Friday, April 4, 2014

A Look at the Life and Times of Bette Davis

A very young and very blond, Bette Davis
By Kate Voss

Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 5, 1908. When she was only seven, her parents separated, and Bette was promptly sent to a boarding school. In 1921, at the age of 13, she moved to New York with her mother, and it was here where she first garnered an interest in acting. Inspired by the films she had seen, Bette auditioned and received a part in a school play, which only cemented her desire to be an actress. To further her dream, she enrolled into the John Murray School of Theatre, where she studied acting alongside a young Lucille Ball and dance with Martha Graham.

After securing a place in George Cukor’s stock theater company, Bette landed her first Broadway role in 1929’s Broken Dishes, which she soon followed up with a performance in Solid South. Upon the urging of a Hollywood talent scout she moved to Hollywood in 1930, where she landed a contract with Universal Pictures and starred in her first movie: The Bad Sister. She spent the next three years acting in 21 films, none of which secured her a place as a respected actress. Bette gained some attention when she starred in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, a film which earned her rave reviews. Afterwards, Bette took a role in the film Dangerous, which won her an Academy Award.

A tense scene from Juarez, left to right,
Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, and Davis
In 1936, after agreeing to star in two films in England, she became entangled in a breach of contract lawsuit with Warner Bros. Davis sued Warner Bros. in England, in an attempt to nullify her contract due to the fact that she felt the studio wasn’t giving her good parts. She lost the case, and the legal proceedings left her broke. However, her streak of bad luck ended quickly when she earned praise for her role as prostitute in Marked Woman which she followed with her second Academy Award winning performance in Jezebel in 1938. But, with professional success came personal failure; her first marriage to Ham Nelson fell apart, and the couple decided to divorce. As has been covered on this blog before, 1939 was Davis’s most profound acting year; fans saw her star in Dark Victory, Juarez, The Old Maid, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. She quickly became of the most commercially and critically successful actresses in Hollywood, as well as one of the most famous and respected.

Paul Henried and Davis between takes on
the set of Now, Voyager
Bette started the 1940’s with more professional successes like The Great Lie, as well as a new husband, Arthur Farnsworth. Then, the year of 1941 saw her star in one of her most famous roles: Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes, which landed her the sixth Academy Award nomination of her career. She spent 1942 leading Hollywood’s war effort by selling $2 million worth of war bonds in two days and opening The Hollywood Canteen, where movie stars would entertain servicemen. That same year she starred in another iconic role for her in Now, Voyager. She continued her successes until her husband suddenly died after suffering a skull fracture, causing her to behave erratically on the set of her next film, Mr. Skeffington. While she did remarry and have a daughter in the late 1940’s, her career was in a state a flux. After a series of box office failures, she was released from her contract with Warner Bros.

Joan Crawford and Davis in a publicity still
for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
However, in 1950 she returned, guns blazing, as Margo Channing in All About Eve, which is widely regarded as her best film, the film is still so popular that it’s widely available through many streaming sites and video on demand services from most cable and satellite TV providers. That same year, she ended her third marriage and married her fourth husband, her co star Gary Merrill. Unfortunately, her career started to dwindle as the 50’s continued and she ended the decade appearing mostly on television. Never one to be counted out, she made yet another triumphant comeback in 1961’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? alongside longtime nemesis Joan Crawford which earned her one last Academy Award nomination. She continued to act in films in the 1960’s like Dead Ringer, Where Love Has Gone, and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Davis as Margo Channing
The first few years of the 1970’s saw Davis tour Australia and England in a one woman show discussing her life and work. She attempted a few television pilots, but none were picked up, and she continued to take supporting roles in films like  Burnt Offerings. She did manage to win an Emmy for her work on made-for-TV movie Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in 1979. Bette began to suffer many health set backs in the early 80’s, including a fight with breast cancer that resulted in a mastectomy and a series of four strokes that left her paralyzed on her left side. Despite her suffering, her adopted daughter B.D. Hyman published a scathing memoir about her mother called My Mother’s Keeper in 1985, which Davis always stated was fabricated. Bette continued to do work for television until she discovered her cancer had returned in 1989 while in France, where she passed away on October 6th.

Her acting legacy and personality have let Davis live on for many years following her passing. With a staggering 11 Academy Award nominations, 2 wins, a career spanning 50 years, countless fans, and the praise and respect of some of the most well regarded directors, actors, and critics, Davis will always remain a Hollywood icon.

Guest blogger, Kate Voss is an entertainment blogger from Chicago. A romantic at-heart, she will be delighting in the classical works of Wilder and Frank Capra this Valentine's Day. You can find her on Twitter at @Kateevoss.


  1. Some accuse Bette Davis of being an over-actor, but I think she's wonderful. She knew what audiences wanted, and I think she recognized that audiences could be doing several other things rather than going to the movies.

    I admire how unafraid she was to look unglamorous and, when the role called for it, be a very unlikable person. Her awards and nominations were well deserved.

  2. Very nice bio,,loved Betty Davis acting & boldness! Cigarette's, too 😊

    1. Cigarettes and scotch on the rocks! That's Bette Davis.


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