The Indomitable Bette Davis : She Shattered and Remade Image of Screen Beauty

Times Film Critic

In Paris, where Bette Davis died Friday, they refer to their formidable beloveds--their Cocteaus, their Piafs, their Signorets--who demand as much as they give, as monsters. Sacred monsters, to be sure, but monsters nonetheless.

Quite right. And Bette Davis was exactly such a monster: demanding, bullying, overbearing, vinegary, monomaniacal and recklessly outspoken. Those traits were on one side of the scale; she herself once suggested a few more: “tactless, volatile and ofttimes disagreeable.”

So, to balance all this: Was she a beauty? She never thought so, although there are booksfull of photographs that prove how wrong she was. Margo Channing, not beautiful? What an impossible idea. Did she have extraordinary seductiveness? The quintessential Yankee, a self-proclaimed virgin until her marriage at the age of 26, Davis would have given her thoroughbred’s snort at the very idea, although she drew men--and women--as simply as a magnet draws iron filings.

No, Bette Davis had talent, she had rectitude, she had cast-iron professionalism, and she had courage. And, ounce for ounce, it outweighed everything else.


She left her own signature on the business of acting for the movies: In an era of glossiness and prettification, Bette Davis spared nothing in pursuit of realism. Quite possibly it was the byproduct of having so little joy in the way she looked in the first place.

The shaved hairline and plucked eyebrows she used to bring Queen Elizabeth I to life in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” are legendary. There was also “Marked Woman,” the 1936 B-movie in which mobsters had beaten her within an inch of her life and had carved a double cross on her cheek. Davis went to her own doctor and had him do her bandaging. Then she got together with her makeup man and when they’d finished she was a pathetic sight; this wasn’t B-movie stuff, this girl was at death’s door.

She overrode her roles, of course. There was never a moment’s danger of losing the actress in the character--she didn’t intend that you should. “The important thing is never vanish into your makeup,” she informed biographer Alexander Walker. “Your public want (sic) to know 75% what to expect from you every time. You’ve got to decide how different you can afford to be. That’s the trick.”

One of the things that Davis could afford to be was, in her own words, the bitch to end all bitches.n In movie after movie, as Cockney Mildred in “Of Human Bondage” or as Leslie Crosbie the murderous, adulterous wife in “The Letter” or flirtatious Fanny Skeffington in “Mr. Skeffington” or the dry-ice Regina in “The Little Foxes,” Davis became the den mother of bitchiness. “I’ve played heroines, schoolteachers and housewives,” she mock-complained once, “and (the audience’s) image of me was a bitch !”

When you see how, by playing thoroughly bad women, and playing them up one side and down the other, Davis was staking out a territory pretty much all her own--and holding it against all comers--you can see the attraction of every one of these flaming man-destroyers. Joan Crawford crossed over onto Davis’ turf at times, but it was never the same. Her broad-shouldered heiresses and businesswomen always seemed to have a blue collar somewhere in their past; Crawford could never project the frosty Yankee elegance that was second nature to Davis. And Barbara Stanwyck’s film noir tootsies had an innate sensuality foreign to any roles in the Davis collection.

The interference that Bette Davis ran for the generation of actresses on our screens now is underappreciated--probably even subliminal. She was not the first and she wasn’t the only star to battle her studio over a series of soul-destroying parts; Olivia de Havilland fought equal battles, and so did Jimmy Cagney and Katharine Hepburn, among others; yet somehow it’s Davis who pops to mind as the model for the “Don’t Tread on Me” employee.

Davis was there, fighting, daring studio executives to put her on suspension (they did), casting a pugnacious shadow, making it clear that she would stand for no nonsense. And just possibly, in her single-minded determination that things go right for Bette Davis, she forged the image of an actress to whom attention had bloody well better be paid.

As she shattered and remade the image of what screen beauty can be, she may have prepared us for the presence and the strengths of Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep, Anjelica Huston and Sally Field, Jane Fonda and Bette Midler: yet one more thing to thank Bette Davis for. But please, Bet Midler . . . Betteeee Davis. It used to drive her wild .