Ruth Elizabeth Davis was an American actress of film, television and theatre. Regarded as one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood history. With Davis born in April 1908, Spotlight is dedicating the spring/summer issue to the Hollywood legend.
The no nonsense actress is considered one of American cinema’s most celebrated leading ladies, with her prolific lists of awards and achievements. Bette Davis has the fourth-most Academy Award nominations (10) in four acting categories of all time. In 1999, Davis was placed second behind Kathrine Hepburn, on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest female starts of classic Hollywood cinema.
Despite her cinematic legacy and achievements, her career witnessed several periods of eclipse, as Davis once admitted that her success had often been at the expense of her personal relationships. However, with more than 100 film, television and theatre roles to her credit, Davis continued acting until her death from breast cancer in 1989, aged 81.
Davis was noted for her willingness to play unsympathetic, sardonic characters and was regarded for her performance in a variety of genres, emphasised by her unnerving portrayal of Baby Jane in the 1962 thriller. Despite this, Davis’ her greatest successes were thought to be her roles in romantic dramas. After Davis’ appearance in the 1935 drama, Dangerous, portraying a troubled and distressed actress, she received excellent reviews. English novelist, critic and broadcaster, E.Arnot Robertson, wrote a review for Picture Post in 1935, “I think Bette Davis would probably have been burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet.”
Bette Davis influential presence in the film industry, is noted by her extensive list of awards, nominations and achievements. Davis was nominated for an astonishing 10 Best Actress Oscars, in which she won the Best Actress Oscar twice for Dangerous in 1935 and Jezebel in 1938.
In addition to the Oscars, in 1977 Davis was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award and was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, setting a precedence for future female actors. Davis was also the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, and in 1980 was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the Defence Department’s highest civilian award, for founding and running the Hollywood Canteen during World War II. On April 24th 1988, Davis was again rewarded, being honoured by the Film Society of Lincoln Centre at its annual tribute, accompanying previous honourees such as Sir Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin. Davis is said to have recalled, ‘An honour, I’m delighted’ at the time of the honouring.
"THIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN A MOTTO OF MINE: ATTEMPT THE IMPOSSIBLE IN
ORDER TO IMPROVE YOUR WORK."
- BETTE DAVIS
Despite the awards the legendary silver screen actress received, Davis was also renowned for her reputation as a perfectionist and could be seen as highly confrontational and argumentative. She is reported to have often clashed with studio executives, directors and co-stars due to her forthright manner, eccentric personality and ubiquitous cigarette. Her tempestuous battles for wanting excellent scripts and the best production teams for her films, wreaked havoc in Hollywood.
Bette Davis combative and confrontational personality was recently played out in the American anthology television series, Feud: Bette and Joan. Created by Ryan Murphy, Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, Feud presented a dramatisation of actual events, focusing on the chronicles and rivalry between co-stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. It has been said that Davis and Crawford feuded for years prior to the making of the Golden Age horror. Rumours state that Bette Davis had a Coca-Cola machine installed on the set due to Joan Crawford’s affiliation with Pepsi, being the widow of Pepsi’s CEO. Davis website states Crawford then attempted to seek revenge by putting weights in her pockets when Davis had to drag Crawford across the floor during certain scenes.
“IF EVERYONE LIKES YOU, YOU’RE DOING YOUR JOB WRONG”
- BETTE DAVIS’ AUTOBIOGRAPHY, THIS N THAT
Not only is Davis considered one of the silver screen’s most successful and talented actresses, Davis iconic and notorious personality became a public persona with her distinctive mannerisms often being imitated. The trailing cigarette smoke and argumentative behaviour is often considered an imitation of the late actress. Davis is often quoted due to her forthright manner and idiosyncratic speech, highlighted in an autobiography titled This n That, which contains a collection of anecdotes and opinions on a wide range of topics.
Bette Davis presence and legacy within the film and media industry is no doubt prevalent. Her broad list of achievements, awards and recognition ensures she remain an iconic and credible star of the Golden Age. In 1993, The New York Times hailed Davis as “becoming one of the most interested of our screen actresses.” Her forthright manner and wit, guaranteed she stood out from a crowd and without doubt be remembered. Davis’ witty and sharp persona is reinforced by her tombstone reading ‘She did it the hard way.’