A Revelation on Screen: Bette Davis

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With bulging, piercing eyes and a commanding, aggressive stride, the star of All About Eve, was nothing like Hollywood's other female stars. But Bette Davis ruled the screen. On the anniversary of Davis' 100th birthday, NPR's Susan Stamberg offers this tribute.

(Soundbite of chimes)


It's Bette Davis's birthday today and we tidied up the place so she wouldn't have to give us one of her best known movie lines.

(Soundbite of movie "Beyond the Forest")

Ms. BETTE DAVIS (Actress): (As Rosa Moline) What a dump.

STAMBERG: A hundred years ago on April 5, Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. As Bette Davis, she started making movies in 1931 and kept making them for almost the next 60 years. Small, sure footed, fearless on screen unless the role called for something else, she smacked grown men twice her size.

(Soundbite of slapping)

STAMBERG: Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Henry Fonda. Bette Davis didn't mind taking on big fights or making big scenes.

(Soundbite of movie "All About Eve")

Ms. DAVIS: (As Margo Channing) Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.

STAMBERG: There are hundreds of real life Bette Davis lines that live on. When some young starlet asked breathlessly, how do I get to Hollywood? Ms. Davis replied, take Fountains. Now you don't need the geography of Los Angeles to get how funny that is. Or an observation that becomes more meaningful with each passing year, old age ain't for sissies.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: But it was what she said in movies and how she said it that made her a megastar. On screen, Bette Davis was a revelation, nothing like the classic beauties of her day. Her enormous dark eyes bulged a bit. Her mouth was large, not cupie doll pouty. But she ruled the silver screen because of her blazing talent and relentless hard work. In films like "Of Human Bondage," "The Petrified Forest," "Dark Victory," "Now, Voyager," "All About Eve," the list is much longer, but we would run out of time.

(Soundbite of song "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte")

Ms. PATTI PAGE (Singer): (Singing) Hush, hush sweet Charlotte. Charlotte, don't you cry.

STAMBERG: In Hollywood a few months back a man who worked with her on two films told a Bette Davis story that's emblematic of her personality and her talent. Robert Gary was script supervisor on the 1962 film "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and two years later, "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte." In his apartment not far from Paramount, crammed with old black and white glossies and screenplays and a cat, Robert Gary said he'd become kind of friendly with Ms. Davis by the time they made "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte." He'd come to know her habits.

Mr. ROBERT GARY (Script Supervisor): Bette never goes to dailies. This is when we still had - before cassettes we still had to sit in the darkened projection room and see what we did the day before. Say, the director wants to know if he has retake or something. So, she says, no, I don't go to dailies. Why not? She says, because I might see something I did and then I would want to do it again.

STAMBERG: She didn't want to repeat herself. She wanted to stay fresh. There was a "Sweet Charlotte" scene in which Bette Davis came down the stairs holding a shotgun. As script supervisor responsible for continuity from scene to scene, Robert Gary drew a little stick figure on his script showing the gun barrel pointing down. His job was to make sure she held it that way in the next take and the next and the next so when it came time to edit the film, the various takes matched. They shot the scene again. Davis came down the stairs, but this time the gun barrel pointed up.

Mr. GARY: I said, Bette, the gun was the other - no it wasn't. And boy you hate that, when a star tells, you know. I said, okay.

STAMBERG: Bette Davis prided herself on being thoroughly professional, terrific technically, remembering which way she'd been facing, which leg she'd crossed, as well as skilled dramatically. Robert Gary says Davis was just sure she'd held the gun the same way every time. That day's work on "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" was over, and as usual, the next day Gary, director Robert Aldrich, and others went to watch the dailies.

Mr. GARY: And the lights go off and then I see the door open again, light come in, and I looked back and it's Bette coming in. And the scene comes where the gun - well, I was right, the gun went the way I said it did. So when she saw that I was right, I see the door open again, the light come in, she's gone.

STAMBERG: The next day, back on the set, Bette Davis arrived carrying a little box tied with a ribbon. She handed it to Robert Gary. Here. More than 40 years later he reaches toward a cluttered shelf.

Mr. GARY: I think I still have it.

(Soundbite of cat meowing)

STAMBERG: This very nice black cat wants to be interviewed.

Mr. GARY: Yeah. Ah, yes, here it is. Worse for wear. So I said - I opened the little box, out comes this little doll.

STAMBERG: It's a small painted wooden Pinocchio-like figure with a tiny button on the top of its head.

Mr. GARY: I'm looking at it and I'm trying to figure it out and Bette's watching me look at it. Finally she says, next time an actress tells you that you're wrong in a matching, she says, you just take this doll and do this.

STAMBERG: The little doll, when you push a button and the doll sticks its tongue out.

Mr. GARY: So I've kept that obviously.

STAMBERG: Script supervisor Robert Gary treasures his memories of working with Bette Davis. Like everyone who knew her, Gary has a choice Davis quote.

Mr. GARY: When they want a broad with balls they call me.

STAMBERG: And when they didn't call, the actress took matters into her own hands. A few days after she finished shooting "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and many months before she was cast in "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte," an ad ran in the trade papers listed under Situation Wanted, Women: Mother of three, 10, 11, and 15, divorcee, American, 30 years experience as an actress in motion pictures, mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it, wants steady employment in Hollywood, has had Broadway, Bette Davis, references upon request.

The eyes, the stride, the taking over the room quality in every single scene, Bette Davis may have been born 100 years ago today, but her talent and allegiance to work are reborn every time you watch one of her films.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week ready for his close-up. I'm Susan Stamberg.

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Bette Davis: In Those Eyes, Always a Glint of Fire

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Bette Davis looks provocatively at camera i

A Lady, A Vamp: Bette Davis (photographed in 1950 as Margo Channing) ruled Hollywood from the 1930s to the late '40s — then found herself being called a has-been. That was two Oscar nominations too early. Twentieth Century Fox/Bettman/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Twentieth Century Fox/Bettman/Corbis
Bette Davis looks provocatively at camera

A Lady, A Vamp: Bette Davis (photographed in 1950 as Margo Channing) ruled Hollywood from the 1930s to the late '40s — then found herself being called a has-been. That was two Oscar nominations too early.

Twentieth Century Fox/Bettman/Corbis
Bette Davis, 1936 i

Davis in 1936, the year of her first Oscar win. Another was just around the corner. Bettman/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Bettman/Corbis
Bette Davis, 1936

Davis in 1936, the year of her first Oscar win. Another was just around the corner.


At the Peak of Her Powers

Purists, like Margo Channing, brook no nonsense: Bette Davis was at her fearsome best as the threatened diva at the center of All About Eve. Here, two choice moments:

Bette Davis (and Joan Crawford, in enlargement) on the beach i

The horror, the horror: Davis as a demented former child star in the 1962 camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She starred with — and sparred with — her Hollywood nemesis Joan Crawford. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Bette Davis (and Joan Crawford, in enlargement) on the beach

The horror, the horror: Bette Davis (right) as a demented former child star in the 1962 camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She starred with — and sparred with — her Hollywood nemesis Joan Crawford (left).

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Davis Sings!

Three full-length tracks from the notorious Broadway revue Two's Company, featuring Bette Davis at her bravest, if not at her best:

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Two's Company might not have been a smash, but you can't say the producers didn't recruit some talent in the attempt to make it work. The playbill credits included choreographer Jerome Robbins, poet Ogden Nash and songwriter Sheldon Harnick. A pre-Gilligan Tina Louise was in the ensemble. And the director? No less an auteur than Jules Dassin.

She was unfaithful and a shrew in Of Human Bondage, spoiled and headstrong in Jezebel, devious and dangerous in The Little Foxes — and only a fool would tangle with her Margo Channing, who famously warned moviegoers to fasten their seatbelts for the bumpy night that was All About Eve.

Bette Davis — by many measures the great movie star of Hollywood's studio system, was born 100 years ago this week. Her movies play constantly on television, and her mannerisms are so familiar they've become the shorthand stock-in-trade of countless female impersonators.

But for her centenary, it's worth considering — and listening to — a Bette Davis who might just be a little less familiar.

Difficult, Driven, Discarded

Davis' artistic dossier is undeniably impressive; she was a cinematic force of nature in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. No one smoked a cigarette or strode into view or delivered a barbed line with more force than she did.

Her personal dossier, on the other hand — well, she played difficult women, and she had a reputation for being difficult herself.

When the Brothers Warner cast her in mediocre movies, she made them sue her before she'd star in them. She fought with director William Wyler, with whom she was madly in love — and with her brother-in-law, a recovering alcoholic to whom she sent two cases of liquor as a wedding present. She feuded with Joan Crawford, the archrival she once accused of having "slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie."

And at the peak of her fame for doing those things, she played a character who did that same kind of thing and had the nerve to try to justify her behavior:

Infants behave the way I do, you know. They carry on and misbehave — they'd get drunk if they knew how. When they can't have what they want; when they feel unwanted, or insecure, or unloved.

That was All About Eve's Margo Channing, of course, not the actress who played her, and Davis herself was never that kind of "insecure." She knew she was good. And as she took home Oscar nomination after Oscar nomination — eight of them in 10 years, all for Best Actress — the industry kept reminding her just how good.

And then it discarded her — calling her difficult, and washed up, and over the hill at 40. Which is when she made All About Eve, and even though it won her another Best Actress nomination, it didn't restart her career.

In fact, the film did her so little good that a year later she did something that I'd say proved that Bette Davis wasn't difficult at all. Turns out she'd do absolutely anything she was asked to do — including Two's Company, a Broadway musical revue.

A Trouper, Even in Extremis

Bette Davis sings? Even given "four boys to dance with — hoofers who twist and twirl," as one unfortunate lyric put it, she wasn't much of "a musical comedy girl."

Now, the thing about live theater is that you don't get to do it once and then you're finished; you have to do it every night. And the minute the producers announced that Bette Davis was doing a musical revue, it started selling out, so she was going to have to do a lot of nights.

Standing-room-only tryouts in Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston, an enormous advance on Broadway: It didn't really matter that the show was terrible or that Davis couldn't sing — except to her of course.

Rumors had been circulating during rehearsals that she was sick, she was dropping out, she was being replaced by Martha Raye. All false, as it happened.

Though she was tired: At the show's first performance in front of an audience, she finished the opening number and almost immediately collapsed. When she revived, she blew the crowd a kiss and said, "Well, you can't say I didn't fall for you."

This is a woman who's difficult? The lady was a lamb — which didn't keep the producers from leading her to slaughter. They called in show doctors who didn't do much except encourage their star to do a lot of un-starlike things. She even sang a song as a gap-toothed, pipe-smoking hillbilly. Critic Walter Kerr wrote at the Broadway opening, "Miss Davis unbends so much there's some doubt whether she'll ever be able to straighten up again."

Davis ended up giving more than 150 performances in Two's Company before returning to Hollywood, where once again, no one paid much attention to her — until she earned a 10th Oscar nomination as a horror-film gargoyle in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

A Star on Her Own Terms, if Not Always Hollywood's

At which point, at 54, she was again written off as over-the-hill — finished. Imagine that happening to Meryl Streep or to Helen Mirren, both of whom are older, and neither of whom is remotely as big in Hollywood as Davis was at her peak.

Unthinkable, right? But that was then, so Davis did what a woman of a certain age had to do — she compromised. Not her standards, but her fees. She went on television and did more theater, including another stab at a musical, believe it or not. Even after a stroke and recurring bouts of cancer, she continued working, right up until the year she died.

So excuse me: a temper tantrum or two, a bitchy remark (or six)? Entirely understandable. Bette Davis may have raised her voice on occasion, but difficult? What she was up against was difficult.

And despite that, for six decades, she played tough, sexy broads in a way that suggested that a tough, sexy broad was what any sensible woman would want to be.



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