Bette Davis: An Actress to Admire

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She lived and died before I was born, but for the longest time, Bette has been, and I believe, will always remain, a great hero of mine. I write this article in an attempt to articulate exactly why someone, a stranger to me, can command such reverence and deep admiration.

Ruth Elizabeth, “Bette” to her friends, was a relatively ordinary little girl. Bette was pretty, but others in her class were perhaps more so. She had a delightful wit, but on many occasions it was eclipsed by a painful shyness. And even her inherent generosity could disintegrate once in a while into a perfectly unalterable stubbornness. However, it was, in fact, this stubbornness, a quality just a shade away from incredible determination, that stirred a little something up in Ruth Elizabeth Davis. It was this that made her a movie star. The road to great success would, however, prove to be a difficult one.

For one thing, Davis wasn’t conventionally beautiful. While she was perfectly lovely in her own way, she certainly didn’t fit that “American ideal circa 1930” mold either, that Pre-Code look most epitomised by the likes of Lombard and Harlow. Upon her first arrival in Hollywood, Davis was surprised to find that no one was there to meet her. The famous story goes that a Universal representative had been to the station, and had left when he did not see anyone who looked like a real “star”.

Incidents like these, as well as the occasional accusation of being about as sexy as Silm Summmerville, plagued Davis during her early years in Hollywood. Yet everything about her physical appearance would end up becoming one of her greatest assets. Her voice, her cool smile, and particularly… her eyes.

With her pair of extraordinarily expressive eyes, Bette Davis could communicate to her audience the world, exactly as she saw it. In her eyes there was a great and unbreakable hope at times,  a torturous tragedy at others. But always they were filled with an enormous, almost intolerable intensity; brimming with a passion so striking that one would often be taken aback, and yet be quite unable to look away even for a moment.

And for all her dramatics, there was also always a deep-rooted subtlety, a little hint of something lurking beneath. Most of all though we sensed, at the end of another grand performance, an enormous desire to do the best she possibly could, to be the best she could possibly be for an audience who had stood by her, and championed her through times of difficulty.

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Why did the audience do so? To a large extent, it was her onscreen persona. She often played women who were strong-willed, courageous, intelligent, (a little evil too at times but frankly the audience loved that side as well). However it was equally, and perhaps even more so, the woman off the camera, the actress’ who possessed many of the qualities the  heroines she played were blessed with.

The life of Davis was punctuated with many triumphs and breakthroughs, but perhaps the most spectacular of these,  a culmination of everything Bette had fought for,  happened in the winter of 1950.  At the age of 42,  a rather dangerous time  for actresses in which the public quietly latch onto the new crop of golden  girls,  Bette received the role of Margo Channing,  the immortal fading star of All About Eve.

The film was the first of her many successes as an independent actress. After 17 years at Warner Brothers, Bette Davis showed the world her victory against the studio system, her triumph in the long and arduous fight for artistic freedom for her peers, as well as all those that would follow in her footsteps.

Today, many of us look back on the performances of Bette Davis as overtly stylised, realism thrown right out the window. I see it all though, every look, every weighted word and steely smile, as something unforgettable. Indeed, I do believe Davis is a woman who should not be forgotten. In her long career,  she proved to the world her unbreakable determination,  the immense courage in her own convictions, and her great devotion to her craft. She is someone, I believe, whom we can all learn a little from.

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15 Comments

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  1. I never really gave Bette Davis – especially EARLY Davis films – a chance until I started seeing so many of her films with Bogart. It gave me a whole new appreciation for her work. I recently did a write up on their shared films, and I was impressed by her acting range – something she doesn’t always get credit for. Great piece, thanks!

    1. Thank you for your comment!
      I also discovered the earlier films of Bette Davis quite recently and pretty much have never looked back. For someone who posseses such a distinctive style, it really is incredible how versatile she simultaneously is. And the early films, many of them featuring Bogie and other Warner players, are among her best.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful actress. A true icon of cinema. All About Eve is undoubtedly my favourite of hers, but Dark Victory and Now, Voyager are really terrific films too. And who else has a song written about their eyes decades later? ;)

    1. Totally agree (of course!).
      She combined her natural ability, unbreakable determination and sheer gusto to create some of the most memorable characters that have ever graced the screen. What’s not to love?

    1. Baby Jane is also one of my favourites too!
      I hope to write a piece on this wonderful film some time soon. In my eyes, it is, of course, very frightening. Yet, Davis’ character paradoxically possesses great humanity as well; by the end you really do find yourself warming to her rather deranged soul! Plus, it’s also chillingly hilarious :)

  3. I was very fortunate to have been able to attend a Bette Davis retrospective last fall.

    I believe her performance in “All About Eve” to be one of the best performances of all time (in one of the best films of all time, of course). She was also brilliant in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and “Dangerous”; she contributed greatly to a superb ensemble in “The Little Foxes” and had wonderful scenes in “Jezebel”.

    Thank you for this great article.

    1. How lucky you were :) Davis really was a brilliant actress —so much so that you actually feel rather grateful that such fantastic performances have been preserved on film. Thank you for your kind comment!

  4. If I could meet anyone, dead or alive, I would choose Bette Davis without hesitation. All About Eve and Now, Voyager are two of my very favorite films, All About Eve being my absolute favorite. While both of these films have wonderful screenplays, they would not have had nearly as profound an impact on me had they not had Davis to transform them from wonderful to remarkable. I am astonished with her ability to demonstrate the transformations her character undergo throughout films, and simply cannot imagine anyone doing it so flawlessly as her!

    1. She certainly is one of the greats! Moreover, Davis just seems like such a riot to be around! In her writings and interviews, we can just catch a glimpse of this driven, intelligent and utterly charming lady. So it probably goes without saying I would just loved to have met her too! Thank you for comment :)

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