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Bette Davis - 8/14
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 Bette Davis

Bette Davis

Bette Davis was a strong-willed, independent personality and a unique, powerful star with large eyes, clipped New England diction, and distinctive mannerisms--including extravagant cigarette smoking--that engendered frequent imitation. She made some 100 films, for which she received 10 Academy Award nominations, and twice won the Best Actress trophy.

Davis' parents divorced when she was seven and she was raised by her mother, who encouraged her interest in acting by taking her to New York in 1928. Rejected for Eva Le Gallienne's acting classes, Davis joined a stock company in Rochester, NY, where after a few months she was dismissed by director George Cukor. She made her New York acting debut in 1929 at the Provincetown Playhouse in Virgil Geddes's "The Earth Between". Her excellent reviews led to parts in other successes, including her first Broadway hit, "Broken Dishes", at the age of 21.

Universal Pictures signed her to a contract and in 1930 Davis and her mother went to Hollywood. Her first film was "Bad Sister" (1931), which also featured Humphrey Bogart. Appearances in five more lackluster films discouraged the young actress, until George Arliss, who was to remain her mentor, persuaded Warner Bros. to hire her to play opposite him in "The Man Who Played God" (1932). It proved to be her breakthrough film. Warner Bros. then signed her to a long-term contract, beginning her stormy relationship with a studio more accustomed to promoting its tough male stars.

Over the next three years, Davis made 14 more films for Warner Bros., most of them forgettable. But her career took a dramatic turn in 1934 when she was lent to RKO to play the slatternly Mildred opposite Leslie Howard in "Of Human Bondage". This unsympathetic role gave Davis an opportunity to cut loose and her riveting performance garnered much critical acclaim. Now Warner Bros. took notice of her, and she began to get better parts. The following year, she made Dangerous (1935), for which she won her first Oscar®, and in 1936 she and Howard reteamed in The Petrified Forest.

That same year, Davis's long-standing resentment against the strictures of the studio contract system came to a head when she defied Warner Bros. and went to London to make pictures with a British company. After Warner Bros. successfully sued her, she returned to Hollywood, where she was treated with new-found respect: Warner Bros. signed her to a new contract and offered her even better roles. Thus began the peak period of her career, a series of memorable roles that started with her fiery Southern belle in Jezebel (1938), for which she won her second Oscar. 1939 alone saw Davis appearing in four classic films: Dark Victory, "Juarez", "The Old Maid" and "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex".

As she perfected her acting techniques and developed her famous mannerisms, Davis achieved a new level of artistic maturity. Filmgoers, especially women, loved her portrayals of fiercely independent characters who also suffered nobly. The early 40s saw Davis's popularity continue to grow with such films as "All This and Heaven Too", The Letter (both 1940), and "The Little Foxes" (1941), plus her roles as a timid spinster who blossoms into a vital woman of the world in Now, Voyager (1942) and a vain society woman in "Mr. Skeffington" (1944).

By the end of the decade, however, Davis' career had begun to sag under the weight of weaker pictures, but she bounced back in 1950 with a stunning performance as Margo Channing, a tempestuous Broadway star (reportedly based on Tallulah Bankhead), in Joseph Mankiewicz's "All About Eve". The film's wittily savage view of theater people offered Davis--here with her almost self-parodying grand gestures (though in this case also self-aware and in character), and the now-famous line, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"--the role of a lifetime.

In the 50s, her career began to falter seriously, but she again came back in the popular black comedy, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962), in which she and Joan Crawford squared off as a pair of nutty sisters, showbiz has-beens living in a decaying Hollywood mansion. Davis found a new outlet for her talents in horror films and continued to work steadily on the big screen as well as in theater and on TV.

A survivor of four unhappy marriages and estrangement from her daughter BD, Davis found her greatest satisfaction in working and continued to do so until the end, with her last significant film appearance in "The Whales of August" (1987) opposite Lillian Gish. Despite her extraordinary talent, audiences flocked to see the spitfire as much as the genius. Davis herself once said, "I adore playing bitches . . . there's a little bit of bitch in every woman; and a little bit of bitch in every man." She died much-loved, admired for her scraps with studio bigwigs, her uncompromising view of self and her savage grasp of hard work. In 1977, she was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.

* Films in Bold Type will air on TCM in August

Biographical information supplied by TCMdb

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