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Bette Davis

Bette Davis

by David Thomson

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"She could look demure while behaving like an empress. Blonde, with eyes like pearls too big for her head, she was very striking, but marginally pretty and certainly not beautiful . . . But it was her edge that made her memorable—her upstart superiority, her reluctance to pretend deference to others."

Bette Davis was the commanding figure of the


"She could look demure while behaving like an empress. Blonde, with eyes like pearls too big for her head, she was very striking, but marginally pretty and certainly not beautiful . . . But it was her edge that made her memorable—her upstart superiority, her reluctance to pretend deference to others."

Bette Davis was the commanding figure of the great era of Hollywood stardom, with a drive and energy that put her contemporaries in the shade. She played queens, jezebels, and bitches; she could out-talk any male costar; she warred with her studio, Warner Bros., worked like a demon, got through four husbands, was nominated for seven Oscars, and—no matter what—never gave up fighting. This is her story, from the acclaimed film critic David Thomson.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In the initial volumes of this new series, noted film critic/historian Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) brings his opinions to bear on the lives and careers of four stars of the golden age of American cinema, all of whom remained active until their deaths. With classic films such as Jezebel, Dark Victory, and Now, Voyager, Bette Davis was the premiere leading lady at Warner Brothers for some 17 years. Gary Cooper (High Noon) became a star with the introduction of talking pictures and remained one, albeit somewhat diminished, to the end of his life. After being frequently cast as the snarling petty crook, Humphrey Bogart played a series of distinguished roles, climaxing with his Oscar-winning triumph in The African Queen. Ingrid Bergman's roles in Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Gaslight seemed to presage a lengthy stardom, but the scandal concerning her affair with director Roberto Rossellini stalled her in the late 1940s. Thomson presents little more than a brief overview of each star's career but discusses what he considers their best films in somewhat more detail. His look at the actors' personal lives includes his quirky suppositions about their sex lives, and he often writes as if speaking, sometimes quite disconcertingly, directly to the reader. VERDICT These books seem intended primarily for film buffs with limited knowledge of these particular stars as well as curious general readers.—Roy Liebman, formerly with California State Univ., Los Angeles
Kirkus Reviews
The stars shine bright in this series of brief biographies of four of classic Hollywood's most enduring icons. Eminent film critic Thomson (The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, 2009, etc.) brings a historian's acumen and poet's sensibility to his portraits of Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman (9780865479340), Humphrey Bogart (9780865479333) and Gary Cooper (9780865479326). The author seeks to identify the mythic essence of each of the star's cinematic personae, and the ways in which key films and carefully managed public perceptions shaped those ideas. Davis enjoyed a long reign as Hollywood's top star in the era of great stars, despite and because of her variable looks, peppery temperament and air of starchy New England superiority. Bergman was the "natural" country girl, beautiful and virtuous, whose selfish passion for her career and compulsive promiscuity both fueled the love fantasies of her audience and ultimately led to international scandal and disgrace. Bogart, the sensitive tough guy, was hounded by insecurity and a host of other personal demons, his upperclass background lending an innate dignity and honor to his fabled menagerie of wisecracking gangsters and gumshoes. Cooper is presented as a hapless, weakwilled adulterer whose lean body, rugged handsomeness and preternatural stillness translated on camera as a quintessentially American rectitude and heroic stoicism. In clean, allusive prose, Thomson assesses the filmographies of these titans, offering surprising judgments and insights-he despises Cooper's beloved Sergeant York (1941) and the Davis classic The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)-and defining the magic of a vanished kind of stardom,an orchestrated mystique that made these men and women dream figures for a mass audience. The books are full of fascinating tidbits of gossip regarding his subjects' sexual peccadilloes, financial maneuverings and studio politicking, and Thomson is wickedly funny and startlingly poetic in his observations. On Davis: "Blonde, with eyes like pearls too big for her head, she was very striking, but marginally pretty and certainly not beautiful." Indispensable additions to any American film library.

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Bette Davis

By David Thomson, Lucy Gray

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 David Thomson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9989-2


Bette Davis was twenty-three and too smart for her own good. But there she was lying on a couch at Universal in a fixed camera set-up so that any man the studio could round up came in and made movie love to her. 'You gorgeous, divine darling,' they said – they had to say something, so they had lines written for them. 'I adore you. I worship you. I must possess you.' There were fifteen of them – 'The most compulsively dedicated harlot never had a morning like mine,' she would write – and there you see how smart she was. Not just funny, but able to surmount her own indignity with caustic intelligence. She was a novice being tested for 'chemistry', or 'it', or 'sex appeal'. This was after Carl Laemmle, the head of the studio had announced – with her in the next room and the door open – 'She has as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville!' Summerville was fortyish, a country hick with a simpleton cowboy face. He was just a little niftier than his horse.

We can talk about what Bette Davis had and didn't have, and what you might like to have done to her if you were a red-blooded American male. Suffice it to say that with Bette Davis, her looks and her sexiness – her appetite for the movies – were always under question. 'Well, she was never beautiful,' you hear people say. But the same Bette Davis, in those years from 1931 to 1945 – the golden age, more or less – was nominated seven times for best actress. In the same period, Garbo got one nomination, Katharine Hepburn four, Marlene Dietrich one, Claudette Colbert three, Barbara Stanwyck three. Davis outpaced the field without ever convincing a studio – or maybe herself – that she had 'it'. Simple, unequivocal desirability. Yet something possessed her, an energy or a need that could leave every other actress seeming vacant.

The thing she asserted was that there were 'Bette Davis parts', a territory where other actresses had best not tread. For there was something fearsome in being Bette Davis, something that seemed close to consuming the woman herself. It's a part of the nature of acting in those days, and of the terrible insecurity of actresses, that several of the great parts might have been recast – Irene Dunne surely could have played Mrs Miniver, Barbara Stanwyck could have done Mildred Pierce, Katharine Hepburn could have been in My Man Godfrey, Claudette Colbert was actually cast as Margo Channing in All About Eve and I am tempted to share the lady's own imperious view, that Bette Davis would have been a natural as Scarlett O'Hara – 'It was insanity that I not be given Scarlett.' (The essence of Davis, it seems to me, is in the use of the word 'given' there, as opposed to some such construction as 'be cast as'. The 'gift' was something the common people should have seen as appropriate to their queen, and it should have required no asking from her!)

In other words, competition – the helpless state of the harlot – was as open as the studio contract system allowed. And Bette Davis had at least a dozen rivals who photographed better than she did, or who had more glamour or lustre, more gender obedience and more of 'it' than she could offer. Yet she was the commanding figure of the great era of stardom and star projects. Moreover, most of that time, she was employed and held by a guys' studio where the bosses would tell her to her face that not a single man was going to pay money to see this or that project. Let's add that she had another three best actress nominations after 1945 – in All About Eve, The Star and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Come to that, one has to note and marvel how in her heady years she was not actually nominated for Of Human Bondage, The Old Maid or The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

I doubt there is a better example of willpower thriving in the alleged age of sex appeal. Her own insistence that she was right for a role, or the best actress around, is not always sympathetic. But it is much harder to make a case for her being wrong. She prided herself on exact judgement and insight, on reason and justice – New England virtues – and never quite realized that on the West Coast the country was run rather differently.

Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born on 5 April 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. This was nine months and four days after the marriage of her parents: Harlow Morrell Davis, of Bates College and Harvard Law School, and Ruth Favor, an amateur actress of some ability. The Favors were of French descent, while the Davises had been in Massachusetts since 1634 – and in Wales before that. It was a Davis who had helped found the city of Haverhill. Harlow Morrell Davis had a great dome of a forehead, rimless spectacles and a most earnest gaze. He would have been shocked if, say, his first child had been delivered less than nine months after the day of his marriage. Nevertheless, he had not intended to have a family so swiftly and the father proved incapable of talking to Ruth or to her younger sister, Barbara, born eighteen months later. Aged five, apparently, Ruth decided to alter her name to Bette – a name she had seen on the spine of a Balzac novel. The father thought the change was pretentious, and that attitude only offended Bette the more. When Bette was seven, the father left the family.

By the time Bette was twenty, she was resolved to be an actress. The mother passed this information on to the father, who was reported as having said, 'Let her become a secretary! She'll earn money quicker. Bette could never be a successful actress.' The young girl took this as a challenge, just as she now perceived her father as a negative force. It was a part of her larger determination to triumph, to do as she wished, and to lead what would amount to her 'lonely life'. In 1962, Bette Davis published a short memoir called The Lonely Life and it is nearly shrill with her determination to take personal responsibility for everything:

I have always been driven by some distant music – a battle hymn no doubt – for I have been at war from the beginning. I rode into the field with sword gleaming and standard flying. I was going to conquer the world ...

My father's cavalier disappearance from our home when I was a small child certainly has significance. Consider my quartette of marriages. But his hypothetical perfection as a father might have bound me to him and spoiled other men for me.

If I were making a documentary film about Bette Davis, I would cut from that observation (preferably in her piping voice – a regal, declaratory voice) into the opening scene from The Letter. It is night in Malaya. Clouds cross the moon. Rubber plantations are busy with their dripping business. Suddenly there is a flurry of action at one house. We hear a shot. A door opens, a man tumbles out, pursued by a small, fierce-faced woman in a long housecoat that flows as she moves. With a revolver she fires five more shots at him, and into him. It is a very arresting passage of movie and a great opening. It will be said quite soon that this woman, Leslie Crosbie, shot the man because he tried to force his attentions on her.

We don't quite believe that story. We can believe that a man might tell Leslie he loved her and even try to rape her. And she might be hurt and shocked by it. She might shoot him – once. But six shots, one after the other? In such flowing, irresistible motion. We guess that if the gun had held a dozen bullets, the man would have had to soak them all up. No, there is another story – this man has let the woman down, and she is ready, waiting, expecting such an insult, and equipped to rebuke it. And she takes no prisoners.

The Letter is one of those films for which Davis received an Academy nomination, but it is not the only one of the ten in which her character is malicious, vengeful, hostile to men, a bitch. There are similar traits in Dangerous, Jezebel, The Little Foxes and Mr Skeffington. There is more of it still – at either end of the social register – in Of Human Bondage and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. And what is Scarlett O'Hara but the ultimate bitch role in American cinema?

Now look at the faces of Bette Davis in the late '20s and early '30s. It is certainly not the case that she was not pretty. As a teenager, with long blonde hair and very friendly eyes, she was the sort of girl to draw attention wherever she went. But it was a completely natural beauty, and it had not a hint of glamour or allure. She was plainly smart, merry and quick – and her look promised sympathy and friendship, as well as teasing and mischief. It was not the look of someone consumed by a great dream of the self – like Garbo, or Joan Crawford even. You can see, from the earliest times (and Crawford the perpetual rival was ahead of Bette Davis for years), that Davis might have dismissed Joan as a fabrication of hairdressing, cosmetics, photography and gall. Whereas Bette's was a face you might see on a beach in Maine, in summer stock, or in a shop, a face that pricked your attention. In America in the first decades of the twentieth century, Hollywood came to represent the manipulation of appearance as against an authentic, God-given naturalness. Bette Davis believed she looked like an 'ordinary' person, or an 'ordinary' genius.

Audiences might have agreed, except for the eyes. Before she arrived in Hollywood, Bette Davis had eyes that popped a little or which looked as if she might have been crying. But in real life, tears tend to make the eyes go raw, narrow and tired – and Bette's jumped open. They were startled or alert – as if she had just been touched somewhere intimate. It was thus that one saw the liquid glaze or pressure on her eyeballs and thought of tears. It was a sadness against which the pluck of her demeanour seemed all the more admirable. It is not crying, but a refusal to cry – and perhaps it leads to a determination that someone else, the man, will cry first. Decades ahead of feminism, or anything like it, Bette Davis was using stories to point up the aggressive energy of women – in an art form or a public trance justly famous for making the seductiveness of women legendary and iconic.

A fascinating comparison can be made with Katharine Hepburn. The two women were born a year apart. They were both from old New England and respectable Protestant stock. They entered movies at around the same time. And Hepburn is the only actress of that age who – in the long run – won more nominations and Oscars than Davis. Moreover, in her public demeanour and lifestyle Hepburn was modern and a feminist as well as someone who could pierce the stupid talk of gossip magazines with her wit.

But Katharine Hepburn had a very tricky movie career so that after early success she succumbed to the idea of herself being box office poison (or outside the popular range) – and reconstructed herself in such a way that she became increasingly amenable and obedient to strong men. Thus, her Tracy Lord goes back with Cary Grant's C. K. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story and she signals her willingness to be subordinate to Spencer Tracy in the crushing sell-out ending to Woman of the Year. In all her films with Tracy she yields finally (and sometimes feebly) to male 'superiority' or order. The same is true in The African Queen. I don't say this to attack Hepburn, or undermine her, but to define her. She altered the signals she was giving to be successful. By contrast, Bette Davis never really adapted herself. And while she knew that male audiences hardly loved her – but often liked to hate her – she did not step back from that defiance. She goes into the night and her own future fighting and giving off warning airs. The courage and the energy that required came from somewhere, and we may begin with the way a father had wronged her or walked out on her without ever explaining himself (he died of a heart attack while she was filming Jezebel – she was too busy to go to the funeral). Bette Davis made women's pictures, to be sure, and some are gentler or more yielding than others, but to the point of stridency in the '30s and '40s she asserted this war cry – that women do not have to take it, or be seen crying. Neither our movies nor our society have yet lived up to this intimidating example.

There's another line of thought on why Bette's father left the family: because he realized that Ruthie the mother was going to raise those girls and get at least one of them into the theatre – so get out of the way and leave her to it. The mother did everything she had to in the way of menial or common employment to support the two daughters, while claiming classical artistic poverty. They were hard up and the life was simple, and they moved around searching for the right theatrical education on the best possible terms. It's very likely that the mother was the steadiest and fiercest teacher Bette had, as well as the root of the conviction in the young woman that she would make it – no matter what.

At different times, they were in the Boston area, in New Jersey and in New York City. Bette told a story in her book that as a teenager in Boston she had posed nude for a famous city statue – but diligent research has never found it afterwards. Perhaps imagination helped. At seventeen, apparently, she met the young Henry Fonda. A kiss was exchanged and a letter pursued Fonda from the young woman assuring him that her mother would announce their marriage very soon. She was educated at Cushing Academy and had an early taste for dance. Then her mother took her to audition for Eva Le Gallienne and Bette was turned down – it seemed to be because of a mixture of wilfulness and frivolity. Instead she attended the John Murray Anderson Dramatic School and fell under the influence of two very different teachers – the English actor, George Arliss, and the new heroine of modern dance, Martha Graham. She became convinced that movement and gesture were vital to acting and an assertion of her being. Davis often moves like a beast fearful of being leashed. If she had a tail it would beat off approach. Arliss was old-fashioned, punctilious and deep-etched. Martha Graham was sudden, romantic and convulsive. It does not seem a likely marriage, but keep it in mind as you see those great passages of hysterical spontaneity in which Davis never for a moment seems studied. Think of Leslie Crosbie again, firing as if each shot had its own vital target.

By the late 1920s, Bette Davis was ready for real work. She could look demure while behaving like an empress; she could seem passionate and headstrong, while she believed she was still deeply innocent. Blonde, with eyes like pearls too big for her head, she was very striking, but marginally pretty and certainly not beautiful. She was slender but with quite large breasts, and she could be attractively dressed in the early '30s style. But it was her edge that made her memorable – her upstart superiority, the reluctance to pretend deference to others. She was getting a reputation already, and sometimes observers felt that her confidence was somewhat ahead of the substance.

That seems to be what happened with the George Cukor Company in Rochester, New York. Cukor's company was famous for the realism of its work, and Cukor himself took on Davis and quickly asked her to understudy a key supporting performance in a play called Broadway. Well, the first actress was injured and Davis went on one night:

One of the six chorus girls you see from time to time in the play comes quietly down a stairway from the dressing rooms. She takes out a revolver and shoots him [the villain] ... You don't know who she is, or why – it's a great coup de théâtre. Well, after the Wednesday matinee, the young girl playing this part turned her ankle and couldn't go on. I asked this blonde girl [Davis], 'Do you think you can do it?' and she said, 'Yes', and I ran her through it. She had no lines. That night I saw her performance, and she crept downstairs with her baby face and took out the revolver – and suddenly there was Bette Davis! She shot the man with an almost maniacal intensity, she willed him dead.


Excerpted from Bette Davis by David Thomson, Lucy Gray. Copyright © 2009 David Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

DAVID THOMSON is, among many other things, the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fourth edition. His books include a biography of Nicole Kidman, Fan Tan (a novel written in collaboration with Marlon Brando), and The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. His work also include the acclaimed Have You Seen . . . ?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Born in London, he now lives in San Francisco.
David Thomson, renowned as one of the great living authorities on the movies, is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fifth edition. His books include a biography of Nicole Kidman, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood and “Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Born in London in 1941, he now lives in San Francisco.

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