Part VII: Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed
Bette Davis is the Queen of Hollywood.
Part VII of this blog is her coronation.
Even in an industry filled with originals, they broke the mold when they made Bette. Probably she broke it herself, for though she was undoubtedly a trailblazer for women in Hollywood, she wanted no one following in her footsteps.
She could be a nightmare to work with. She wrested control from weak directors, intimidated her co-stars, and took Warner Brothers to court to demand better roles. She was mouthy, she was brash, and she left no fight unfought. She had four husbands, none of which, she says, were “ever man enough to become Mr. Bette Davis.”
And no one ever put her in her place. Not for long, anyway.
She did it the hard way. It says so right on her tombstone.
With nothing more than determined fury, she can put even the worst movie on her back and carry it into something you simply cannot tear your eyes from.
Bette’s got it all.
You want the back of the baseball card statistics?
One hundred films spanning nearly sixty years.
Ten Best Actress Oscar nominations, including a five-year run of consecutive nominations.
Zero supporting actress nominations—Bette Davis was not supporting role material. If she was in a film, she took it over. As she herself said, “I will never be below the title.”
Two Oscar wins.
The first woman ever to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
You want modern day relevance?
In 1966, Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf drunkenly imitated Davis from her film Beyond the Forest, looking around at the home her husband has worked so hard to provide and proclaiming, “What a dump.”
No less than Taylor Swift covered the song “Bette Davis Eyes” during her Speak Now World Tour in 2011.
And in 2017, FX aired Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-episode miniseries chronicling the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Susan Sarandon plays Davis at the apex of her feud with Joan Crawford.
You want the films?
I thought you’d never ask.
Let’s start with Dangerous, the first film to garner her an Oscar nomination—and her first of two Oscar wins.
Her Oscar for this film is often written off as a consolation prize for work in Of Human Bondage, made the year before and though widely praised, was not even nominated.
Though shocking in its time, Of Human Bondage is a bit of bore today but for one incredible scene in which Davis viciously dresses down Leslie Howard’s character. He’s a kind but pathetic man who’s thrown his life away for her despite the fact that she obviously doesn’t deserve such a sacrifice.
This scene—and this film—is an early draft of many of Bette’s eventual masterpieces. It showcases her ability to make herself ugly onscreen both inside and out. No one has ever played the unrepentant bitch with as much relish as Bette Davis, and no actress was ever as willing to make herself hideously ugly for the sake of a role. (At least until they started handing out Best Actress Awards for the effort.)
It’s a shame that if Bette was only going to win two Oscars that one went to Dangerous, if only because she has so many iconic performances (Judith Traherne, Regina Giddens, Charlotte Vale, Margo Channing to name just a few) and Joyce Heath is not among them.
But Dangerous has its charms.
Davis plays Joyce Heath, a down on her luck stage actress who has become a drunk. She is rescued by Don Bellows, who was once so moved by one of her performances that he cannot stand to see her suffering. He takes her to his country house to dry out away from the spotlight. She spends the first half of the film getting drunk and throwing bitchy barbs his way.
He sees through her pain, and they fall in love. He throws over his lovely and dependable fiancée and plans to marry Joyce.
The catch? She’s already married.
Joyce’s husband refuses to give her a divorce, so Joyce drives them both into a tree, figuring that either she’ll end up dead or he will. Either way she’ll be free of him.
But they both survive, and her husband is permanently crippled.
Unlike in Of Human Bondage, here the shrew relents. Joyce realizes she has ruined lives and must repent. She gives up Don and the film ends with her going back to the husband she doesn’t love, intent on making amends by taking care of him and giving him a happy marriage.
Just like Joyce Heath, Bette Davis had her eye on another woman’s fellow during the film. She’d fallen in love with her co-star Franchot Tone, and meant to have him.
He was head over heels in love with his fiancée, Joan Crawford.
And thus the seeds of a legendary feud were planted.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.