Forty summers ago, a song called Bette Davis Eyes entered the UK Top Ten. ‘And she’ll tease you/ She’ll unease you/ All the better just to please you’ went the lyrics, to the unalloyed delight of their 73-year-old subject. She wrote to the writers, and to singer Kim Carnes, thanking them for making her ‘a part of modern times’.
Even into her dotage, Davis, by no means the most beautiful but arguably the greatest screen actress of her generation, was preoccupied with her image.
She didn’t mind at all that her image was that of a manipulative, vindictive, vain, demanding, cold-hearted, chain-smoking, hard-drinking harridan, with claws to match those of the MGM lion.
Bette Davis, pictured, luxuriated in her reputation as Tinseltown’s queen of mean, claiming ‘until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you’re not a star’
Indeed, she luxuriated in her reputation as Tinseltown’s queen of mean. ‘Until you’re known in my profession as a monster,’ she once snapped, ‘you’re not a star.’ Davis was both. And she could be at least as monstrous in private as she was in public, once sending her brother-in-law, a recovering alcoholic, a case of spirits as a wedding gift.
Her only biological child even accused her of dabbling in the occult, cackling demonically as she cast curses on those she believed had crossed her. Certainly, her lack of empathy infiltrated every part of her personality, until she started pretending to be someone else. But even then she was driven by the need to do a better acting job than everyone around her, which admittedly she almost always did.
A kind of competitive fury engulfed her and, if ever she had to play opposite someone similarly inclined, the only thing to do was stand back. Asked how he enjoyed working with her and Miriam Hopkins on the 1943 film Old Acquaintance, director Vincent Sherman remarked wryly: ‘I didn’t direct them, I refereed.’ Naturally, Hopkins lost.
Davis made pet hates of several actresses. One was Hopkins and another was Faye Dunaway, with whom she worked on the 1976 TV movie The Disappearance Of Aimee and regarded as nothing short of a witch.
Her bitchiness extended to men, too. Of Alec Guinness, her co-star in The Scapegoat (1959), she later wrote: ‘This is an actor who plays by himself, unto himself. In this particular picture he played a dual role, so at least he was able to play with himself.’
She didn’t confine herself to nasty verbal and written attacks, either. She could get physical. During the shooting of 1964 film Where Love Has Gone, she tore off her wig and whipped her co-star Susan Hayward with it, screeching insults.
Bette Davis, pictured left with Jack Warner, centre and Joan Crawford in 1962, didn’t mind at all that her image was that of a manipulative, vindictive, vain, demanding, cold-hearted, chain-smoking, hard-drinking harridan
In The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (1939), there is a scene in which she, as the Queen, slaps her favourite, Lord Essex, played by Errol Flynn. Davis had wanted Laurence Olivier to play Essex, not Flynn. In rehearsals she took it out on him by belting him so hard she almost floored him. When Flynn went to her dressing room to complain, she said: ‘If you can’t take a little slap, that is just too bad.’
But for once she had met her match. Days later, rehearsing a scene in which Essex gives Elizabeth a playful smack on the back, Flynn took revenge by forcibly hitting her, as he later recalled, ‘right through her Elizabethan dresses, slappo, smack on her Academy Award behind.’ She was incandescent. But if Davis grudgingly admired those who could dish it out as well as take it, she never let it show.
Her longest-lasting, bitterest squabble was with another lustrous star, Joan Crawford, perhaps because she recognised a kindred ego. So intense was their mutual loathing that in 2017, long after both women had died, it inspired an acclaimed four-part TV drama, with Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford.
Simply called Feud, the show didn’t have to make much up. Davis really had sneered of Crawford that ‘she slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie’, while Crawford was alleged to have married the actor Franchot Tone mainly to stop Davis from having him.
Their hatred, which had been bubbling for decades, finally spewed like a volcano during the making of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, the 1962 horror-thriller in which an alcoholic former child star (Davis) torments her paraplegic sister (Crawford), herself an old movie star.
‘I wouldn’t p*** on her if she were on fire,’ Davis told director Robert Aldrich, whose satisfaction at bringing the two hellcats together to create a film so influential that it is said to have invented the ‘psycho-biddy’ genre, was undermined a little when each woman actively campaigned against the other in the run-up to awards season.
‘It would have meant a million more dollars to our film if I had won (the Oscar),’ Davis later said, acidly adding, ‘Joan was thrilled I hadn’t.’
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? features in a major British Film Institute retrospective of Davis’s career, running throughout August at the BFI Southbank.
The season also includes All About Eve (1950), in which Davis plays another actress past her peak, the spiteful but charming Margo Channing. Claudette Colbert had originally been cast as Margo, but when director Joseph L Mankiewicz replaced her with Davis, another director, Edmund Goulding, who’d worked with her four times, told him he’d lost his marbles. ‘Dear boy, have you gone mad?,’ Goulding wrote. ‘This woman will destroy you, she will grind you down to a fine powder and then blow you away.’
Instead, it proved an inspired casting choice. All About Eve was anointed Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Davis not only behaved herself off screen but was magnificent as Margo, who is eclipsed by her greatest fan, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter).
Of course, nobody could really upstage Davis, who all but stole the whole show with one of the greatest one-liners in cinematic history: ‘Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.’
She was referring to the sexual and emotional undercurrents at a lavish party, but the line might equally have referred to the stormy night she was born; moments after her arrival, in April 1908, a fork of lightning destroyed a tree in front of the Massachusetts family home. It never seemed fanciful to Davis to invoke that episode as an omen. A force of nature had landed.
Davis, pictured right with her daughter Barbara in 1960, was accused by her child of dabbling in the occult
Her father was a patent lawyer and one of the few men Davis never learnt how to manipulate. She made up for that with her mother, Ruthie. ‘If I could never win my father, I completely conquered Ruthie,’ she wrote in her 1962 autobiography, The Lonely Life. ‘I became an absolute despot at the age of two . . . through sheer terror, Ruthie surrendered. I sensed her weaknesses early and pounced on them.’
When she was seven, her parents divorced, making her mother even more vulnerable to her scheming wiles. A few years later, after seeing Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy, she resolved to become an actress.
Although the first drama school she applied to rejected her for being ‘insincere’ and ‘frivolous’, she soon started landing small parts on Broadway. But when a talent scout from Universal Studios invited her to Hollywood for a screen test, she hated the results so much that she ran from the projection room, screaming.
She was a drama queen in more ways than one.
Universal signed her regardless, and when he saw her in The Man Who Played God (1932), director William Wyler became one of the first movers and shakers to recognise her immense talent, dismissing other actresses as ‘dames who (just) show their chests and think they can get jobs’, while praising Davis for nailing her part. She ‘is not only beautiful but bubbles with charm,’ he rhapsodised.
She ended up returning the compliments. It took her a while to discover sex (which she once described as ‘God’s biggest joke on human beings’) but she and Wyler had a passionate extramarital affair and he directed her in two of her best performances: Jezebel (1938), for which she won one of her two Best Actress Oscars, and The Little Foxes (1941).
Davis had four marriages and three divorces (her second husband died mysteriously of a brain haemorrhage after fracturing his skull) but said contemptuously of all her husbands that none of them was ‘ever man enough to become Mr Bette Davis’. Wyler, even though he refused to leave his wife for her, was different.
‘Willie was the love of my life, no question,’ she once said. ‘He was everything I dreamed of in a man.’ Nevertheless, getting pregnant by him was out of the question. Davis allegedly aborted three babies, one his, because motherhood would have obstructed her career. Later, when it suited her, she adopted two children and at the age of 39 gave birth to Barbara, the daughter of her third husband, a former prizefighter.
Like so many of the relationships in her life, that ended in tears too. When Joan Crawford’s daughter Christina wrote her scathing 1978 memoir about her mother, Mommie Dearest, Davis was exultant. ‘I don’t blame the daughter, don’t blame her at all,’ Davis remarked. ‘One area of life Joan should never have gone into was children.’
But at least Crawford was dead when Mommie Dearest came out. Davis lasted until 1989, when breast cancer claimed her, so was very much alive to read Barbara’s book My Mother’s Keeper, which depicted her as ‘a mean-spirited, wildly neurotic, profane and pugnacious boozer who took her anger out on the world by abusing those close to her’.
It was published on Mother’s Day 1985 and, for all her toughness, Davis was deeply wounded by it. But characteristically she lashed back, calling it a work of utter fiction and sardonically questioning the title: ‘If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right I’ve been your keeper all these many years.’
Davis was nothing if not a fighter. She was still in her 20s when in 1937 she rebelled against bosses at Warner Brothers, fiercely challenging them over the terms of her contract and objecting to what she considered to be a series of feeble roles.
Autocratic studio head Jack Warner didn’t know what had hit him, and Davis herself recognised that standing up to an authoritarian figure was bound up psychologically with the issues she’d had with her stern father, who had been maddeningly immune to her childhood artifice.
When she declared that she would go to England and start making movies out of contract, Warners slapped her with an injunction. She contested it, and a court case followed. Hollywood held its breath — and although the case was awarded in favour of the studio, Davis duly started getting the better parts she had sought, becoming one of Warners’ most profitable stars.
It hadn’t ever been easy to push around a woman who smoked up to 100 cigarettes and consumed the best part of a bottle of whisky every day, and could smell weakness in a director, writer or fellow actor — as she had in her mother — like a tiger sniffing fear in its prey. But certainly, nobody ever tried to do so again.
Significantly, the tough image that she so cherished was burnished by the roles she took. She never needed to be liked on screen, in fact the more grotesque the character, the better.
Even when she played weak or domineered women — such as Charlotte in another classic, the 1942 film Now, Voyager — she ended up taking control. When Charlotte’s married lover, played by Paul Henreid, lights two cigarettes, hands her one and swooningly asks if she is going to be happy, she gazes at him and says, ‘Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars.’
It was another celebrated line, and coincidentally it recalled something she always remembered her father saying to her when she was a girl. He pointed up at the night sky and told her that whenever she looked at the stars, she would remember how very unimportant she was.
In becoming a glittering star herself, Hollywood’s incorrigible queen of mean spent most of her 81 years proving him wrong.
n The Bette Davis season at BFI Southbank runs until August 30. Her 1942 classic, Now, Voyager is in cinemas nationwide. Visit bfi.org.uk
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