Actress. Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis, on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts, the elder of the two daughters of Harlow Morrell Davis, a patent lawyer, and Ruthie Favor. Her parents divorced when Davis was seven. She and her sister were raised, often in trying circumstances, in New England by their devoted mother, who became a portrait photographer. Davis attended several boarding schools and, in her teens, began calling herself Bette after Honoré de Balzac's nineteenth-century novel Cousin Bette. She acted in school plays and in semiprofessional stock productions and, in the summer of 1925, studied interpretive dance at New Hampshire's Mariarden artists' colony. After graduating from Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, in 1927, she studied acting in New York City at the John Murray AndersonRobert Milton School, where her dance teacher was Martha Graham.
Davis got a small role in a Rochester stock company production of Broadway (1928), acted and ushered on Cape Cod, and then rejoined the Rochester company. She made her New York City debut off Broadway at the Provincetown Playhouse in The Earth Between (1929), after which she toured with Blanche Yurka's repertory company, appearing in two plays by Henrik Ibsen, The Wild Duck and The Lady from the Sea. Davis then acted on Broadway in Broken Dishes (1929) and Solid South (1930). Failing her first screen test for Samuel Goldwyn that year, she passed her second for Universal Pictures and signed her first Hollywood contract.
Davis eventually made eighty-seven movies. Her first was as the good sister in Bad Sister (1931), and, with her natural ash-blond hair considerably lightened, she was soon churning out four to six mostly disposable films a year. On August 18, 1932 Davis married her high school boyfriend Harmon ("Ham") Oscar Nelson, Jr., a musician. They had no children. Her career was boosted when she played opposite George Arliss in The Man Who Played God (1932). That year she signed a long-term contract with Warner Brothers, with whom she made many of her most memorable films. In a series of nasty battles with the studio head Jack Warner over her roles, scripts, salary, directors, and contractual restrictions, she complained that stars at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) were given the royal treatment, while Warner Brothers' stars were treated like factory workers. Nevertheless, she was so successful for the studio that she was labeled "the fourth Warner brother."
By the end of the 1930s Davis was known as "First Lady of the American Screen" and was the industry's top-ranked female draw. Among her most important performances in that decade were So Big (1932), with Barbara Stanwyck; The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), in which she captured the bitchiness of a teenage slattern so well that roles with similar qualities became identified with her; Ex-Lady (1933), an inferior work in which she first had star billing; and Fog over Frisco (1934), junk kept afloat by Davis's excellence. In 1934 she won a fight with Warner Brothers for permission to film Of Human Bondage on loan-out to RKO, and her role as the ruthless cockney waitress Mildred, opposite Leslie Howard, established her, after twenty-two tries, as a major actress. In Bordertown (1935) she had a powerful mad scene. Playing an actress on the skids in Dangerous (1935), she won her first Academy Award, which she and others claimed she had deserved for Of Human Bondage. Upon accepting the award, she quipped that its backside resembled her spouse's, which led to its nickname, "Oscar." The Petrified Forest (1936) revealed her strength in a subdued dramatic role. Davis's biggest conflict with Warner Brothers was a dispute over a role in 1936 that led to her suspension and stopped her salary of $5,000 a week. She was offered $50,000 to make two films in Europe for the British filmmaker Ludovic Toeplitz, but Warner Brothers issued an injunction while she was in London. Davis took the studio to court, but her contract was upheld. She was also liable for all court costs, but in 1938 the studio agreed to cover a generous portion of them. This did not, however, end the star's frequent hostility toward management, which often prompted her to walk off sets claiming illness or exhaustion, sometimes feigned, sometimes real.
She appeared in Marked Woman (1937); and in Kid Galahad (1937) as Edward G. Robinson's moll. For Jezebel (1938), as a headstrong southern belle under William Wyler's brilliant direction, she snared her second Oscar. That year Davis and Nelson divorced. Davis's other films of the 1930s include The Sisters (1938); Dark Victory (1939), a favorite in which she played a dying society lass and for which she won an Academy Award nomination; The Old Maid (1939), costarring with her contemporary rival, Miriam Hopkins; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), her first Technicolor movie; and All This and Heaven Too (1940). The Letter (1940) was another Wyler coup, of which the critic Pauline Kael later wrote that Davis, who had earned her fourth Oscar nomination, gave "what is very likely the best study of female sexual hypocrisy in film history." Most of Davis's other films of the period were less than mediocre. Among her costars were Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Errol Flynn, George Brent, and Charles Boyer, yet she always resented that the studio system prevented her from acting with Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. On December 31, 1940 Davis married Arthur Austin Farnsworth, a hotel manager and an alcoholic, who died mysteriously in 1943. They had no children.
During the 1940s, despite some of her strongest efforts, Davis grew less busy. In 1948 she earned $385,000 and was filmdom's best-paid star. One of her greatest roles was in Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941), made when she was on loan to MGM. In that movie, as the grasping Regina, she earned her fifth Oscar nomination despite a quarrel with Wyler, who refused to let her copy Tallulah Bankhead's stage interpretation. Other notable films include The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941), one of her few comedies; Now, Voyager (1942), a grand tearjerker in which she and costar Paul Henreid popularized the romantic practice of a man lighting two cigarettes and passing one to his lover (she was again nominated for an Oscar); Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), in which she sang and danced; Watch on the Rhine (1943); Old Acquaintance (1943); Mr. Skeffington (1944), which costarred Claude Rains and gained Davis a seventh Oscar nomination; Hollywood Canteen (1944), a picture glorifying the eponymous United Service Organizations (USO) center she helped to found; and The Corn Is Green (1945). On 30 November 1945 she wed William Grant Sherry, an artist. They had one daughter. A Stolen Life (1946), her only film produced under the aegis of her own company, B.D., Inc., allowed her to play dual roles. In the same year she appeared in Deception with Rains and Henreid. Beyond the Forest (1949) was her last Warner Brothers film, notable mainly because of her often-quoted line "What a dump!" She divorced Sherry, a physically abusive alcoholic, in 1950. Her final film of the decade was the outstanding All About Eve (1950), in which she replaced Claudette Colbert, who was ailing, in the role of the aging Broadway star Margo Channing (a character portrayal based on the actress Elisabeth Bergner) and landed her eighth Oscar nomination for what many consider her finest role. This was the first of several films she made with her fourth spouse, Gary Merrill, whom she married that year. She and Merrill adopted two children, one of whom was retarded and eventually institutionalized.
During the 1950s, Davis made nine movies, two of which she filmed abroad. Her best work was seen in The Star (1952), for which, in a role based on her rival Joan Crawford, Davis received Oscar nomination number nine. In The Virgin Queen (1955) she portrayed Elizabeth I for the second time. The Catered Affair (1956), with the role of Aggie, was her favorite, despite critical disapproval. Some critics reprimanded her for selecting scripts designed more to showcase her performances than to create quality films. She returned to the stage in 1952 with Two's Company (1952), a revue, and The World of Carl Sandburg (1959), a program of readings in which she performed with Merrill and other actors. She and Merrill, an alcoholic who was also physically abusive, divorced in 1960.
Davis appeared on Broadway in the supporting role of Maxine in Tennessee Williams's play The Night of the Iguana (1961), but she was unhappy and departed after four months. She made eight movies in the 1960s, of which Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and The Nanny (1965) were second-rate offerings. However, she had good material in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962); Dead Ringer (1964), in which she played twins; and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). In Baby Jane, one of several macabre horror flicks she starred in, Davis played an unbalanced former child star opposite Joan Crawford as her sister, and their rivalry afforded journalists a field day. It also inspired Davis's tenth Academy Award nomination and became an international smash. Despite having signed on to the film for a small fee of $25,000, Davis earned more than $1 million from Baby Jane because she owned a percentage of the take. In early 1962, before the movie was released, Davis, unaware of the movie's potential, took out a controversial, self-mocking advertisement in Variety, noting that she was "mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood." Davis's work in Sweet Charlotte, which costarred Olivia De Havilland and was of the same genre as Baby Jane, was considered her best of the decade.
Davis had been acting on major television programs, such as General Electric Theatre and Perry Mason, since the 1950s, but in the 1970s, she also began to make television movies on a regular basis, commencing with Madame Sin (1971). During the 1970s and 1980s, she made stage appearances in Bette Davis in Person (1973), in which she chatted about her career with fans, and starred in Miss Moffat (1974), an unsuccessful musical version of The Corn Is Green that folded in Philadelphia. In 1977 Davis was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. She also acted in seven movies, playing secondary or cameo roles, as in Death on the Nile (1978). In 1979 she won an Emmy for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and a Daughter. Her final film of note was The Whales of August (1987), costarring Lillian Gish, in which her talent remained luminous despite the obvious effects of a recent stroke. During her last film, The Wicked Stepmother (1989), she was so dissatisfied with the direction, script, and photography that she quit midway.
Davis was a heavy drinker and a five-pack-a-day chain smoker. She was involved in a series of love affairs and had three abortions. Biographers also note her obsessive-compulsive tidiness. Her daughter, B. D. Hyman, wrote two tell-all books about her mother's destructive behavior that led to the pair's estrangement. Davis told her own story in several books, one of which responded to her daughter's charges. Davis's strong will was reflected in her many roles as fiercely independent women, and she acquired an often justified reputation as a willful, bellicose, and impossible-to-work-with virago. Still, many thought her a consummate professional who was always prepared, thoroughly knowledgeable about what was best for her, and simply unwilling to brook anything less from her coworkers. Although Davis often fought for better roles and wasted time in feeble films, her biographer Barbara Leaming insists that, once she was established, she rarely made the best choices, even when she briefly headed her own company.
Nevertheless, she played an unusually wide range of demanding characters, from drunks to glamour queens to retiring old maids to lunatics, which made her difficult to type. Even with her commanding versatility, she was best suited for characters, good and bad, who required a brassy but controlled edge, emotional intensity, and depth. Only five feet, two inches tall, she was noted for her unusually large eyes, and in 1982, Kim Carnes had a hit with a song titled "Bette Davis Eyes." Although physical beauty was not her strong point, she could seem strikingly attractive. Upon meeting her, Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures thought she had "as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville," referring to a homely actor of the day. Unlike most other stars of her generation, she was willing to let herself look unglamorous and even shaved her eyebrows and the front of her scalp to play Queen Elizabeth. Frequently speaking in a clipped and emphatic manner, she possessed physical grace and an ability to make gestures and movements emotional--attributable, perhaps, to her training with Martha Graham. These traits grew mannered and even baroque as her career progressed, and Davis has been much imitated by campy female impersonators. But she could provide electrifying performances when given the right material and direction, and during her declining years, she was honored at many film festivals. During Davis's era, only Katharine Hepburn won more Academy Award nominations.
Davis suffered from numerous ailments in her later years. She succumbed to cancer in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, on October 6, 1989, after being honored at a film festival in Spain. She is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
© 2001 Gale Group Biography.com
BACK TO BETTE DAVIS