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Who Was Bette Davis?

Bette Davis was a trailblazing actress whose fierce talent and indomitable spirit captivated audiences for decades. With a career spanning over 100 films, she earned two Oscars and a reputation for playing complex, strong-willed characters. Her legacy endures as a symbol of Hollywood's Golden Age. How did her iconic roles challenge and redefine the industry? Join us as we explore her story.
Kathy Hawkins
Kathy Hawkins

Bette Davis is one of the most famous and successful film actresses of the 20th century, with a career that spanned from the 1930s through the 1980s. She won two Academy Awards during her lifetime, and is memorable for her melodramatic, clipped acting style, which has been frequently imitated and parodied in successive years.

She was born as Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1908. Following high school, she changed her name to Bette Davis, and began acting in small roles on Broadway, where she was approached by a talent scout for Universal Studios. When she arrived in Hollywood, Bette Davis's screen test was dismal; even so, the studio signed a contract with her and gave her parts in several movies, though they dropped her from their roster after six films in nine months.

Bette Davis won two Best Actress Oscars.
Bette Davis won two Best Actress Oscars.

Bette Davis' first big break came when she was chosen for a lead role in George Arliss' The Man Who Played God in 1932; this role led to a five year contract with Warner Brothers Studios. In a film called Of Human Bondage, Bette Davis played the role of an unsympathetic, aloof character — at the time, this was a rare part for a female actress. Davis would come to be associated with such roles throughout her career. In 1935, Bette Davis won her first Oscar for her role in the film, Dangerous. Another was soon to follow for her part as a selfish Southern Belle in Jezebel in 1938. At that time, she was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood.

Despite being rejected by Hollywood initially, actress Bette Davis went on to become a major star.
Despite being rejected by Hollywood initially, actress Bette Davis went on to become a major star.

Though not all of Davis' films in the 1940s and 50s were successful, several were, including All About Eve, in which Davis played an aging diva. However, she came back into the public eye with her role in 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a creepy psychological thriller that pitted Davis against a long-time rival, Joan Crawford. The film is recognized today as a cult classic.

In 1908, Bette Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts.
In 1908, Bette Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Bette Davis appeared occasionally in stage performances, films, and television miniseries. With the release of Kim Carnes' 1981 hit, "Bette Davis Eyes," Davis became famous to a new generation. Davis passed away in 1989, following a long bout with breast cancer. The epitaph on her tombstone reads, "I did it the hard way."

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Bette Davis and why is she significant in film history?

Bette Davis was an iconic American actress known for her intense, fearless performances and her willingness to take on unsympathetic roles. With a career spanning over 60 years, she became one of the most celebrated actresses in Hollywood, earning two Academy Awards out of ten nominations. Her significance lies in her influence on the portrayal of strong, complex female characters during a time when such roles were rare. According to the American Film Institute, she is regarded as the second greatest female star of classic American cinema.

What were some of Bette Davis's most memorable roles?

Bette Davis's most memorable roles include her portrayal of the manipulative and conniving Mildred Rogers in "Of Human Bondage" (1934), the ambitious and ruthless actress Margo Channing in "All About Eve" (1950), and the unbalanced Charlotte Vale in "Now, Voyager" (1942). These performances showcased her range and depth as an actress, earning her critical acclaim and solidifying her legacy in the film industry. "All About Eve" holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a single film, with 14 nominations.

How did Bette Davis impact women's roles in Hollywood?

Bette Davis was a trailblazer for women in Hollywood, often playing strong-willed and complex characters that broke away from the traditional passive roles offered to women at the time. She fought for better parts and was unafraid to play unsympathetic or unglamorous characters, paving the way for more nuanced and realistic portrayals of women on screen. Her impact is seen in the evolution of female characters in cinema and the opportunities available to actresses today.

What awards and recognitions did Bette Davis receive throughout her career?

Throughout her illustrious career, Bette Davis received numerous awards and recognitions. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress twice, for her roles in "Dangerous" (1935) and "Jezebel" (1938), and was nominated ten times, making her one of the most nominated actresses in Oscar history. She also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1977 and was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award.

How did Bette Davis influence future generations of actors and filmmakers?

Bette Davis's influence on future generations of actors and filmmakers is profound. Her dedication to her craft, willingness to tackle complex roles, and her distinctive acting style inspired countless performers to pursue depth and authenticity in their work. Filmmakers have also cited her as an influence in creating strong female characters and narratives. Meryl Streep, for example, has spoken about Davis's impact on her own career, highlighting the enduring legacy of Davis's contributions to cinema.

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Discussion Comments

medicchristy

@purplespark:

In the October, 1997 edition of the UK’s “Empire Magazine”, Bette Davis was ranked number 15 in the “Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time”.

Also, when Bette Davis first came to Hollywood, Universal Pictures asked that she change her name to Bettina Dawes. She informed them that she absolutely refused to spend her life with a name that sounded like “Between the Drawers”.

BoatHugger

@purplespark: Bette Davis was an incredibly talented actress. I could go on for hours about her. One of the quotes that she was famous for is “Old age is no place for sissies”.

She was born to Harlow Morrell Davis and Ruthie Favor Davis. She died on October 6, 1989 at American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France and is buried in Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, Courts of Remembrance in Los Angeles, California.

Here is a fun fact about Bette that I recently learned: There was an ongoing feud between Bette and actress Joan Crawford. Joan was the widow of Pepsi’s CEO so during the making of the movie “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane”, Bette had a Coca-Cola machine put in on the set just to aggravate Joan. For revenge, Joan placed weights in her pockets when Bette’s character had to drag Joan across the floor during some of the scenes.

PurpleSpark

I love to watch old Bette Davis movies. Does anyone have any additional information on her?

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    • Bette Davis won two Best Actress Oscars.
      By: FrameAngel
      Bette Davis won two Best Actress Oscars.
    • Despite being rejected by Hollywood initially, actress Bette Davis went on to become a major star.
      By: Perseomedusa
      Despite being rejected by Hollywood initially, actress Bette Davis went on to become a major star.
    • In 1908, Bette Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts.
      By: pavalena
      In 1908, Bette Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts.