Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Bette Davis

Episode Summary

Bette Davis (1908-1989) is one of the most acclaimed and decorated actors in Hollywood history. Throughout a long, though often tumultuous, career she made approximately 100 films, received 10 Oscar nominations, and won the Best Actress award twice.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Leading Lady is one of the most acclaimed and decorated actors in Hollywood history. Throughout a long, though often tumultuous, career she made approximately 100 films, received 10 Oscar nominations, and won the Best Actress award twice. She remains an icon to this day. Please welcome Bette Davis. 

Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known as Bette from early childhood onward, was born on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Harlow Davis, a patent attorney, and his wife Ruth. When Bette was 7, her parents divorced and she went to live with her mother. 

In 1921, Bette, her mother, and younger sister moved to New York City, where Ruth found work as a portrait photographer. It was there that young Bette got her first taste of acting, and also excelled as a Girl Scout patrol leader.

For high school, Bette was sent to Cushing Academy, a private boarding school in Massachusetts, where she seemed to thrive. After school, Bette decided that she wanted to pursue an acting career and auditioned for the famed Manhattan Civic Repertory. She was rejected because the director found her attitude “insincere” and “frivolous.” 

After this blow, Bette took her talents up to Rochester, where she auditioned for a stock theater company run by the soon-to-be-very-famous director, George Cukor. Although Cukor was also not particularly impressed with Bette’s acting chops, he gave her what is generally considered to be her first paying acting gig as a chorus girl in one of his plays. This led to a series of gigs with other stock theater companies, and Bette was soon earning acclaim for her skills on stage. 

Shortly after, Bette was cast as Hedwig in a large production of the play “The Wild Duck.” She performed the role in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC throughout 1929. That same year, she also made her Broadway debut in the play “Broken Dishes.” This was followed up by a run in another Broadway show called “Solid South,” where Bette was spotted by a Universal Studios talent scout who invited her out to Hollywood for a screen test.

Presumably the screen test was a success, because in 1930, at the age of 22, Bette signed her first Hollywood studio contract with Universal Studios.

Bette made her film debut in the 1931 picture “Bad Sister” starring Humphrey Bogart. Unfortunately, it was not a hit. Bette followed this up with performances in five more very mediocre films for Universal which weighed on her and made her question her talent. 

The famous actor George Arliss, however, was a believer in Bette. He convinced his studio, Warner Bros, to hire Bette in 1932 to play opposite him in the film  “The Man Who Played God.” 

The prestigious film was a major hit and an industry breakthrough for Bette. She was quickly signed to a lucrative long-term contract with Warner Bros. This was both a gift and a curse. Bette would star in many studio hits under this contract. She would also spend many years fighting with Warner Bros over the treatment of their female stars.

Over the next three years, Bette was in 14 films for Warner Bros, some of them good, some of them forgettable. It wasn’t until Bette was lent to another studio, RKO, that her career hit a new trajectory. Bette agreed to play the role of Mildred in RKO’s movie version of the novel “Of Human Bondage.” It was not a glamorous role by any means, and a number of other stars had already turned down the part. But Bette was thrilled with the opportunity, as it allowed her to really sink her teeth into a complex role that required serious acting skills. Bette’s astonishing performance in the film earned her massive critical acclaim, and suddenly she was a hot commodity.

Her own studio, Warner Bros, took notice and started offering Bette better roles. She won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her lead role in the Warner Bros film “Dangerous.” But her anger and resentment with the studio and the contract system soon came to a head.

In 1936, Bette traveled to London to star in two films with a British production company. Warner Bros was furious and sued her for breach of contract. Bette fled to Canada in order to avoid being served, but soon went back to London to fight her case in the courts there. During this whole saga, the press portrayed Bette as greedy, petulant, and overpaid, rather than recognizing her legitimate concerns. Bette eventually lost in court and returned to Hollywood. Interestingly, she was actually treated with greater respect upon her return. Warner Bros offered her a new and improved contract, and promised to give her even better roles. 

Thus began the golden age of Bette’s career. During this period, she starred in a series of hit films playing diverse and memorable roles, including her turn as a Southern belle in the 1938 film “Jezebel,” for which Bette won her second Oscar. Her other box office successes during this period included the films “Dark Victory”, “The Old Maid,” and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” among others. It was in these films that Bette perfected the iconic techniques and personal mannerisms that would become her signature. She used a clipped, gravelly manner of speaking performed with cigarette in hand.

Bette’s popularity continued to grow in the early 1940s as she put out box office hit after hit. Though not considered a glamorous actress per se, she was celebrated for her acting skill and range. In August 1943, Bette suffered a significant tragedy when her husband, Arthur Farnsworth, suddenly and unexpectedly passed away after a fall. Though Bette continued working afterwards, her films over the subsequent seven years were pretty uniformly lackluster and she no longer held much sway as a box office draw. 

In 1950, Bette made a comeback with her incredible and incredibly over-the-top performance as Margo Channing in Joseph Mankiewicz’s film “All About Eve.” The film, which included the now-iconic line, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” gave Bette the opportunity to play a character that was basically made for her. The performance earned her yet another Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. 

Throughout the 1950s, Bette continued appearing in movies.  Her personal life had also begun to deteriorate after marrying Gary Merrill, with whom she had an abusive relationship driven by alcohol.

In 1962, Bette was cast opposite her real life nemesis, Joan Crawford, in the film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” The film, which is about two crazy, feuding sisters living together in an old Hollywood mansion, was a huge hit. Bette earned yet another Academy Award nomination for it, her last. 

The role fueled a career revival that lasted more than a decade. Bette continued to perform both in film and on television throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983.  

Bette made her final major film appearance in the 1987 movie “The Whales of August,” in which she starred opposite another Hollywood icon, Lillian Gish.

During the same period, Bette’s cancer returned. While traveling in France, she became very weak and was hospitalized. She died on October 6, 1989 at 81 years old. 

Bette was a strong-willed, independent woman who was one of the greatest and most iconic stars in Hollywood history.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady!

Special thanks to my favorite sister and co-creator, Liz Kaplan.

Talk to you tomorrow!