‘I have been uncompromising, infractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile and offtimes disagreeable. I suppose I’m larger than life’ Bette Davis once remarked about her tough-as-nails personality. Today, she continues to personify the independent and strong-willed woman, an image she helped define both on-screen and off, with a career that spanned six decades and an impressive range of memorable roles.
Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5th, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA. Upon studying drama at John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School, she made her Broadway debut in the play ‘Broken Dishes’ in 1929. However, her onstage career was short-lived and, in 1930, she moved to Hollywood to pursue a screen career at Universal Pictures.
After six unmemorable films, her contract with Universal was not renewed and she was ready to return to Broadway, when she was offered a seven-year contract at Warner Brothers. Her first movie at Warners, ‘The Man Who Played God’ (1932) put her on the path to stardom, yet it was with RKO’s adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ (1934) opposite Leslie Howard that she had her first critically acclaimed hit. A year later she won her first Academy Award for her performance in ‘Dangerous’ (1935).
In spite of her success, Bette was so unhappy about the roles Warner Bros. kept offering her, that in 1936 she moved to England and sued the studio in order to break out of her contract. Even though she lost, upon her return, she was given a new-found respect and offered a new contract and better, juicier roles.
During the following years, Bette was nominated for the ‘Best Actress’ Academy Award for five years in a row (a record she shares with actress Greer Garson) – ‘Jezebel’ (1938), which she won, ‘Dark Victory’ (1939), ‘The Letter’ (1940), ‘The Little Foxes’ (1941) and ‘Now, Voyager’ (1942). It was also during this period that Bette contributed to the war effort by helping to organize and run the Hollywood Canteen, a facility that entertained and fed World War II soldiers passing through Los Angeles.
After a string of unsuccessful movies during the second half of the 1940s, Davis made a soaring comeback as aging theater actress Margo Channing in 20th Century Fox’s ‘All About Eve’ in 1950 and, again, in 1962 as demented child star Jane Hudson in Robert Aldrich’s chilling ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’.
Bette continued to work in movies and television throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, earning several awards and nominations, including the ‘Life Achievement Award’ from the American Film Institute in 1978 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1987. ‘I want to die with my heels on, still in action.’ she candidly said before her death on October 6th 1989 in Neuilly, France of metastasized breast cancer.