. They never spoke again. When Bette's own memoir came out, it included a nasty letter to her daughter and several negative reviews of My Mother's Keeper.
She held out hope almost until the end for another All About Eve, which had revived her career in 1950 when she thought it was over at age 42. She died in France in 1989.
Chandler shows that Bette Davis had meditated long and well on her life. But some of the passages could easily have been excised: "Yes, I dearly love potatoes. Still do. I even love potato skins. Yummm. If all other foods disappeared and they left me only potatoes I could live forever. French fries are the ones I like least." And so on. Or: "Do you want to know the secret of my success? Easy. Brown mascara." But it's clear that she really knew the real secret of her success: irrepressibility, and nonstop work. For Bette Davis, nothing else mattered.
Rachel DiCarlo is a Phillips Foundation fellow.