This week would have marked Bette Davis’s 103rd birthday, and she deserves our attention and respect. If she were alive today, she would demand it. Independent and fiery, Davis considered herself an artist, honed her craft, and fought for better roles long before method actors made those quests a given for any serious thespian. And, she did this in the 1930s and 1940s, an era when studios controlled the images and careers of their stars. During the Golden Age, most actors were under long-term contracts, forced to appear in films selected for them by their studios, and guided in their off-screen lives by press agents and studio bosses. Davis tried to sue her studio, Warner Bros., to wrangle some creative control over roles and directors, but like every other actor who tried this—save one—she lost in court (after all, Hollywood is a company town).
Still, this did not keep her from stretching as an actor or accepting challenging roles. At a time when most leading stars were expected to play attractive, likable characters with a strong sense of morality, Davis embraced the role of Jezebel (1938), an unsympathetic, spoiled Southern aristocrat; she had no problems starring in Of Human Bondage (1934) as a promiscuous, illiterate “waitress.” In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), her portrait of Elizabeth I is stripped of glamor and beauty, with an unflattering hairstyle and hideous-looking costuming. This was completely atypical of female stars of the period, mostly because studio heads were uncomfortable with their stars playing unattractive, unglamorous characters. In the 1950s, during the McCarthy Era, when actors feared for their careers lest they be accused of left-leaning beliefs, Davis threw her star status behind an independent production called Storm Center. She played a spinster librarian who is unfairly branded a communist because she refuses to withdraw a controversial book from the library’s shelves.
Golden Age actresses suffered the tyranny of the Production Code (the censorship code of the era) and the star system, which not only placed limitations on the roles they could play but interfered with personal aspirations. Today’s actresses suffer the tyranny of the box office in which studios are loathe to cast strong female leads because they don’t appeal to the desired demographic (teenage boys). The lack of women’s roles in studio films has sent many of this generation’s best actresses to indie films, which don’t have the mainstream recognition of studio blockbusters. If Bette Davis were around today, she would still be fighting for better roles. They didn’t nickname her “Mother Goddamn” for nothing.
Here are ten of Davis’s best films, all of which are available from Facets.
1. All About Eve (1950). “Fasten your seat belt. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” One of the best lines of dialogue ever written.
2. Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Gothic horror, Southern-style, as Davis plays a faded Southern belle whose family hides a dark secret.
3. Jezebel (1938). A last-minute redemption scene barely softens Davis’s hellion character. Also, the film is in black and white, but it is so well photographed and written that the scandal scene involving Jezebel’s red party dress will have you believing you saw it in red.
4. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). Davis is likable in a secondary role in this comedy based on a play about a celebrity who breaks his leg while visiting a small town and is forced to recuperate in the home of a local resident. But, she takes a back seat to Monty Woolley in the lead role and to the unscripted craziness of Jimmy Durante in a bit part. Durante, after kissing a homely nurse: “Come to my room in a half hour and bring some rye bread.”
5. The Little Foxes (1941). Davis, who was only 5’ 3” tall, excelled at playing hard women who were difficult to like but commanded respect.
6. Now, Voyager (1942). The ending is definitely out of date for today’s sensibilities, but this melodrama features some amazingly erotic moments—and the characters barely even kiss.
7. The Letter (1940). On a sweltering rubber plantation where passions are as hot as the weather, Bette is accused of murder. Directed by William Wyler, her best collaborator and the love of her life.
8. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Davis costars with arch rival Joan Crawford in this gothic horror about an aging child star and her sister. Davis and Crawford had a long-standing feud with each other, which enhanced their performances.
9. Burnt Offerings (1976). Well-crafted haunted house tale directed by Dan Curtis, starring Davis, Oliver Reed, and Karen Black. Heavy on the tension and atmosphere.
10. Three on a Match (1932). This pre-code movie, which represents an early role for Davis, is notable for its overt use of sex, drugs, and violence.
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