It was watching Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy and Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that inspired Bette Davis to become an actress. She made her first move into the acting industry by auditioning for a stock theatre company owned by George Cukor. Although he didn't like Davis’s performance, Cukor gave her a week long stint playing a chorus girl in Broadway, followed by a role in The Wild Duck. In 1929, Davis made her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes, closely followed by Solid South. It was here that she was spotted by a Universal Studios talent scout and called to complete a screen test in Hollywood.
After being rejected for two films, Davis made her début in The Bad Sister (1931). The film wasn't popular, however, and, after another five unsuccessful films, Universal terminated her contract- great timing, then, for George Arliss to choose Davis to play the lead female role in the Warner Bros. picture, The Man Who Played God (1932). Things changed, with the Saturday Evening Post crediting Davis as ‘not only beautiful, but she bubbles with charm’. She was signed to Warner Bros. for a five year contract.
Davis would remain with Warner Bros. for the next eighteen years: cue roles in 1934’s Of Human Bondage (Life magazine described her performance here as ‘probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress’), Gone with the Wind and Dark Victory (1939). By then she was Warner Bros. most profitable star and, in 1941, became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, only to resign soon after when other committee members disapproved of her ideas. Her films began to lose popularity. By the end of the forties many Hollywood reviewers critiqued Davis for her poor performances in films such as Beyond the Forest (1949) and for her efforts on the Broadway stage.
In 1962, she starred with Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Despite detesting each other (Crawford stuffed her pockets with rocks for a scene where Davis had to drag her across the floor while, after filming, Davis remarked ‘the best time I ever had with Joan was when I pushed her down some stairs’), the film was essential for reviving their careers. In 1977, Davis became the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In the eighties, she played roles in films such as The Whales of August (1987) and Wicked Stepmother (1989), the latter of which she walked off the set after disagreements with director Larry Cohen. She passed away in October that year.
Davis was nominated for ten Academy Awards and is noted for her unconventional choice of roles. Despite working on crime, romance, period and comedy films, she preferred to play characters with manipulative and hysterical personalities- a far cry from the other actresses of the period. And you know what? She was pretty damn good at it.
Words by Anam Rahim