Ruth Elizabeth "Bette" Davis was an American actress of film, television and theatre. Noted for her willingness to play unsympathetic characters, she was highly regarded for her performances in a range of film genres; from contemporary crime melodramas to historical and period films and occasional comedies, though her greatest successes were romantic dramas.
After appearing in Broadway plays, Davis moved to Hollywood in 1930, but her early films for Universal Studios were unsuccessful. She joined Warner Bros. in 1932 and established her career with several critically acclaimed performances. In 1937, she attempted to free herself from her contract and although she lost a well-publicized legal case, it marked the beginning of the most successful period of her career. Until the late 1940s, she was one of American cinema's most celebrated leading actresses, known for her forceful and intense style. Davis gained a reputation as a perfectionist who could be highly combative, and her confrontations with studio executives, film directors and costars were often reported. Her forthright manner, clipped vocal style and ubiquitous cigarette contributed to a public persona which has often been imitated and satirized.
Davis was the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, and was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was the first actress to receive 10 Academy Award nominations and the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Her career went through several periods of decline, and she admitted that her success had often been at the expense of her personal relationships. Married four times, she was once widowed and thrice divorced, and raised her children as a single parent. Her final years were marred by a long period of ill health, but she continued acting until shortly before her death from breast cancer, with more than 100 film, television and theater roles to her credit.
In 1999, Davis was placed second, behind Katharine Hepburn, on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest female stars of all time.
Background and early acting career
Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known from early childhood as "Betty", was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the daughter of Ruth ("Ruthie") Augusta (née Favor), and Harlow Morrell Davis, a patent attorney; her sister, Barbara ("Bobby"), was born October 25, 1909. The family was Protestant, of English, French, and Welsh ancestry.In 1915, Davis's parents separated and Betty and Bobby attended a Spartan boarding school called Crestalban in Lanesborough, which is located in the Berkshires. In 1921, Ruth Davis moved to New York City with her daughters, where she worked as a portrait photographer. Betty was inspired to become an actress after seeing Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), and changed the spelling of her name to "Bette" after Honoré de Balzac's La Cousine Bette. She received encouragement from her mother, who had aspired to become an actress.
She attended Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, where she met her future husband, Harmon O. Nelson, known as "Ham". In 1926, she saw a production of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck with Blanche Yurka and Peg Entwistle. Davis later recalled that it inspired her full commitment to her chosen career, and said, "Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended, I had to be an actress... exactly like Peg Entwistle." She auditioned for admission to Eva LeGallienne's Manhattan Civic Repertory, but was rejected by LeGallienne who described her attitude as "insincere" and "frivolous". She was accepted by the John Murray Anderson School of Theatre (where Lucille Ball was also a pupil), and studied dance with Martha Graham.
She auditioned for George Cukor's stock theater company, and although he was not very impressed, he gave Davis her first paid acting assignment anyway – a one-week stint playing the part of a chorus girl in the play, Broadway. She was later chosen to play Hedwig, the character she had seen Entwistle play, in The Wild Duck. After performing in Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, she made her Broadway debut in 1929 in Broken Dishes, and followed it with Solid South. A Universal Studios talent scout saw her perform and invited her to Hollywood for a screen test.
Transition from stage to film
Accompanied by her mother, Davis traveled by train to Hollywood, arriving on December 13, 1930. She later recounted her surprise that nobody from the studio was there to meet her; a studio employee had waited for her, but left because he saw nobody who "looked like an actress". She failed her first screen test but was used in several screen tests for other actors. In a 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, she related the experience with the observation, "I was the most Yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth. They laid me on a couch, and I tested fifteen men ... They all had to lie on top of me and give me a passionate kiss. Oh, I thought I would die. Just thought I would die." A second test was arranged for Davis, for the film A House Divided (1931). Hastily dressed in an ill-fitting costume with a low neckline, she was rebuffed by the director William Wyler, who loudly commented to the assembled crew, "What do you think of these dames who show their chests and think they can get jobs?" Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, considered terminating Davis's employment, but cinematographer Karl Freund told him she had "lovely eyes" and would be suitable for The Bad Sister(1931), in which she subsequently made her film debut. Her nervousness was compounded when she overheard the Chief of Production, Carl Laemmle Jr., comment to another executive that she had "about as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville", one of the film's co-stars. The film was not a success, and her next role in Seed (1931) was too brief to attract attention.
Universal Studios renewed her contract for three months, and she appeared in a small role in Waterloo Bridge (1931) before being lent to Columbia Pictures for The Menace, and to Capital Films for Hell's House (all 1932). After nine months, and six unsuccessful films, Laemmle elected not to renew her contract.
George Arliss chose Davis for the lead female role in The Man Who Played God (1932), and for the rest of her life, Davis credited him with helping her achieve her "break" in Hollywood. The Saturday Evening Post wrote, "she is not only beautiful, but she bubbles with charm", and compared her to Constance Bennett and Olive Borden. Warner Bros. signed her to a five-year contract.
In 1932, she married "Ham" Nelson, who was scrutinized by the press; his $100 a week earnings compared unfavorably with Davis's reported $1,000 a week income. Davis addressed the issue in an interview, pointing out that many Hollywood wives earned more than their husbands, but the situation proved difficult for Nelson, who refused to allow Davis to purchase a house until he could afford to pay for it himself.
The film was a success, and Davis's confronting characterization won praise from critics, with Life Magazine writing that she gave "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress". Davis anticipated that her reception would encourage Warner Bros. to cast her in more important roles, and was disappointed when Jack Warner refused to lend her to Columbia Studios to appear in It Happened One Night, and instead cast her in a melodrama, Housewife. When Davis was not nominated for an Academy Award for Of Human Bondage, The Hollywood Citizen News questioned the omission and Norma Shearer, herself a nominee, joined a campaign to have Davis nominated. This prompted an announcement from the Academy president, Howard Estabrook, who said that under the circumstances "any voter ... may write on the ballot his or her personal choice for the winners", thus allowing, for the only time in the Academy's history, the consideration of a candidate not officially nominated for an award. Claudette Colbert won the award for It Happened One Night but the uproar led to a change in Academy voting procedures the following year, whereby nominations were determined by votes from all eligible members of a particular branch, rather than by a smaller committee, with results independently tabulated by the accounting firm Price Waterhouse.
Davis appeared in Dangerous (1935) as a troubled actress and received very good reviews. E. Arnot Robertson wrote in Picture Post, "I think Bette Davis would probably have been burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet." The New York Times hailed her as "becoming one of the most interesting of our screen actresses". She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role, but commented it was belated recognition for Of Human Bondage.
For the rest of her life, Davis maintained that she gave the statue its familiar name of "Oscar" because its posterior resembled that of her husband, whose middle name was Oscar, although her claim has been disputed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, among others.
In her next film, The Petrified Forest (1936), Davis co-starred with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart, but Bogart, in his first important role, received most of the critics' praise. Davis appeared in several films over the next two years but most were poorly received.
Convinced that her career was being damaged by a succession of mediocre films, Davis accepted an offer in 1936 to appear in two films in England. Knowing that she was breaching her contract with Warner Bros., she fled to Canada to avoid legal papers being served upon her. Eventually, Davis brought her case to court in England, hoping to get out of her contract with Warner Bros. She later recalled the opening statement of the barrister, Sir Patrick Hastings, who represented Warner Brothers. Hastings urged the court to "come to the conclusion that this is rather a naughty young lady and that what she wants is more money". He mocked Davis's description of her contract as "slavery" by stating, incorrectly, that she was being paid $1,350 per week. He remarked, "if anybody wants to put me into perpetual servitude on the basis of that remuneration, I shall prepare to consider it". The British press offered little support to Davis, and portrayed her as overpaid and ungrateful.
Davis explained her viewpoint to a journalist, saying "I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for." Davis's counsel presented her complaints – that she could be suspended without pay for refusing a part, with the period of suspension added to her contract, that she could be called upon to play any part within her abilities regardless of her personal beliefs, that she could be required to support a political party against her beliefs, and that her image and likeness could be displayed in any manner deemed applicable by the studio. Jack Warner testified, and was asked, "Whatever part you choose to call upon her to play, if she thinks she can play it, whether it is distasteful and cheap, she has to play it?" Warner replied, "Yes, she must play it."
The case, decided by Branson J. in the English High Court, was reported as Warner Bros. Studios Incorporated v. Nelson in  1 KB 209. Davis lost the case and returned to Hollywood, in debt and without income, to resume her career. Olivia de Havilland mounted a similar case in 1943 and won.
Success as "The Fourth Warner Brother"
Davis began work on Marked Woman (1937), as a prostitute in a contemporary gangster drama inspired by the case of Lucky Luciano. The film and Davis's performance received excellent reviews, and her stature as a leading actress was enhanced.
During the filming of her next film, Jezebel, Davis entered a relationship with director William Wyler. She later described him as the "love of my life", and said that making the film with him was "the time in my life of my most perfect happiness". The film was a success, and Davis's performance as a spoiled "Southern belle" earned her a second Academy Award, which led to speculation in the press that she would be chosen to play a similar character, Scarlett O'Hara, in Gone with the Wind. Davis expressed her desire to play Scarlett, and while David O. Selznick was conducting a search for the actress to play the role, a radio poll named her as the audience favorite. Warner offered her services to Selznick as part of a deal that also included Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, but Selznick did not consider Davis as suitable, and rejected the offer.
Jezebel marked the beginning of the most successful phase of Davis's career, and over the next few years she was listed in the annual "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars", which was compiled from the votes of movie exhibitors throughout the U.S. for the stars that had generated the most revenue in their theaters over the previous year. In contrast to Davis's success, her husband, Ham Nelson, had failed to establish a career for himself, and their relationship faltered. In 1938, Nelson obtained evidence that Davis was engaged in a sexual relationship with Howard Hughes and subsequently filed for divorce citing Davis's "cruel and inhuman manner".
She appeared in three other box office hits in 1939, The Old Maid with Miriam Hopkins, Juarez with Paul Muni and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex with Errol Flynn. The latter was her first color film, and was her only color film made during the height of her career. To play the elderly Elizabeth I of England, Davis shaved her hairline and eyebrows. During filming she was visited on the set by the actor, Charles Laughton. She commented that she had a "nerve" playing a woman in her sixties, to which Laughton replied, "Never not dare to hang yourself. That's the only way you grow in your profession. You must continually attempt things that you think are beyond you, or you get into a complete rut." Recalling the episode many years later, Davis remarked that Laughton's advice had influenced her throughout her career.
By this time, Davis was Warner Bros.' most profitable star, described as "The Fourth Warner Brother", and she was given the most important of their female leading roles. Her image was considered with more care; although she continued to play character roles, she was often filmed in close-ups that emphasized her distinctive eyes. All This and Heaven Too (1940) was the most financially successful film of Davis's career to that point, while The Letter was considered "one of the best pictures of the year" by The Hollywood Reporter, and Davis won admiration for her portrayal of an adulterous killer. During this time she was in a relationship with her former costar George Brent, who proposed marriage. Davis refused, as she had met Arthur Farnsworth, a New England nnkeeper. They were married in December 1940.
In January 1941, Davis became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but antagonized the committee members with her brash manner and radical proposals. Faced with the disapproval and resistance of the committee, Davis resigned, and was succeeded by Jean Hersholt, who implemented the changes she had suggested.
William Wyler directed Davis in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1941), but they clashed over the character of Regina Giddens. Taking a role originally played on stage by Tallulah Bankhead, Davis felt Bankhead's original interpretation was appropriate and followed Hellman's intent, but Wyler wanted her to soften the character. Davis refused to compromise. She received another Academy Award nomination for her performance, and she never worked with Wyler again.
In the same year, Davis appeared briefly in Shining Victory, the directorial debut of her friend, Irving Rapper. He would go on to direct her in four more films: Now, Voyager (1942), The Corn is Green (1945), Deception (1946), and Another Man's Poison (1952).
War effort and personal tragedy
At John Garfield's suggested opening of a servicemen's club in Hollywood, Davis – with the aid of Warner, Cary Grant and Jule Styne – transformed an old nightclub into the "Hollywood Canteen", which opened on October 3, 1942. Hollywood's most important stars volunteered to entertain servicemen. Davis ensured that every night there would be a few important "names" for the visiting soldiers to meet. She appeared as herself in the film Hollywood Canteen (1944) which used the canteen as the setting for a fictional story. Davis later commented, "There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them." In 1980, she was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the United States Department of Defense's highest civilian award, for her work with the Hollywood Canteen.
Davis had initially shown little interest in the film Now, Voyager (1942) until Hal Wallis advised her that female audiences needed romantic dramas to distract them from the reality of their lives. It became one of the best known of her "women's pictures". In one of the film's most imitated scenes Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes as they are held in his lips before passing one to Davis. Film reviewers complimented Davis on her performance, the National Board of Review commenting that she gave the film "a dignity not fully warranted by the script".
During the early 1940s several of Davis's film choices were influenced by the war, for instance Watch on the Rhine (1943) and Thank Your Lucky Stars, (1943) a lighthearted all-star musical cavalcade, with each of the featured stars donating their fee to the Hollywood Canteen. Davis performed a novelty song, "They're Either Too Young or Too Old", which became a hit record after the film's release.
Old Acquaintance (1943) reunited her with Miriam Hopkins in a story of two old friends who deal with the tensions created when one of them becomes a successful novelist. Davis felt that Hopkins tried to upstage her throughout the film. The director Vincent Sherman recalled the intense competitiveness and animosity between the two actresses, and Davis often joked that she held back nothing in a scene in which she was required to shake Hopkins in a fit of anger.
In August 1943, Davis's husband, Arthur Farnsworth, collapsed while walking along a Hollywood street, and died two days later. An autopsy revealed that his fall had been caused by a skull fracture which had occurred about two weeks earlier. Davis testified before an inquest that she knew of no event that might have caused the injury, and a finding of "accidental death" was reached. Highly distraught, she attempted to withdraw from her next film Mr. Skeffington (1944), but Jack Warner, who had halted production following Farnsworth's death, convinced her to continue.
Although she had gained a reputation for being forthright and demanding, her behavior during filming of Mr. Skeffington was erratic and out of character. She alienated director Vincent Sherman by refusing to film certain scenes, and insisted that some sets be rebuilt. She improvised dialogue, causing confusion among other actors, and infuriated the writer Julius Epstein, who was also called upon to rewrite scenes at her whim. Davis later explained her actions with the observation, "when I was most unhappy I lashed out rather than whined". Some reviewers criticized Davis for the excess of her performance; James Agee wrote that she "demonstrates the horrors of egocentricity on a marathonic scale", but despite the mixed reviews, she received another Academy Award nomination.
Davis married an artist, William Grant Sherry, who also, when necessary, worked as a masseur, in 1945. She had been drawn to him because he claimed that he had never heard of her and was therefore not intimidated by her.
Davis refused the title role in Mildred Pierce, a role for which Joan Crawford ultimately won an Academy Award, and instead made The Corn Is Green (1945). Davis played a dowdy English teacher, who saves a young Welsh miner from a life in the coal pits, by offering him education. The film was well received by critics but did not find a substantial audience. A Stolen Life (1946) received poor reviews, but was one of her biggest box-office successes. It was followed by Deception (1946), the first of her films to lose money.
Possessed (1947) had been tailor-made for Davis and was to have been her next project after Deception (1946). However, she was pregnant and went on maternity leave. Joan Crawford played her role in Possessed and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. In 1947, Davis gave birth to a daughter, Barbara (known as B.D.) and later wrote in her memoir that she became absorbed in motherhood and considered ending her career. Her relationship with Sherry began to deteriorate and she continued making films, but her popularity with audiences was steadily declining.
Among the film roles offered to Davis following her return to film making, was Rose Sayer in The African Queen. When informed that the film was to be made in Africa, Davis refused the part, telling Jack Warner, "If you can't shoot the picture in a boat on the back lot, then I'm not interested." Katharine Hepburn played the role. Davis was also offered a role in a film version of the Virginia Kellogg prison drama Women Without Men. Originally intended to pair Davis with Joan Crawford, Davis made it clear that she would not appear in any "dyke movie", and the lead roles were played by Agnes Moorehead and Eleanor Parker when it was filmed as Caged (1950). She lobbied Jack Warner to make two films, Ethan Frome, and another which would be a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, however Warner vetoed each proposal.
In 1948, Davis was cast in Winter Meeting, and although she was initially enthusiastic, she soon learnt that Warner had arranged for "softer" lighting to be used to disguise her age. She recalled that she had seen the same lighting technique "on the sets of Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis, and I knew what they meant". She began to regret accepting the role, and to add to her disappointment, she was not confident in the abilities of her leading man, Jim Davis. She disagreed with amendments made to the script because of censorship restrictions and found that many of the aspects of the role that had initially appealed to her, were no longer to be included. The film was later described by Bosley Crowther as "interminable" and he noted that "of all the miserable dilemmas in which Miss Davis has been involved ... this one is probably the worst". It failed at the box office and the studio lost nearly one million dollars.
Davis clashed with her co-star Robert Montgomery while making June Bride (1948), later describing him as "a male Miriam Hopkins... an excellent actor, but addicted to scene-stealing". The film marked her first comedy in several years, and earned her some positive reviews, but it was not particularly popular with audiences and returned only a small profit. Despite the lacklustre box office receipts from her more recent films, in 1949 she negotiated a four film contract with Warner Bros. which paid $10,285 per week, and made her the highest paid woman in the United States.
Jack Warner refused to allow her script approval, and cast her in Beyond the Forest (1949). Davis reportedly loathed the script, and begged Warner to recast the role, but he refused. After the film was completed, Warner released Davis from her contract, at her request. The reviews that followed were scathing; Dorothy Manners writing for the Los Angeles Examiner, described the film as "an unfortunate finale to her brilliant career". Hedda Hopper wrote, "If Bette had deliberately set out to wreck her career, she could not have picked a more appropriate vehicle." The film contained the line, "What a dump!", which became closely associated with Davis after impersonators used it in their acts. In later years, Davis often used it as her opening line at speaking engagements.
Starting a freelance career
Critics responded positively to Davis's performance and several of her lines became well-known, particularly, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night." She was again nominated for an Academy Award and critics such as Gene Ringgold described her Margo as her "all-time best performance". Pauline Kael wrote that much of Mankiewicz's vision of "the theater" was "nonsense" but commended Davis, writing "[the film is] saved by one performance that is the real thing: Bette Davis is at her most instinctive and assured. Her actress – vain, scared, a woman who goes too far in her reactions and emotions – makes the whole thing come alive."
Davis won a "Best Actress" award from the Cannes Film Festival, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. She also received the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award as "Best Actress", having been named by them as the "Worst Actress" of 1949 for Beyond the Forest. During this time she was invited to leave her handprints in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
On July 3, 1950 Davis's divorce from William Sherry was finalized, and on July 28 she married Gary Merrill. With Sherry's consent, Merrill adopted B.D., Davis's daughter with Sherry, and in 1950, Davis and Merrill adopted a baby girl they named Margot. The family traveled to England, where Davis and Merrill starred in a murder-mystery film, Another Man's Poison. When it received lukewarm reviews and failed at the box office, Hollywood columnists wrote that Davis's comeback had petered out, and an Academy Award nomination for The Star (1952) did not halt her decline.
Davis and Merrill adopted a baby boy, Michael, in 1952, and Davis appeared in a Broadway revue, Two's Company. She was uncomfortable working outside of her area of expertise; she had never been a musical performer and her limited theater experience had been more than 20 years earlier. She was also severely ill and was operated on for osteomyelitis of the jaw. Margot was diagnosed as severely brain damaged due to an injury sustained during or shortly after her birth, and was eventually placed in an institution. Davis and Merrill began arguing frequently, with B.D. later recalling episodes of alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Few of Davis's films of the 1950s were successful and many of her performances were condemned by critics. The Hollywood Reporter wrote of mannerisms "that you'd expect to find in a nightclub impersonation of [Davis]", while the London critic, Richard Winninger, wrote, "Miss Davis, with more say than most stars as to what films she makes, seems to have lapsed into egoism. The criterion for her choice of film would appear to be that nothing must compete with the full display of each facet of the Davis art. Only bad films are good enough for her." As her career declined, her marriage continued to deteriorate until she filed for divorce in 1960. The following year, her mother died.
Davis and Joan Crawford played two aging sisters, former actresses forced by circumstance to share a decaying Hollywood mansion. The director, Robert Aldrich, explained that Davis and Crawford were each aware of how important the film was to their respective careers and commented, "It's proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly."After filming was completed, their public comments against each other allowed the tension to develop into a lifelong feud, and when Davis was nominated for an Academy Award, Crawford campaigned against her. Davis also received her only BAFTA Award nomination for this performance.
Daughter B.D. Hyman also played a small role in the film, and when she and Davis visited the Cannes Film Festival to promote it, she met Jeremy Hyman, an executive for Seven Arts Productions. After a short courtship, she married Hyman at the age of 16, with Davis's permission.
Davis sustained her comeback over the course of several years. Dead Ringer (1964) was a crime drama in which she played twin sisters and Where Love Has Gone (1964) was a romantic drama based on a Harold Robbins novel. Davis played the mother of Susan Hayward but filming was hampered by heated arguments between Davis and Hayward. Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) was Robert Aldrich's follow-up to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which he planned to reunite Davis and Crawford, but when Crawford withdrew allegedly due to illness soon after filming began, she was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. The film was a considerable success and brought renewed attention to its veteran cast, which also included Joseph Cotten, Mary Astor and Agnes Moorehead.
By the end of the decade, Davis had also appeared in the British films The Nanny (1965), The Anniversary (1968), and Connecting Rooms (1970), but her career again stalled.
In 1972, she played the lead role in two television films that were each intended as a pilot for an upcoming series for NBC, Madame Sin with Robert Wagner, and The Judge and Jake Wyler, with Joan Van Ark, but in each case, NBC decided against producing a series. In the U.S., she appeared in the stage production, Miss Moffat, a musical adaptation of The Corn is Green, but after the show was panned by the Philadelphia critics during its pre-Broadway run, she cited a back injury and abandoned the show, which closed immediately. She played supporting roles in Burnt Offerings (1976) and The Disappearance of Aimee (1976), but she clashed with Karen Black and Faye Dunaway, respectively the stars of the two productions, because she felt that neither extended her an appropriate degree of respect, and that their behavior on the film sets was unprofessional.
In 1977, Davis became the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. The televised event included comments from several of Davis's colleagues including William Wyler who joked that given the chance Davis would still like to refilm a scene from The Letter to which Davis nodded. Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, Natalie Wood and Olivia de Havilland were among the actors who paid tribute, with de Havilland commenting that Davis "got the roles I always wanted".
Following the telecast she found herself in demand again, often having to choose between several offers. She accepted roles in the television miniseries The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978) and the film Death on the Nile (1978). For the rest of her career the bulk of her work was for television. She won an Emmy Award for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter(1979) with Gena Rowlands, and was nominated for her performances in White Mama (1980) and Little Gloria... Happy at Last (1982). She also played supporting roles in two Disney films, Return from Witch Mountain(1978) and The Watcher in the Woods (1980).
Davis's name became well-known to a younger audience when Kim Carnes's song "Bette Davis Eyes" became a worldwide hit and the best-selling record of 1981 in the U.S., where it stayed at number one on the music charts for more than two months. Davis's grandson was impressed that she was the subject of a hit song and Davis considered it a compliment, writing to both Carnes and the songwriters, and accepting the gift of gold and platinum records from Carnes, and hanging them on her wall.
She continued acting for television, appearing in Family Reunion (1981) opposite her grandson J. Ashley Hyman, A Piano for Mrs. Cimino (1982) and Right of Way (1983) with James Stewart.
Illness, conflict and death
During this time, her relationship with her daughter, B. D. Hyman, deteriorated when Hyman became a born-again Christian and attempted to persuade Davis to follow suit. With her health stable, she traveled to England to film the Agatha Christie mystery Murder with Mirrors (1985). Upon her return, she learned that Hyman had published a memoir, My Mother's Keeper, in which she chronicled a difficult mother-daughter relationship and depicted scenes of Davis's overbearing and drunken behavior.
Several of Davis's friends commented that Hyman's depictions of events were not accurate; one said, "so much of the book is out of context". Mike Wallace rebroadcast a 60 Minute interview he had filmed with Hyman a few years earlier in which she commended Davis on her skills as a mother, and said that she had adopted many of Davis's principles in raising her own children. Critics of Hyman noted that Davis had financially supported the Hyman family for several years and had recently saved them from losing their house. Despite the acrimony of their divorce years earlier, Gary Merrill also defended Davis. Interviewed by CNN, Merrill said that Hyman was motivated by "cruelty and greed". Davis's adopted son, Michael Merrill, ended contact with Hyman and refused to speak to her again, as did Davis, who also disinherited her.
In her second memoir, This 'N That (1987), Davis wrote, "I am still recovering from the fact that a child of mine would write about me behind my back, to say nothing about the kind of book it is. I will never recover as completely from B.D.'s book as I have from the stroke. Both were shattering experiences." Her memoir concluded with a letter to her daughter, in which she addressed her several times as "Hyman", and described her actions as "a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given". She concluded with a reference to the title of Hyman's book, "If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I've been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success."
After abandoning Wicked Stepmother and with no further film offers, Davis appeared on several talk shows and was interviewed by Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, Larry King and David Letterman, discussing her career but refusing to discuss her daughter. Her appearances were popular; Lindsay Anderson observed that the public enjoyed seeing her behaving "so bitchy". He commented, "I always disliked that because she was encouraged to behave badly. And I'd always hear her described by that awful word, feisty."
During 1988 and 1989, Davis was feted for her career achievements, receiving the Kennedy Center Honor, the Legion of Honor from France, the Campione d'Italia from Italy and the Film Society of Lincoln Center Lifetime Achievement Award. She collapsed during the American Cinema Awards in 1989 and later discovered that her cancer had returned. She recovered sufficiently to travel to Spain where she was honored at the Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival, but during her visit her health rapidly deteriorated. Too weak to make the long journey back to the U.S., she travelled to France where she died on October 6, 1989, at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine.
She was interred in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California, alongside her mother, Ruthie, and sister, Bobby. On her tombstone is written: "She did it the hard way", an epitaph that she suggested in This 'N That and that had been suggested to her by Joseph L. Mankiewicz shortly after they had filmed All About Eve.
In 1997, the executors of her estate, Michael Merrill, her son, and Kathryn Sermak, her former assistant, established "The Bette Davis Foundation" which awards college scholarships to promising actors and actresses.
Comments and criticism
In 1964, Jack Warner spoke of the "magic quality that transformed this sometimes bland and not beautiful little girl into a great artist", and in a 1988 interview, Davis remarked that, unlike many of her contemporaries, she had forged a career without the benefit of beauty. She admitted she was terrified during the making of her earliest films and that she became tough by necessity. "Until you're known in my profession as a monster, you are not a star", she said, "[but] I've never fought for anything in a treacherous way. I've never fought for anything but the good of the film." During the making of All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz told her of the perception in Hollywood that she was difficult, and she explained that when the audience saw her on screen, they did not consider that her appearance was the result of numerous people working behind the scenes. If she was presented as "a horse's ass ... forty feet wide, and thirty feet high", that is all the audience "would see or care about".
While lauded for her achievements, Davis and her films were sometimes derided; Pauline Kael described Now, Voyager as a "shlock classic", and by the mid-1940s her sometimes mannered and histrionic performances had become the subject of caricature. Reviewers such as Edwin Schallert for the Los Angeles Times praised Davis's performance in Mr. Skeffington (1944), while observing, "the mimics will have more fun than a box of monkeys imitating Miss Davis", and Dorothy Manners writing for the Los Angeles Examiner said of her performance in the poorly received Beyond the Forest, "no night club caricaturist has ever turned in such a cruel imitation of the Davis mannerisms as Bette turns on herself in this one". Time magazine noted that Davis was compulsively watchable even while criticizing her acting technique, summarizing her performance in Dead Ringer (1964) with the observation, "her acting, as always, isn't really acting: it's shameless showing off. But just try to look away!"
She attracted a gay following and was frequently imitated by female impersonators such as Charles Pierce Attempting to explain her popularity with gay audiences, the journalist Jim Emerson wrote, "Was she just a camp figurehead because her brittle, melodramatic style of acting hadn't aged well? Or was it that she was 'Larger Than Life,' a tough broad who had survived? Probably some of both."
Her film choices were often unconventional; she sought roles as manipulators and killers in an era when actresses usually preferred to play sympathetic characters, and she excelled in them. She favored authenticity over glamour and was willing to change her own appearance if it suited the character. Claudette Colbert commented that Davis was the first actress to play roles older than herself, and therefore did not have to make the difficult transition to character parts as she aged.
As she entered old age, Davis was acknowledged for her achievements. John Springer, who had arranged her speaking tours of the early 1970s, wrote that despite the accomplishments of many of her contemporaries, Davis was "the star of the thirties and into the forties", achieving notability for the variety of her characterizations and her ability to assert herself, even when her material was mediocre. Individual performances continued to receive praise; in 1987, Bill Collins analyzed The Letter (1941), and described her performance as "a brilliant, subtle achievement", and wrote, "Bette Davis makes Leslie Crosbie one of the most extraordinary females in movies."In a 2000 review for All About Eve, Roger Ebert noted, "Davis was a character, an icon with a grand style, so even her excesses are realistic."
A few months before her death in 1989, Davis was one of several actors featured on the cover of Life. In a film retrospective that celebrated the films and stars of 1939, Life concluded that Davis was the most significant actress of her era, and highlighted Dark Victory as one of the most important films of the year. Her death made front-page news throughout the world as the "close of yet another chapter of the Golden Age of Hollywood". Angela Lansbury summed up the feeling of those of the Hollywood community who attended her memorial service, commenting after a sample from Davis's films were screened, that they had witnessed "an extraordinary legacy of acting in the twentieth century by a real master of the craft", that should provide "encouragement and illustration to future generations of aspiring actors".
Davis was one of many Hollywood stars mentioned in Madonna's 1990 song "Vogue", with the line, "Bette Davis, we love you."
In 1999, the American Film Institute published its list of the "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Stars", which was the result of a film industry poll to determine the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends" in order to raise public awareness and appreciation of classic film. Of the 25 actresses listed, Davis was ranked at number two, behind Katharine Hepburn.
The United States Postal Service will honor Davis with a commemorative postage stamp in 2008, marking the 100th anniversary of her birth.