Both strong willed and fiercely independent, actress Bette Davis possessed unorthodox looks – accented by her large, heavy-lidded eyes – and extraordinary talent that she used to become one of classic Hollywood’s most celebrated performers.
Of the course of her long and storied career, Davis made scores of films and earned a total of 11 Oscar nominations, leading to her winning two Academy Awards for Best Actress. She ruffled many feathers, particularly with her longtime studio of Warner Bros., but often in an effort to win better parts.
Despite a career littered with lackluster movies – many of which were made against her will – Davis turned in numerous classic performances that elevated her to becoming one of cinema’s greatest actresses.
Her Early Life:
Davis was born on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she was raised by her father, Harlow, who was a patent attorney. Harlow separated from her mother, Ruth, in 1915, leading Davis to move with her to New York City.
It was in the Big Apple that Davis first began acting, and trained at both the Mariarden School of Dancing and John Murray Anderson’s Drama School. She soon joined a stock company based in Rochester and ran by none other than George Cukor. He initially was unimpressed with Davis and dismissed her from the company after only a few months.
Undeterred, Davis made her professional debut in 1928 in a production of Virgil Geddes’ The Earth Between, while the following year she had her first Broadway hit with Broken Dishes. She was only 21 years old at the time.
After starring in Solid South, Davis was spotted by a talent scout for Universal Studios was to Hollywood for a screen test. She signed a contract in 1930 and the following year made her film debut in Bad Sister, which also featured Humphrey Bogart.
But her career had a rather inauspicious start, as Davis appeared in a string of forgettable films. That all changed when actor George Arliss became her mentor and secured her a starring role opposite himself in The Man Who Played God (1932).
More lackluster films followed, however, until Davis landed her first critically acclaimed role in Of Human Bondage (1934), where she earned the first of 11 Academy Award nominations for Best Actress for playing vulgar waitress Mildred Rogers opposite Leslie Howard.
Davis’ riveting turn opened the door to better roles and soon lead to playing down-and-out actress Joyce Heath in Dangerous (1935), for which she won her first Oscar for Best Actress. Many – including the actress herself – felt the award was consolation for being snubbed for Of Human Bondage.
After starring with Howard and Bogart in The Petrified Forest, Davis’s battles with Warner Bros. over being cast in mediocre roles against her wills came to a head when she refused to travel to England and make a pair of British films.
In breach of contract, Davis fled to Canada fearing a lawsuit and soon brought her own against the studio in the British courts. She made the mistake of comparing her contract to slavery, which failed to earn her support among the public. Davis lost her case and returned to work.
A New Contract and Further Success:
Despite her legal troubles, Davis entered into her most successful period starting with Marked Woman (1937) and continuing with Jezebel (1938), where she played an feisty Southern belle for director William Wyler. Not only did Davis win her second Oscar for Best Actress, but she also entered into a brief relationship with Wyler, who she later described as the love of her life.
Davis had one of her biggest box office hits with the classic tearjerker Dark Victory (1939), while honing her skill in playing fierce independent women in films like The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941) and Now, Voyager. Davis earned Academy Award nominations for all four pictures, though her clashes with Wyler on Little Foxes ended her collaboration with the director.
Meanwhile, Davis was instrumental in the war effort by selling bonds and creating The Hollywood Canteen, a club that catered to servicemen on their way overseas that offered everything free of charge and often had Hollywood’s biggest stars working as volunteers.
But as her career was in full swing, Davis suffered personal tragedy in August 1943 when husband Arthur Farnsworth collapsed on the street and died from an undetected skull fracture. The distraught actress tried to withdraw from Mr. Skeffington (1944), but was convinced by Warner Bros. to continue the role. Davis displayed erratic behavior on set and delivered an uneven performance as a vain society woman that nonetheless earned her another Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
A Career Decline:
After turning down the lead in Mildred Pierce (1945) – a role that won rival Joan Crawford an Oscar – Davis entered a precipitous slide that almost lead to her leaving show business altogether.
She did have a box office hit with The Corn is Green (1945), but lackluster films like A Stolen Life (1946), Deception (1946) and Beyond the Forest (1949) knocked Davis off her perch. In fact, Beyond the Forest was such a critical disaster that Davis was finally able to break free of her contract with Warner Bros. It was the last film she made for the studio.
A Brief Resurgence and Continued Slide:
Davis rebounded with an Academy Award nominated performance as the tempestuous Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's classic showbiz drama All About Eve (1950). Featuring the oft-quoted line, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night," Davis’ performance became one of her most iconic.
But her comeback was all-too-brief, as Davis continued to falter. Though she was nominated again for her turn in The Star (1952), the actress found herself starring in one mediocre film after another.
Making matters worse, Davis’s personal life was on the decline as well, starting with her divorce from William Sherry and continuing with her abusive marriage to actor Gary Merrill. Her career hit its nadir with films like The Virgin Queen (1955) and The Catered Affair (1956).
Another Brief Resurgence and New Life on Television:
Always capable of reaching down and pulling out a remarkable performance, Davis did just that with her extraordinarily demented turn in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), in which she starred opposite Joan Crawford as a show business has-been.
Both Davis and Crawford despised each other, but maintained their professionalism during production. After filming wrapped, however, the two actresses engaged in a war of words that only escalated their lifelong feud. Davis earned her 11th and final Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
She followed up with the Baby Jane sequel, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) which co-starred Olivia de Havilland in replacement of Crawford, who bowed out of production due to feigned illness. The film was one of the last big hits of Davis’ career.
By the end of the 1960s, Davis saw her career in decline once more. She made several forgettable films before finding new life with numerous made-for-TV movies. Her health went into serious decline in the early-1980s following a battle with breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy, while her daughter B.D. Hyman published the scathing memoir, My Mother’s Keeper (1985), after the actress suffered from a series of debilitating strokes.
Her Final Years:
Davis made her last major film appearance opposite silent era star Lillian Gish in The Whales of August (1987), which earned her considerable acclaim but no awards recognition.
In 1989, while traveling Europe, Davis collapsed and discovered that her cancer had returned. Too weak to make the trip back to the United States, she went to a French hospital where she died on Oct. 6, 1989 at 81 years old.
Davis left behind an extraordinary legacy as one of classic Hollywood’s most important and fiercely independent actresses, whose career spanned six decades and massed 11 Academy Award nominations. She is often cited as being one of the greatest film actresses who ever lived.