Film historian Maureen Lee Lenker is back at the Retro Set with a brand-new edition of her column, Dame in the Game: a much-needed, in-depth look at groundbreaking women in film.
“I don’t want people to like me. Nothing pleases me more than when people don’t like me.” This is Bette Davis as Rosa Moline in 1949’s Beyond the Forest, but she might as well be speaking to her own life.
The oft-imitated actress and icon of classic Hollywood, made a career playing difficult women who cared more for their independence and private whims than whether or not they were likable or “ladylike.” Davis exercised this worldview in her own private life, too — fighting for the roles and recognition she believed she was due; arguing with directors, co-stars, and Jack Warner; and plowing through four husbands, none of whom could keep up with her temperament or ambition.
Onscreen, she’s remembered for women like Jezebel’s Julie Marsden, All About Eve’s Margo Channing, The Letter’s Leslie Crosbie, Dark Victory’s Judith Traherne, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’s? titular Baby Jane Hudson. Women who ranged from ambitious career women to cold-blooded murderesses — some who were merely audacious for flaunting societal expectations and others, like Baby Jane, who were specters of aberrant femininity.
If the role was juicy enough, Davis would sink her teeth into it — never fearing portraying a bitch, a remorseless adulteress, or an unattractive or disfigured woman. When she took on the role of ugly duckling Charlotte Vale who transforms into a swan of an independent woman in Now, Voyager (1939), Davis shocked audiences with her early scenes in which she appeared with extra padding, bushy eyebrows and dowdy dresses — a look she devised herself with her preferred make-up, hair, and costume designers. Davis was not afraid to look unattractive if the role called for it (once she argued with a director because he would not allow her to wear cold cream on her face in a bedroom scene despite her insistence on its realism). When Robert Aldrich asked her to tone down her make-up as Baby Jane Hudson, she threatened to quit the picture, so committed was she to the harridan she had crafted with her make-up artist. In a society where we’re still plagued by the notion of whether or not a woman, or a female character, is likable enough, Davis was ahead of her time, which makes her the epitome of a “Dame in the Game.”
Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908 to Harlow and Ruthie Davis. Known as “Betty” from a young age, Davis changed the spelling to Bette in her teens when a friend of her mother suggested the change while reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette. Davis was not aware of the fact that the titular character in the novel is a seductress who sets out to destroy her family and countless men when she made the shift, but it would become fitting in light of the roles she favored and her own reputation for being difficult. To her, it appealed because of its unique and unusual spelling which fit her own vision of herself as an ambitious woman destined for greatness.
After having appeared in various plays and theatrical productions on the East Coast, Davis moved to Hollywood in 1930 to pursue a film career. There, she signed a contract with Universal Pictures before relocating to Warner Bros. (her home for the majority of her career) in 1932. Davis languished in films and roles she mostly hated for the early part of her career, and it wasn’t until 20-plus films in that she would make her mark, playing the slatternly Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (1934), a role that other actresses had passed on because of their concern over playing such an unsympathetic character. For Davis, it showcased her acting range and set her on a lifelong course of playing complicated women.
From this point onward, Davis fought to win the best roles, or at least, to improve roles she didn’t like. Biographers note that disrespect of a script pushed Davis to employ her legendary work ethic to an unparalleled degree, driving her to find ways to make thin scripts or poorly developed characters better. In one such instance, with Laird Doyle’s script for Dangerous (1935), she earned her first Oscar (though many viewed it as a consolation prize for being snubbed for her performance in Of Human Bondage). Davis initially said of the script, “It was maudlin and mawkish with a pretense of quality, which in scripts, as in home furnishings, is often worse than junk,” but she spun it into Oscar gold.
Following this, Davis began to weary of the mediocre roles she was offered. Throughout her career, she waged war with Jack Warner, her producers, and her directors — taking sick days, refusing roles, and writing an avalanche of correspondence protesting her unfair treatment. In 1936, Davis attempted to negotiate a new contract for herself, demanding such things as a limit on the number of films she made per year, a three month vacation, expanded rights to accept loan-out requests, top billing, and the use of her favorite cinematographers. Ultimately, all of her demands boiled down to a desire to control her career and have access to great roles when they came her way. In 1971, she told Dick Cavett, “I was fighting for good directors and good scripts. Literally, that’s all I cared about.”
Rather than hearing her demands, Jack Warner placed her on suspension and recast the film to which she was currently assigned. Davis took this as her moment to rebel, fleeing the country via Canada and heading to London to make two films for a British production company.
This deliberate breach of contract led to a British court case, Warner Bros. Studios Incorporated v. Nelson (her married name), which Davis brought to trial in an effort to break her contract with Warner Bros. She argued that it was the studio who had breached the contract with their overly long work hours, an excessive number of films in a single year, and the requirement that she play what she deemed “unsuitable roles” or face suspension.
Ultimately, Davis lost her case, the press and British legal system painting her as a spoiled movie star, but she was also inadvertently building her new star persona at the same time — a confrontational, strong-willed, independent woman. Despite losing her court battle, Davis returned to Hollywood to greater respect, better roles, and Warner Bros. desire to exploit her highly publicized combative nature. She would go on to star in a string of her most memorable roles, including Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), Now, Voyager (1941), and The Little Foxes (1941). And she continued to be pugnacious, demanding a title change for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex because the original title The Knight and the Lady privileged her male co-star’s role, and fighting to appear a realistic victim of violence in Marked Woman (1937) with bruises and bandages covering her face.
In 1943, she yet again negotiated a new contract, this time securing a greater degree of control over development and production of her films via the establishment of her own production company, B.D. Inc. Pictures. The contract also included a percentage of box office gross for films produced by her production company. Ultimately, she would only make one film under her production company banner, A Stolen Life (1946), but its box office would lead the U.S. Treasury to declare her the highest paid woman in the country in 1947.
Queen Bette continued to remain difficult and demanding on sets (a fact she recognized later writing, “I was aggressive, but curiously passive. I had to be in charge, but I didn’t want to be. I was hated, envied, and feared, and I was more vulnerable than anyone would care to believe.” In short, Davis was a complicated woman with an unstoppable life force). When she disagreed with a director or his choices, Davis would demand more takes or simply refuse to do it any other way. She even began to advise directors on shooting order, shot composition, entrances, and more — to the point where on Mr. Skeffington (1944), both the unit production manager Frank Mattison and screenwriter Julius Epstein referred to her as the director and the one running the show.
Davis also continued to remain committed to her role as a member of the Hollywood community offscreen. In 1941, she became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (she would later claim in her autobiography The Lonely Life that she named the Academy Award “Oscar” because of its butt’s resemblance to her husband’s posterior, but relinquished the claim at Margaret Herrick’s insistence that she coined the name after her uncle). Davis accepted the position with a desire to truly lead the Academy and was dismayed to find the brass only wanted her as a figurehead, opposing all of her suggestions — she resigned after only eight weeks. She later told interviewers that she wasn’t taken seriously because she was a woman.
During the war, she made one of her most lasting impacts off-screen during World War II. She campaigned tirelessly in war bond drives, badgering people at events so harshly to buy more bonds that she drew censure from Jack Warner. She was outraged that movie stars had to beg the American public to buy bonds. More impactful than that, she co-founded the Hollywood Canteen with John Garfield after they decided that something needed to be done for servicemen passing through Los Angeles. With the cooperation of the Motion Picture industry guilds and unions, they took over a building at 1415 Cahuenga Boulevard where servicemen could come to see stars perform, enjoy a meal, and even dance with a star. Stars and motion picture employees donated their time as performers, but also as dishwashers, cooks, and more. Davis could be found at the canteen nearly constantly, and she expected her peers to work just as hard. If someone was not pulling their weight, Davis would call them personally to cajole them into volunteering at the Canteen. Stars like Hedy Lamarr described her as a “taskmaster” but Davis saw it merely as doing her duty as an American. Near the end of the war, Davis appeared in Hollywood Canteen (1945), which showcased the efforts of the club and a bevy of Warner Bros. stars as themselves.
Opting to end her contract with Warner Bros. in 1949, Davis’ career seemed on the wane, but she was not one to slow down or abandon work. She found herself back on top once again as a freelancer with the success of Daryl Zanuck’s All About Eve (1950), taking on one of her most iconic roles as Margo Channing, herself an actress fighting to stay relevant. Davis’ ambition and all-consuming work ethic drove her to seek projects all her life, from Broadway roles (such as originating Maxine in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana in 1961) to television guest stars. She accepted film roles with no concern for maintaining an image of glamour (happily playing up her age and uglifying herself in films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane  and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte ). After leaving her contract in 1949, she made twenty-four feature films, appeared in numerous TV series and made-for-TV movies, and starred in several Broadway shows, including two musicals. Even after suffering breast cancer, a mastectomy, and multiple strokes in 1983, she recovered enough to shoot three and a half more films before her death in 1989. For her, work was as essential to her survival as food and water.
In addition to her onscreen legacy and her work in the Hollywood community, Davis also wrote two autobiographies, The Lonely Life and This and That chronicling her career and personal life with a startling mix of crisp wit and biting self-awareness. Davis was the first woman to receive AFI’s Life Achievement Award in 1977, as well as the first actress to secure a record ten Academy Award nominations in 1962 (only four people have surpassed that number since).
Her legacy as a woman willing and hungry to portray complicated, remorseless, difficult women was groundbreaking in her era and paved the way for actresses to come. Meryl Streep credits her opportunities as an actress to the tenacity of women like Davis, once telling Vanity Fair, “Bette Davis seemed willing, she even had an appetite, for parts that were conventionally unappealing. She changed the requirement that actresses in the movies invariably be likable or attractive. She lifted the veil of appropriate behavior in women to expose what was scary, unexpected, or ugly—in other words, to do what was appropriate for the character. Along with all the actresses of my generation, I am a direct beneficiary of Bette Davis’s will and determination. Because of her hard-fought achievements, we all had it a little easier.”
It is impossible to overstate her impact — she has become a larger-than-life presence in the Hollywood pantheon, with her endlessly imitated clipped tones and her startlingly expressive and oversized eyes. Her actual legacy is one that far outweighs the shadow of her camp presence.
Jane Fonda once said, “Just watching Bette Davis on the screen was empowering to women. It was like, this is what’s possible, this is the range and depth that is possible for a woman. Enough already with these one-dimensional women. She expanded our range of possibilities.”
This article was heavily informed by the insights and research found in Ed Sikov’s biography of Davis, “Dark Victory.”