The Magazine

Miss Davis's Life

Fasten your seat belts, it was a bumpy ride.

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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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."