Bette Davis once said, “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you’re not a star.” Whether her theory holds water or not, Davis was considered both – a star and something of a monster. Brian Aherne, her co-star in 1939’s Juarez once commented of her, “brilliant actress though she is, surely nobody but a mother could have loved Bette Davis at the height of her career.” It was a sentiment shared by many of her colleagues. But for her legions of fans – especially the female ones – Bette Davis incarnated fierce and uncompromising female independence with her unforgettable antiheroines, and they loved and respected her for it.
The ferociously ambitious and hard-working New Englander enrolled in the John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School (her application to famed acting teacher Eva Le Gallienne’s school had been rejected) after graduating from Cushing Academy; all of her classmates – among them, Lucille Ball – immediately recognized her star potential. Summer stock led to Broadway performances in Broken Dishes and Solid South, which led in turn to an unimpressive debut alongside Humphrey Bogart in Universal’s Bad Sister (1930).
Ordinary-looking and short on sex appeal in person, Davis electrified on-screen in The Man Who Played God (1932), Of Human Bondage (1934), and Dangerous (1935). She swiped the Best Actress Oscar for the latter, and when Warner Bros. didn’t respond to her coup by giving her the prime roles she felt were her just due, she rebelled against her studio bosses by leaving the country for England, where she intended to make a picture out of contract. Warners responded by slapping her with an injunction, and though the studio prevailed in the ensuing court case, no one ever dared push Bette’s buttons again: she got the lucrative contract she wanted, to be sure.
She also earned top-billing in a series of vintage strong-woman roles: a witchy Southern belle in Jezebel (1938, for which she earned another Oscar); a hedonistic heiress in Dark Victory (1939); a histrionic emperor’s wife in Juarez (1939); a homicidal adulteress in The Letter (1940); a vituperative Southern matriarch in The Little Foxes (1941); and a vain socialite in Mr. Skeffington (1944).
Davis’s postwar efforts were largely uninspiring, and Warners opted to put her out to pasture – or so they thought. Working as a free agent, Davis stunned audiences with her vitriolic performance as Margo Channing in 1950’s All About Eve, a career-resuscitating role she inherited from an ailing Claudette Colbert. Sagging under the burden of another rash of weak vehicles, she again made a grand rebound in the black comedy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), in which she and her notorious nemesis, Joan Crawford, portrayed decaying showbiz has-beens with frightening believability.
A spate of horror movie appearances gave Davis’s career a late-life boost, as did theater and television appearances. With a career tally of some one-hundred film appearances and ten Oscar nominations – two of which she also won – Davis became the first female recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1977. Despite losing part of her jaw to bone disease and suffering a major stroke, the formidable doyenne continued to act until her death at age eighty-two.