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Who Was Bette Davis?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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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' 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.

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.

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."

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Discussion Comments
By medicchristy — On Mar 08, 2011

@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”.

By BoatHugger — On Mar 06, 2011

@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.

By PurpleSpark — On Mar 03, 2011

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

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