Bette Davis was known for her sardonic roles, often called Hollywood’s queen of mean, but she’s done charming work across genres. Let’s take a look at Bette Davis’ life and work through the following photographs.
Who Was Bette Davis?
Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known as "Betty" (back then there was still a Y there) from early childhood, was born on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts — a place that conjures up white picket fences and large maple trees. And yet, this is where one of Hollywood's most prolific actresses hails from.
Her father was an attorney and her mother stayed home as a housewife. When she was seven years old, Bette's parents decided to go their separate ways, and in the fall of 1921, her mother relocated along with little Bette and her younger sister to New York City.
A Tumultuous Childhood
In her adult life, Bette was known for her unique looks, but there was a time her physical appearance was at stake. As a child, Bette was badly burned in a tragic accident. During this time, it was thought that her face and body would be badly disfigured and was covered in bandages.
Fortunately, Bette made a remarkable recovery. Young Betty, soon changed the spelling of her name to Bette, after Bette Fischer, a character in the French novel, "La Cousine Bette". As a teenager, Bette attended a boarding school in Massachusetts called Cushing Academy. This is where she began acting in school productions and found her passion for performing.
How Her Acting Career Began
Nearly any entertainer has an inspirational figure in the industry that they look up to — one person who made them realize that they simply MUST perform. Davis would later reflect, "I wanted to go into acting because of the actress Peg Entwistle."
Once she settled on becoming an actress she decided she wanted to attend The Fourteenth Street Theatre where Bette was interviewed by the director and founder, Eva Le Gallienne. But Eva was not impressed with Bette and described her behavior as being "insincere" and "frivolous", saying that she felt she wasn't serious enough to be accepted as a student at her acting school.
Her First Acting Assignment
Bette didn't let that unsuccessful interview deter her, she may have come from humble beginnings but she knew what she wanted and went for it. No one could stop her. Soon enough she auditioned for George Cukor's stock theater company.
This is where Davis got her first paid acting assignment and played the part of a chorus girl in the play "Broadway." In 1929, Bette was chosen to play Hedwig in "The Wild Duck" — the character she was inspired by when it was played by Peg Entwistle. Bette went on to perform in various productions in Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston.
At just 21 years old, Davis made her Broadway debut in 1929 in "Broken Dishes" which was soon followed by "Solid South." Bette, along with her mother, moved to Hollywood one year later in 1930. She was invited to do a screen test for Universal Studios and wanted to pursue a career as a film actress.
Bette later recalled how surprised she was that nobody was there to meet her at the studio. Later it would be revealed that a studio employee had actually been waiting for her, but did not notice her as she "didn't look like an actress".
The Most Modest Yankee
In an interview with Dick Cavett on his TV show in 1971, Davis was asked about that first screen test. Luckily, it didn't really upset her. In fact, she would recall the experience humorously, "I was the most modest Yankee who ever walked the earth when I arrived in Hollywood and very new to being an actress."
And how did the screen test go? Well, while it may have been good, Davis didn't enjoy it that much. She said "I had to sit down on this couch and do screen-tests with all these strange men [...] They all had to give me a passionate kiss. I just thought I would die!"
Bette Davis Eyes
For a while, Bette wasn't getting very far in Hollywood. In fact, the head of Universal Studios considered terminating her contract with them. Luckily, a talented cinematographer named Karl Freund saw something in her and convinced the people in charge that she had "lovely eyes."
Honestly, it's such a consensus these days that we are having a hard time believing other people once needed a person to tell them that. It was those same eyes that inspired, among many other things, the Grammy award-winning song "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes which spent no less than nine weeks at number one in 1981.
When Fate Stepped In
Bette Davis went on to play a small role in "Waterloo Bridge," before being sent to Columbia Pictures to appear in "The Menace," and "Hell's House". After one year of trying to make it and get a breakthrough in the industry, it seemed maybe Bette was not cut out for Hollywood after all.
After six unsuccessful films, Bette wanted to leave the whole thing behind her and return back to New York. However, fate stepped in when actor George Arliss chose Bette Davis to play the lead female role in "The Man Who Played God," a film by Warner Bros.
Bubbles With Charm
Bette Davis's performance in "The Man Who Played God" was exceptionally meaningful for her career. It garnered her considerable positive reviews, writing that "She is not only beautiful, but Bette Davis bubbles with charm", the reviewers even compared her to well-known actresses such as Olive Borden and Constance Bennett.
It was this break-out role that convinced Warner Bros. to sign her to a five-year contract. Back then, no one could have guessed that she would end up remaining with the studio for another two decades. Bette would later on commend George Arliss for helping her achieve her "break" in Hollywood.
Davis First Marriage
Davis's first marriage was to her high school sweetheart, Harmon Oscar Nelson. They married on August 18, 1932. Harmon was a musician and their marriage seemed to garner a lot of scrutiny from the press, especially considering the significant disparity between their earnings, Bette earned $1,000 a week while Harmon earned just $100.
Davis tried to manage the negative press in an interview, pointing out that their situation was not unique in Hollywood. But back at home, the situation still proved difficult for the couple, as Harmon would only allow his wife to purchase a house when he could pay for it himself.
By the time Davis was married and living in a house purchased by her husband (and that fragile ego of his), she had appeared in more than 20 films but wasn't yet typecast into her later-famous image.
It was in a film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel "Of Human Bondage" where she portrayed the ruthless, cruel, and self-centered Mildred Rogers, that she earned her critical acclaim and sparked a unique path for her career. Many actresses at the time feared taking on such cruel and unsympathetic characters, with several refusing the part, but Bette Davis welcomed this new opportunity to showcase her talents.
Trusting Her Instincts
Since Bette was not yet a national sensation, some people still doubted her capabilities. She quickly proved her worth to everyone, though. Initially, Leslie Howard, Bette's co-star, was dismissive of her but after seeing her abilities, he realized she was more talented than he believed.
Even as a young actress, director John Cromwell, trusted her instincts and gave her a lot of freedom to take the role to different, interesting places. The film was a success and the critics were all saying that Davis's unapologetic characterization of such a cruel and unsympathetic character made it so intriguing for them to watch.
Bette Davis's performance in "Of Human Bondage", back in 1934 was widely acclaimed. So much so, that when she was not nominated for an Academy Award, several influential people (even Norma Shearer, who was actually nominated) mounted a campaign to have her name included.
The Academy relaxed its rules for that year to allow for the consideration of any performer nominated in a write-in vote; meaning, any performance of the year was technically eligible for consideration. For a period of time in the 1930s, the Academy revealed the second-and third-place vote-getters in each category: Davis placed third for best actress.
Despite her spectacular performance in "Of Human Bondage" and the praising critics, Davis didn't receive any official accolades for her part. It was only her role in "Dangerous" that she won her first Oscar. Bette played a troublesome actress, alongside Franchot Tone.
Davis remarked that the Oscar felt like a consolation prize for her performance in "Of Human Bondage ". It was only decades later that Davis would admit she fell in love with Franchot during filming, but she had to keep it private. Franchot Tone later married actress Joan Crawford, and some would say that's how their feud began.
Films have trained audiences to expect certain conventions when it comes to actresses and their portrayal of female characters, but Bette's role in "Of Human Bondage" proved to be a readily received respite for movie-goers. Apparently, audiences were ready to be challenged and given something a little different than the regular, chewed-up formula of female roles.
The New York Times even commended her on becoming "one of the most interesting actresses on screen." Bette had a flair for playing dramatic characters but despite all the praise, her hopes for more serious roles were dashed as Warner Bros. persistently offered her 'lighthearted' roles.
Upset with the one-note roles that were being offered to her despite her wide range, Davis accepted an offer to make two films in Britain, which meant that she breached her contract with Warner Bros. To avoid being served with legal papers, Bette then fled to Canada until finally, she brought her case to court in Britain, hoping to be released from her contract.
Sadly, the British press proved to be unsympathetic and even depicted her as overpaid and unappreciative. Ultimately, Davis lost her case, and traveled back to Hollywood in debt, having to resume her career. While she may have lost the legal case, there was a turning point in her career and soon enough she would be celebrated as one of the leading ladies on the silver screen.
In 1937, Bette starred alongside the quintessential hunk Humphrey Bogart in "Marked Woman" — a modern gangster melodrama based on the true story of Lucky Luciano. For those of you who don't know, Luciano was a Sicilian mobster who established the organizational structure of the modern-day mafia.
This film proved to be instrumental to her early career and revived her after a very public falling out with executives at Warner Bros. studios. For her inspired and commanding performance in this brash crime drama, Bette was once again recognized as a talented actress and was awarded the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival.
One year after starring in "Marked Woman", Davis would play one of her most renowned roles as a spoiled southern belle in the romantic comedy "Jezebel." She played alongside Henry Fonda, so yeah, that's another hunk to add to her list of co-stars.
The film was hailed a masterpiece that put Bette's best instincts on full display. Her fiery performance as a reckless and strong-willed woman won her "Best Actress" at the Academy Awards — this time without any guerilla campaigns — and marked the start of the most successful decade of her career. It was uphill from there for Davis.
Davis' Personal Relationships
In contrast to Davis' ongoing success, her husband's dream of starting a career in the music industry never came to fruition, causing tension in their marriage. Yup, here is that ego again. In 1938, her husband somehow obtained evidence that Davis was having a relationship with Howard Hughes, and in the wake of that he filed for divorce, noting that Davis had a "cruel and inhuman manner".
While all this was happening Davis "Jezebel" was in production, which is when she began a relationship with her director, William Wyler. She would later recall that he was "the great love of her life."
All This, and Heaven Too
By this time, Davis was becoming the most lucrative star Warner Bros. had to offer and she was given the most important of their female leading roles. While she continued playing character roles, her public image was considered with more care, and she was more often featured in close-ups where her distinctive blue eyes could be better emphasized.
In 1940, she filmed the most financially successful film of her career called "All This, and Heaven Too." The film was a tear-jerking over sentimentalized movie, intended to showcase Bette's caliber of benevolent characters instead of her trademarked roles as malevolent shrews.
1940 came along and Bette starred in "The Letter" — a noir melodrama that was loosely based on the real-life scandal of Ethel Proudlock. To save you the googling — Proudluck was sentenced to death (and later pardoned) for the murder of a man who tried to force himself on her.
Bette's commanding performance gave her one of her greatest film opening scenes and at the time of its release in 1940, she was in the prime of her career. Davis gave a vivid performance in the kind of role that she seemed born to play, and it was regarded as one of her least sympathetic roles, which is really saying something.
Davis' Second Marriage
Despite the starry cast in "The Letter", the film's promotion and subsequent reviews pretty much revolved around Bette Davis. Thanks to her work, the movie was regarded as "one of the best pictures of the year." During this time, Davis started a relationship with her co-star George Brent, which was pretty common in Hollywood at the time.
Brent even proposed marriage at some point but Davis refused. Apparently, she was already in love with someone else — an innkeeper from New England named Arthur Farnsworth. After dating Farnsworth for a few months, the happy couple got married in Rimrock, Arizona.
The Star of the Thirties and Forties
Despite the achievements of many of her peers in Hollywood, Bette was "the star of the thirties and forties", gaining notoriety for the range of her character roles as well as her ability to assert herself on set. Her skills were unmatched and she knew how to claim her own worth. Sounds like the woman should have taught lessons!
Her performance in "The Letter" continues to receive praise up until today, describing her role in the movie as a "subtle, but vivid performance." Though fully within her repertoire, Bette Davis somehow managed to make all her character arcs absolutely gripping.
Brash or Bold?
In January 1941, Davis was appointed as the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This was an incredible honor, but it wouldn't last long, as committee members would go on to say that she was antagonistic, and brash and put forth radical proposals.
We don't know about you, but to us, it sounds like the people at the Academy couldn't handle a woman having power and actually making use of it. She had to face a lot of resistance from the committee and before the year was up, she gave in and voluntarily resigned.
A Welcome Change
After leaving her position as the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Davis knew by now that she should dedicate her time solely to acting. She starred in three movies in 1941, the first being "The Great Lie," with George Brent.
It was a welcome change for Davis from her usual characters, which were not typical for women at the time and featured a certain edge. Instead, this time, she portrayed a kind and compassionate woman. Davis also starred in "The Little Foxes" which was directed by William Wyler, but the two clashed over her character.
Davis' showstopping performance in "The Little Foxes" proved her depth as an actress. Her character, Regina Hubbard Giddens, was a manipulative, kittenish figure who turned into a haughty and disdainful but secretly haunted older woman. Bette's portrayal is a tragic mask of fear and dismay.
Davis wanted to make the role her own but Wyler insisted she emulate the interpretation of the actress who played the character on Broadway. Obviously, the demand infuriated Davis, who clashed with the director until she got her way. Davis was nominated for another Academy Award for her performance and with that, she decided to never work with Wyler again.
A Perfectionist in Her Craft
Davis became known for her intense acting style, gaining her a reputation as a perfectionist who would often be at odds with film directors and studio executives. Her confrontational reputation preceded her and she expected the same dedication from her co-stars.
Though she might have been a pain to work with, she made everyone around her give their best. And honestly, if a man in her position was to behave in such a way, he would have been celebrated for his determination. Her straightforward manner, distinctive speech, and the ever-present cigarette in her hand contributed to her celebrity status which has been often imitated.
Following the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Davis wanted to contribute to the war effort and started selling war bonds. Putting her celebrity status into good use, Bette Davis managed to sell close to $2 million worth of bonds in just two days, along with a poster of herself for $250,000. Wow! That must be the most successful crowdfunding campaign we have ever heard of.
Bette Davis, Cary Grant, and Jule Styne opened a servicemen's club called the Hollywood Canteen, where Hollywood's most influential stars volunteered to entertain visiting soldiers and servicemen. Now, THAT'S what star power is for!
The Hollywood Canteen
With the people who established it, the Hollywood Canteen became a famous staple. Unsurprisingly, people wanted to know more about it and the stars that started it all. For her work with the Hollywood Canteen, Davis would go on to appear as herself in a film based on the true events surrounding the club.
Bette would recall "There are only a handful of accomplishments that I am genuinely proud of and Hollywood Canteen is one of them." The U.S. Department of Defense awarded Davis with the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal in 1980 for her work with the Hollywood Canteen, which is the highest civilian award.
In an unfortunate accident, Davis's second husband, Arthur Farnsworth would surprisingly collapse while walking along a street in Hollywood. Arthur Farnsworth was rushed to the hospital where he passed away just two days later. An autopsy revealed that he lost his balance and fell due to a fracture in his skull which he mysteriously sustained two weeks earlier.
Davis had to testify upon inquiry and asserted that she had no idea what might have caused that previous injury. She became highly distraught and even tried to resign from her next film "Mr. Skeffington." Her co-stars, however, convinced her to continue.
Davis had already earned a reputation for her demanding manner while on set, but throughout the filming of "Mr. Skeffington," she became erratic and proved to be even more difficult than usual. She simply refused to film certain scenes and insisted that some sets be torn down, only to be built back up again.
She would improvise her lines, causing her co-stars to feel confused and frustrated. Davis subsequently explained her actions with the observation "I was unhappy, and instead of whining, I lashed out." Hmmm... we wonder if any of the people who convinced her to take on the role despite her mourning have learned their lesson. Let the woman grieve!
Who Let Her Dog Out?
Besides all the usual drama that happened during the production set of her films, there was also one bizarre incident that happened while shooting 1942's film, "The Man Who Came to Dinner": Bette Davis' dog bit her nose — hard — leaving a noticeable wound. Davis had to retreat to her home for several weeks, in order to heal and be presentable for the camera.
And even when she got back, during the first two days, there was still some bruising left, so during those two days the shot with her back to the camera. Her surprisingly immature co-stars had to do multiple takes for each scene because they couldn't stop laughing.
Davis Got Married Again
With her fame and her good looks, Davis was not going to stay single for long. Two years after the tragic death of her second husband, Bette would once again tie the knot. This time she married Grant Sherry, she said she felt drawn to him because he never knew how famous she was and never felt intimidated by her.
In that same year, she refused a title role in the film "Mildred Pearce." This role ended up going to Joan Crawford, who won an Academy Award for it. Bette instead decided on "The Corn Is Green", based on a play by the same name.
In "The Corn Is Green" (1945) Davis played an English teacher named Miss Moffat who goes on to inspire and thereby save a promising young Welsh boy from a dreadful life as a coal miner. Originally, the play featured an old Miss Moffat, but the studio executives felt she should be younger.
Sure, trust Hollywood execs to find an excuse to incorporate an attractive young woman even when the narrative doesn't call for it. Stubborn as ever, Davis insisted she played the part as intended. She would create a frumpy appearance by padding her clothes and wearing a gray wig. The film was well-received and earned $2.2 million in profits!
The Highest-Paid Actress
By this time, Davis had her own production company, called BD Productions, but she only ever made one film with them — "A Stolen Life," wherein she played dual roles as twins. The movie was poorly received, with critics calling it "an empty shell of a film."
However, despite all the negative press, moviegoers had a different opinion and the film still managed to make a wonderful profit of $2.5 million and was consequently considered one of her biggest box-office successes. With so much success attached to her work, Bette Davis was named the highest-paid woman in the country by the U.S. Treasury.
Bette Davis as a Mother
Bette always sparkled when playing overly self-absorbed and cruel characters and the role in "Possessed" had been tailor-made for her. However, she was pregnant at the time and went on maternity leave so the role was recast with Joan Crawford. It was at the age of 39 that Davis gave birth to her daughter, Barbara Davis Sherry.
Davis would go on to write in her memoir that she relished being a mother and even considered ending her acting career. But she couldn't stay away for too long and continued making films. Nevertheless, as her relationship with her daughter began to deteriorate, her public image likewise, steadily declined.
Bette Returns to Acting
Just one year after giving birth, Davis was cast in "Winter Meeting," a melodrama that she was thrilled about but any initial excitement she had soon withered as she found "softer" lighting would be used to disguise her age. Apparently, back then, being a woman in her forties on the screen was something to be ashamed of.
She was unimpressed with the changes to the script, saying that many of the scenes that originally appealed to her had been cut. Ultimately, the critics called it a "miserable dilemma" and it flailed at the box office with the movie losing nearly $1 million.
Davis followed up with another film, this time it was "June Bride," and while it marked her first comedy in several years, she received favorable reviews. But what would a Bette Davis movie be without some off-screen drama? Bette reportedly clashed with her co-star Robert Montgomery. She was, after all, famously sharp-tongued and difficult to work with.
Her main problem with Mongomery was his not being able to not steal the scene. But despite all that, Bette still managed to acquire a four-film contract with Warner Bros. that paid $10,300 per week, making her the highest-paid woman in North America.
Released From Her Contract
It was not simple for an actress as demanding as Better Davis to get a contract with her reputation as strong-headed and stubborn. Her new contract had new terms and conditions set up by Warner Bros. studio executives. This time, they refused Bette's approval for any script she was offered and as a result, she was often cast in roles she despised.
One such example was "Beyond the Forest." Bette begged to be released from the role but her wishes were rebuffed. Once filming was done, she requested to be released from her contract and this time, her request was honored.
The reviews for "Beyond the Forest" were scathing, with many critics remarking what "an unfortunate finale it was to her spectacular career." But Bette knew it wasn't the end of her career and wouldn't let this ruin her prospects so she set out to begin her career as a freelancing actress.
Davis went on to star in "All About Eve", playing a renowned but aging Broadway star. When she first read the screenplay, she was mesmerized, describing the script as the best she had ever read. During production, she befriended her co-star Anne Baxter and the two would remain lifelong friends.
All About Bette
The now-iconic "All About Eve" became a sensation, with memorable lines from the script still spoken today, like "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night". Many remarked how the film was undoubtedly the best picture of the year, even better than "Sunset Boulevard."
The superbly witty script about female friendship and enmity had always been a defining theme of Davis’s career, but it was never so comically showcased as it was in "All About Eve." Bette, with her talent for sharp dialogue, had been waiting for this role to come along for a long, long time.
Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar and won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival Awards. "All About Eve" director Joseph Mankiewicz would later remark on how Bette was letter perfect, saying how prepared she was for her scenes and a "director's dream."
Huh, would you look at that — when you give the woman a role she is passionate about and happy with, she magically becomes easy to work with. Who knew? The critics couldn't get enough of Bette's performance in "All About Eve", describing it as her "all-time best" and commending her honest portrayal of a vain actress with a touch of vulnerability.
Bette's Fourth Marriage
While filming Davis also met Gary Merrill and the two soon fell in love and had a whirlwind affair. Gary was still married to his first wife, and Davis was still married to Grant Sherry but the two soon got divorced, just so they could be together.
The two were smitten with each other and got married approximately three weeks after Davis and Sherry's divorce was finalized. Gary would be Bette's fourth and final husband. Merrill adopted Davis's daughter with Sherry and the next year, Davis and Merrill adopted a newborn baby girl they named Margot, after Bette's character in "All About Eve."
Before settling into semi-retirement, the couple adopted another child, this time a baby boy named Michael, to join his two older sisters. They moved to live on an estate on the coast of Maine in 1952 and after a few years, Bette returned again to acting. This time she played Queen Elizabeth I in "The Virgin Queen."
At this point in time, Davis became severely ill and had to undergo an operation for osteomyelitis. Soon after, their adopted daughter, Margot, was diagnosed as severely brain-damaged. Doctors discovered that she sustained a brain injury shortly after birth, so she was placed in an institution.
The 1950s proved to be a disastrous decade for Davis in terms of career. Hardly any of her films were well-received, with critics describing her performances as "nightclub impersonations" with one critic writing a harsh review that said; "she seems to have lapsed into egoism."
It's funny how they so easily use that word with her while ignoring the huge egos of a huge portion of her costars and colleagues. As her career began to deteriorate, so did her marriage to Gary Merrill, and after 10 years of marriage, their relationship seemed like it was on the verge of ending.
In 1959, Bette starred in Robert Hamer's mystery-thriller film, "The Scapegoat." It was a minor role for Bette, as she played a cantankerous countess alongside Alec Guinness in a double role as her son and his doppelganger. The film was terribly received.
Even though Davis's role was a small one, many critics still didn't hesitate to judge and said the performances were "outrageously overdone." Bette was not proud of this movie and she struggled to play a bedridden mother, but somehow, at 51 years old, Bette knew her best days weren't behind her, despite being an aging actress in Hollywood.
It seemed that Bette's career was taking a steady decline. With fewer roles offered for aging actresses, Bette's frustrations began to spill over into her marriage. The couple would argue more frequently, as mentioned by their daughter, B.D., in her memoir. She would also recall episodes of the arguments escalating from verbal to physical.
The relationship never recovered and after 10 years of marriage, Bette filed for divorce in 1960. The very next year, Davis was hit with another tragedy when her mother passed away. Bette was devastated by the news and it took her a few years to get back to acting.
Bette was 52 years old at this point and considered too old to be a leading lady — in the film industry, at least. But she would not let that deter her and performed in the Broadway production " The Night of the Iguana" to lackluster reviews and left the production early due to her medical condition.
That same year she joined a starry ensemble for the film "Pocketful of Miracles" with costars like Glenn Ford and Hope Lange. Unfortunately, despite the appearance of such amazing actors, the film didn't live up to its potential and flopped at the box office.
"What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
Despite it being the early '60s, a time when many actresses of Bette's age were discarded, Bette Davis found a way to stay relevant. This time she would star alongside her longtime rival, Joan Crawford in the melodramatic-horror film titled "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Knowing that Davis and Crawford didn't get along, people must have been on the edge of their seats waiting for behind-the-scenes gossip.
The bad blood between the leading ladies somehow didn't affect the making of the film. Even with their ongoing feud, the director commented on their complete professionalism during filming and their combined talent made this film a resounding success.
Bette's Role Did Wonders
The film did well to mirror, not only Bette's own persona but also Hollywood's infatuation with youthful actresses. Davis and Crawford played two aging sisters, former actresses who have been shunned by Hollywood for their age and forced by circumstance to live in a decrepit Hollywood mansion.
It's almost autobiographical apart from the two main characters being sisters. Though, to be honest, they could pass as sisters — they have the same nose, eyebrows, and eye color! Of course, she played an exaggerated role as a paranoid sister. But it’s exactly this compelling and bizarre spectacle that did wonders for her career.
Despite their disdain for each other, Joan and Bette did speak highly of each other's work and recognized each other's talents. It's impressive — commendable, really — that they were able to appreciate each other's craft even while disliking each other personally.
Joan would say that Bette was a "fascinating actress" but that they could never be friends. Bette would acknowledge that Joan was a decent and professional actress but found her to be vain and superficial. Little did they know that one day, their feud would be turned into a limited series by Ryan Murphy that's been aptly titled "Feud."
Barbara's Early Marriage
Davis' daughter, Barbara also starred in a small role in the film "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" While she was only 16 at the time, Barbara was very eager on an older man named Jeremy Hyman, who worked as an executive for the production company.
Despite their age difference, Barbara and Jeremy dated for a few months, and with her mother's permission, Barbara married Jeremy Hyman, who was 14 years her senior. Yes, even in the 60s, it was unusual for girls to get married that young, but the couple had two kids and stayed together until Hyman's death in 2017.
Ever the jester, Bette decided to place an ad in "Variety" magazine with a heading titled "Situation wanted, women – artists." The ad read: "Mother of three, divorcee. American. Thirty years of experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still, and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood."
It was 1962 and everyone knew it must have been Bette that placed the ad, which she said was intended as a joke. Fortunately, it worked, and Bette's career made a steady comeback over the years. If only getting an acting job today was as simple as posting an ad in the newspaper!
Back on Screen
Two years after placing her peculiar ad in the magazine, Bette went on to star in a dual role, as evil twin sisters in "Dead Ringer." Incredibly, this was her second time playing a dual role, the first one being in the movie "A Stolen Life." The role proved to be perfect for Bette and it was a welcome respite to see her perform on-screen again.
It is her attitude toward her profession, and her ability to perform complex, dramatic roles that may once again put Bette on the map. That same year, Bette would appear in the romantic drama, "Where Love Has Gone", however, filming was hampered by heated arguments between Davis and Hayward.
Following Up on Baby Jane
After the great success of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane," it would have been incredibly silly to not create a sequel to it. Davis would reprise her role in the follow-up film titled "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte." Crawford, unfortunately, couldn't return to that second installment due to illness and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland.
Once again, Bette's near-crazed performance in this gothic horror proved how talented she really is. Bette appeared in three more British films by the end of the decade. Sadly, none of them were reviewed well, and her career on the screen was stalled once more.
Closed and Cancelled
When Bette seemed to catch a break, there was always some kind of mishap. Davis was set to play the lead role in two films, which were intended as pilots for upcoming series, but both programs were canceled even before they began.
She then went on to perform in the stage adaptation of the film "The Corn Is Green," titled "Miss Moffat", after the role that she was so highly praised for back in 1945. It would have been more than twenty years since she starred in the original but as luck would have it, she sustained an injury and had to abandon the show.
Ever the Diva
In 1972 Bette Davis played alongside Italian actors in "Lo Scopone scientific" as a supporting actress. Incredibly, from the time Davis got the offer to the time she was working on the set, there were only 24 hours. It took another four years until Bette would work again and starred in "Burnt Offerings" and "The Disappearance of Aimee."
But this time, Bette often complained about the lack of professionalism on set. She clashed with her costars and crew, often complaining that she was not receiving the appropriate amount of respect. She demanded a lot from the people around her and she was not easy to get along with.
Lifetime Achievement Award
Bette was 69 years old when she became the first woman to ever receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. Many performers paid tribute to her illustrious career, with Olivia de Havilland remarking that Davis seemed to always "get the roles I wanted".
Following her impressive award, Bette found herself in demand once again, with several offers to choose between. This time, she accepted roles in the TV miniseries "The Dark Secret of Harvest Home" and the Agatha Christie murder mystery film "Death on the Nile." It was grueling work, but Hollywood started thinking there could be stories featuring women of a certain age after all.
Towards the end of her career, Bette mostly starred as a supporting actress, with roles in Disney films such as "Return from the Witch Mountain" (playing a delightful villain) and "Watcher in the Woods" (playing a grieving, slightly obsessive mother.)
She even won an Emmy award for her performance in "Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter." She continued acting for television up until the age of 75, even appearing alongside her grandson J. Ashley Hyman, Barbara's son in the movie "Family Reunion." There were also 1982's "A Piano for Mrs. Cimino" and 1983's "Right of Way" alongside James Stewart.
The Famous Song
Davis may have been well-known as a silver-screen actress but younger audiences who were not around to see her in her prime recognize her name from the hit song by Kim Carnes, called "Bette Davis Eyes". (Oh, and if you're saying you were not humming the song all through reading this article, you're probably lying.)
Bette Davis was 79 years old when the song became a worldwide sensation in 1981 and topped the charts where it stayed for nine weeks. Davis wrote letters to Kim Carnes and the writers, thanking them for including her in modern times while mentioning how the song made her grandson look up to her.
After filming the first episode of the TV series "Hotel" in 1983, Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately went in for a mastectomy. However, there was no time to be happy about dodging that bullet as another bullet came right after it. Or four bullets, to be exact.
Within two weeks of her surgery, Bette sustained four strokes in quick succession which caused paralysis in the left side of her body, leaving her with slurred speech. She began a lengthy period of physical therapy and aided by her personal assistant Kathryn Sermak gained partial recovery from the paralysis.
My Mother's Keeper
Bette later admitted that while she had an amazing career as an actress, her work had often been at the expense of her personal relationships. Hey, maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be hard for anyone and Hollywood superstars are no different. The demanding schedule and the constant outside attention eventually take their toll on most people in one way or another.
She had been married four times and despite that, for the most part, she raised her children as a single parent. Following her stroke, her health stabilized but her relationship with her biological daughter deteriorated. Bette traveled to England to film "Murder with Mirrors."
Betrayed by Her Own Daughter
When she returned to the US from filming in England, Bette was in for an unpleasant surprise. She discovered that in her absence, her daughter B.D. Hyman had published a book named "My Mother's Keeper," chronicling a difficult mother-daughter relationship in which she depicted scenes of her mother's overbearing and drunken behavior.
Bette's persona on and off screen may have been tough but nevertheless, learning about her daughter's published memoir was heartbreaking for Bette, and she never really recovered from the shock. B.D. Hyman was, after all, Bette's only biological child, and here she was, airing all that dirty laundry in public.
In Her Defense
Many of Davis's friends remarked that B.D. Hyman's depictions in her book were exaggerated and many instances were taken out of context. Years earlier, Hyman had been interviewed by Mike Wallace about her childhood in which she praises her mother for being caring and devoted.
Combined with her earlier desires to quit acting to focus on being a mother, it painted a completely different picture of the actress's parenting skills. This interview would then be re-broadcast, proving that Hyman's book might not have been as accurate as she would have people believe, or at least, losing any credibility she may have had.
Motivated by Greed
Family friends noted that Bette had been financially supporting her daughter's family for a few years already. This must have made Bette feel even more betrayed Even after a bitter divorce, Gary Merill also defended Davis and said that B.D. Hyman was motivated by greed.
It could very well be that B.D. simply wanted to boost the sales of her book so she went to great lengths to make the narrative a lot more sensationalized than reality. Michael Merrill, Davis's adopted son ended contact with B.D., refusing to speak to her after her vicious memoir, as did Davis, who disinherited her.
"This 'n That"
D.B.'s book was not going to go unanswered by Bette. Not only in terms of legal actions but also in terms of getting even and writing about it in a book of her own. Bette addresses the hurtful discovery in her second memoir titled "This 'n That."
Davis wrote: "I am still recovering from the fact that a child of mine would write that about me behind my back. I will never recover as completely from B.D.'s book as I have from the stroke. Both were devastating experiences." In the last chapter of her book, she wrote a letter to her daughter and expressed how her actions show "a glaring lack of loyalty and appreciation for the very privileged life she had been given".
Bette's Last performance
One of the last films that Davis appeared in was "As Summers Die " and "The Whales of August". While she was in poor health at the time, Davis still managed to memorize her own lines as well as everyone else's, as she always had.
Soon after, Davis was honored for her contribution to film at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1987. Her last performance was the title role in"Wicked Stepmother". While her health was failing, she still had enough zest to disagree with the director, and after a few rows, she walked off the set and abandoned the movie.
Discussing Her Career
After leaving the set of "Wicked Stepmother", Bette hadn't received any more acting offers, not that she needed them at that point in her life. She made several appearances as a guest on talk shows. From Johnny Carson to Joan Rivers, Bette went on to discuss her career but she made it very clear that she didn't want to discuss her daughter.
Bette Davis was a popular guest, with many show hosts wanting to discuss her "feisty" personality, both on-screen and off and Bette was only too happy to discuss her persona. She was proud of her work, after all.
Honored for Her Work
Bette was reaching 80 years old at this point and was honored for her achievements all across the globe, as she has also participated in overseas productions, mainly in Europe. She received the Campione d'Italia from Italy and the Legion of Honor from France. She also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Film Society of the Lincoln Center.
Despite her failing health, Bette was insistent that she could still work and determined to remain present in the public eye. Bette traveled to the San Sebastian film festival in Spain to make what would eventually become her last public appearance.
During Bette's trip to Spain, her health rapidly deteriorated. She was too weak to make the long journey back home to America, so instead, she traveled to France, where she passed away on October 6, 1989. Bette was 81 years old at the time of her passing.
She was entombed in Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills Cemetery, alongside her mother Ruthie, and sister. On her tombstone, it reads: "She did it the hard way", an epitaph that she mentioned in her memoir "Mother Goddam" as having been suggested to her by Joseph L. Mankiewicz shortly after they had filmed "All About Eve."
Bette Davis' Legacy
Jack Warner would say that Bette was able to "magically transform from a bland and not so beautiful girl, to an amazing artist." Bette Davis always knew she was not as beautiful as the next Hollywood star but that was her power. She remarked that, unlike many of her peers, she had forged a career without the advantage of exceptional beauty.
She would later admit that she was terrified when she first started working on films, which eventually made her one tough gal. "I've been know for being demanding but it was all for the good of the film," she said.
While filming "All About Eve", the movie's director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz relayed to Bette how she was perceived as a difficult actress in Hollywood, but to remember Bette Davis is to remember she was Hollywood’s queen of mean. She knew she could be demanding, but that was her power, her eventual image, and it got her to the places she needed to go and earned her greatness.
It was an inseparable part of her personality. Through her roles, she brought a darker, more shrewish, and unsympathetic character, one which hadn't been represented in Hollywood much at that time and for that she became world-renowned.
Larger Than Life
As we now know, not all of Bette's films were lauded as cinematic masterpieces. During her long career she had also been in a string of mediocre movies, and her "over the top" performances became the subject of caricature. In a career as long and as illustrious as hers, there are bound to be some flops. It's only natural.
But it was precisely her melodramatic style of acting that attracted a die-hard following from gay subculture audiences. Those fans immortalized her in different ways and she was often imitated by female impersonators, such as Craig Russel, Jim Bailey, and Tracey Lee.
Davis was best when playing difficult characters. Not the delicate, soft, or sexualized typecast of female characters people were so used to. She went for the unexpected, the harsh, the edgy, and the gritty characters. And she did so with great aplomb, as noted by "Time" magazine, Bette was "compulsively watchable, you simply couldn't look away!"
But Davis knew she was good at playing unconventional characters, this was when she was at her most assured and instinctive. But that's exactly what made her unique in an era when actresses usually preferred to play likable characters, and she shined in them.
100 Greatest Performances
Even after her passing, Bette's performances are still considered spectacular and lauded by critics all throughout the world. Her memorable portrayal of Margo Channing in "All About Eve" has been ranked fifth on "Premiere" magazine's list of 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.
The magazine went on to mention just how unforgettable her performance was and that she was "deliciously audacious to eagerly play such unattractive emotions as jealousy, bitterness, and neediness." And to think that she did all of this while acting alongside a colleague that she hated! Hats off to her. Hats off to both of them, really.
Most Significant of Her Era
Just a few months before Bette's passing in 1989, "Life" magazine featured Bette on their cover, along with several other actors (though we only care about her for now, obviously.) This issue was a cinematic retrospective that commemorated stars from 50 years earlier, in 1939.
The magazine concluded that Bette was the most significant actress of her era, and highlighted her performance as an outrageously glamorous, but naive socialite in "Dark Victory" as one of the most memorable of the year. It is heartwarming to think that Davis was able to see just how much she was appreciated for her craft before she passed away.
Golden Age of Hollywood
Davis' dedication to her work saw her working right up to the end of her life and she left an extraordinary acting legacy. Her death made front-page news all across the world, with many commenting on the "another chapter closed from the Golden Age of Hollywood."
Bette proved to be a true master of her craft as an actor and her hefty body of work can provide an excellent example for future generations of aspiring performers. Her memorial service was attended by numerous industry greats. Among them was actress Angela Lansbury, who spoke beautifully on behalf of the Hollywood community.
An Inspiring Career
Bette Davis was always known for playing difficult and unlikable characters. Still, she was also an unapologetic woman who refused to compromise on what she believed. If she believed a role had to be played a certain way, she could rain hell on those who begged to differ.
Her final book was subtitled "The Lonely Life." So how did she make it through all those years? Her answer was simple: "I survived because I was tougher than anybody else." Bette set several Oscar milestones throughout her career. She became the first person ever to earn five consecutive Academy Award nominations for her acting, all in the Best Actress category.
Her Biggest Fan
As we all now know, Bette Davis had many fans and to this day, people still revere her for her incredible line of work. After her passing, her possessions obviously increased in value, and many people were willing to pay good money to own an item that was previously hers. One of those items, two of them, actually were her Oscar statuettes, which were sold to a surprising new owner.
Her Oscars for "Dangerous" and "Jezebel" went on auction and were sold to the world-famous director, Steven Spielberg. Steven Spielberg purchased her awards for $207,500 and $578,000, however, he did eventually return them to the Academy.
Most Academy Award Nominations
Bette became the first person to secure 10 Academy Award nominations for acting in 1962. Although one could argue her 10th nomination was in 1952, and her 11th in 1962, as her write-in nomination for "Of Human Bondage" remains a source of contention — she came in 3rd in the voting, ahead of official nominee Grace Moore.
Since then there have only been three other people who managed to surpass this amount. Meryl Streep garnered 21 nominations, Katharine Hepburn had 12, and Jack Nicholson tied with Hepburn and also had 12 nominations. One thing is for sure — Davis set the precedent and paved their way there.