Legends of Hollywood Series
Issue Date: September 18, 2008
City: Boston, MA
Happy Birthday Bette Davis
Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Known as “Betty” from an early age, she attended a Spartan boarding school before moving with her family to New York City in 1921. It was around this time that she changed her name to “Bette” after Honoré de Balzac’s novel La Cousine Bette.
In 1926 Davis attended Henrik Ibsen’s production of The Wild Duck, starting Peg Entwistle. Davis later claimed that it was Entwistle that inspired her to join the theater. She found her first paid acting job as a chorus girl in the play Broadway. Then in 1929 she was hired to play Entwistle’s role in The Wild Duck. Davis went on to perform in theaters in Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston before making her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes in 1929.
The following year Davis moved to Hollywood for her first screen test. Though her first two screen tests didn’t go well, cinematographer Karl Freund remarked that she had “lovely eyes” and recommended her for a part in Bad Sister, which would mark her film debut. Davis then had small parts in a string of unsuccessful movies, which led to plan to move back to New York. But then actor George Arliss suggested she play the female lead in The Man Who Played God. The film was a success and Davis always credited Arliss with helping her get her break in Hollywood.
Davis then signed a five-year contract and would remain with Warner Brothers for 18 years. By 1934, she had appeared in 20 films and took on the controversial part of Mildred in Of Human Bondage, a role many other actresses turned down. But Davis was glad to take it to show her acting range. Her gamble paid off and she earned major acclaim for her performance. Life magazine said she delivered “probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress.”
Davis and many others were surprised that she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Of Human Bondage. However, she did win one the following year for her role in Dangerous. Davis’ next film was The Petrified Forest, which was also Humphrey Bogart’s first major role.
In the coming years Davis appeared in several poorly received films and attempted to get out of her contract, but to no avail. She then appeared in Marked Woman and Jezebel, which she called “the time in my life of my most perfect happiness.” Her performance as a spoiled southern belle earned her a second Academy Award. This marked the start of the most successful part of her career. Davis then appeared in Dark Victory, which was one of the top films of the year, and earned her another award nomination. Davis’ other successes at this time included The Old Maid, Juarez, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
In 1941 Davis briefly served as the first female president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor she joined the war effort selling war bonds. In two days she sold $2 million in bonds and sold a picture of herself in Jezebel for $250,000. She also joined Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, and Ethel Waters in performing for African American troops. In 1942 she helped create the Hollywood Canteen, a nightclub to entertain servicemen before they left to fight in the war. Davis later received the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal for this work.
In 1949 Davis was let out of her contract with Warner Brothers and appeared in All About Eve. She considered the script to be the best she ever read and won several awards for her role. She also had several famous lines including, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Davis didn’t have many hits in the 1950s, but found renewed success in 1962 with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Davis then appeared in an episode of Perry Mason, and had a few more successful movies, including Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Davis continued to appear in films and on television. In 1979, she was given a Best Actress Emmy. Davis continued to work into the 1980s and also wrote some autobiographies in later life. Her final role was in The Whales of August in 1987. Davis appeared in over 100 films, and was the first actress to receive ten Academy Award nominations. She was also the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Suffering from cancer in her later years, Davis died on October 6, 1989.