Bette Davis: In Those Eyes, Always a Glint of Fire She was the Hollywood star for two decades, then a washout, then an Oscar nominee again — twice. On the centenary of her birth, NPR's Bob Mondello looks back at a star you think you know.
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Bette Davis: In Those Eyes, Always a Glint of Fire

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Well, more movie memories now.

She was unfaithful and a shrew in the film "Of Human Bondage," spoiled and headstrong in "Jezebel," devious and scheming in "The Little Foxes," and only a fool would tangle with her Margo Channing in "All About Eve."

(Soundbite of movie "All About Eve")

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

SIEGEL: Bette Davis was by many measures the great movie star of Hollywood's studio system, and she was born 100 years ago this week. Bette Davis' movies play constantly on television, but for her 100th birthday, Bob Mondello wants us to consider and to hear a less familiar Bette Davis.

BOD MONDELLO: The artistic dossier on Bette Davis 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.

Davis' 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, an 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 in "All About Eve."

(Soundbite of movie "All About Eve")

Ms. DAVIS: (As Margo Channing) 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 want they want; when they feel unwanted, or insecure or, unloved.

MONDELLO: Okay, that's the character and Davis herself wasn't that kind of insecure. She knew she was good and, as she took home Oscar nomination after Oscar nomination - eight in 10 years, all for best actress - the industry kept reminding her. 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, it did her so little good that a year later, she did something that I'd say proved that Bette Davis was not difficult at all. That she would in fact, do absolutely anything she was asked.

(Soundbite of song "Turn Me Loose On Broadway")

Ms. DAVIS: (As Herself) Mr. Conductor, if you please.

MONDELLO: She would even appear on stage in the musical revue called "Two's Company."

(Soundbite of song "Turn Me Loose On Broadway")

Ms. DAVIS: (As Herself) (Singing) Don't want to cruise the Riviera. Don't want a diamond mine. Want to smell grease painting dressing rooms wear, a coveted Oscar at Hammerstein. Just turn me loose on Broadway, I...

MONDELLO: Evil, no? 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 and 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?

(Soundbite of song "Turn Me Loose On Broadway")

Ms. Davis: (Singing) Oh, you kid.

MONDELLO: 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.

(Soundbite of song "Turn Me Loose On Broadway")

Unidentified Man: A one, a two.

Ms. DAVIS: A three.

Unidentified Man: A four.

Ms. DAVIS: It's tricky.

MONDELLO: She even sang a song as a gap-toothed, pipe-smoking hillbilly.

Ms. DAVIS: (Singing) Oh, no. He know. Tooth-tooth, I do. Hey.

MONDELLO: 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.

Ms. DAVIS: (Singing) Hah. Boo, Boo. Di do. I do. Hey.

MONDELLO: She 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?"

At which point, at 54, she was again written off as over-the-hill — finished. Imagine that happening to Meryl Streep, or 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.

And 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.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

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