The Indomitable Bette Davis : Her Later Years Were Monument to Graceful Endurance

Times Arts Editor

For most actors, acting is nothing so simple as a craft or a job or work. It is an obsession that neither fame, fortune nor age can assuage. The number of star actors who have turned their backs on the profession is very small. Cary Grant and Jean Arthur made it stick. Jimmy Cagney didn’t. It’s a very short list.

Bette Davis, who died on Friday at the age of 81, was not on the roster of retirees. Her wish was to act to the end of her days, and she very nearly did.

Ravaged by illness, frail, infirm and matchstick-thin, she went on acting as if in defiance of the fates that seemed arrayed against her. Yet it was not simply that she was acting; what was wonderful and characteristic was that she bore herself with the same imperial arrogance that she had made her trademark when she was a young actress doing battle with her boss, Jack L. Warner.

In all the stormy history of Hollywood, there was no one quite like Bette Davis--so smart, sexy, unsparing of speech and generous of talent, charismatic and fearless.


It was painful to see her after time and the betrayals of the body had done their mischiefs. One preferred to remember the gorgeous young Davis of “Dark Victory” or “Juarez,” or the mature Davis at the peak of her powers in “All About Eve.”

But the Davis of “The Whales of August,” her last major film, was a profile in endurance and determination. The tongue was as biting as it had been when she entered a room in “Beyond the Forest” and spat, “What a dump!” Watching, you had to think of an old fighter, getting by on remembered skills and sheer nerve.

Now the performances, public and private, are done. The last years and the sad regrets for what was will drop away. Memory will again deliver the Bette Davis of her prime time--gorgeous, vigorous and dominating.

And it is the favoring luck of audiences that Bette Davis’ legacy--the work--will continue to enrich them as long as the projectors roll.