Bette Davis, one of the finest actresses of the 20th century, was best known for her distinctive looks (especially those eyes) and her particular way of speaking. She was endlessly imitated but never replicated. Her career spanned many decades. She worked in bit parts from a very young age and was still working in films the day she died. Acting was her life, and many of her films bear watching.
After her years in small unimportant roles, she was catapulted to fame with “Of Human Bondage”, in which she played a shrewish young woman of dubious morals who gets involved with a sadistic man. Her performance resulted in great acclaim, and she rose to star parts. In Now, Voyager she plays a dowdy young woman who takes a trip around the world and learns a thing or two about life and love, with aid from her costar Paul Henreid (better known as Victor Lazlo in Casablanca). A movie of the “three-hankie” variety, Davis turns in a marvelous performance, and her transformation from put-upon daughter to woman of the world is exquisite.
Davis became known throughout this time as a star of “women’s pictures,” that is, films directed to a female audience, usually melodramas about women. In Dark Victory, Davis plays a high-living heiress who discovers that she has a limited time to live. Aiding her throughout the process of discovery, anger, and eventual acceptance are her handsome doctor (George Brent), her Irish stable master (Humphrey Bogart), her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald), and a young acquaintance (Ronald Reagan). Davis is at times biting, and at others deeply moving, but she is always in control. Acting like this is a joy to behold.
Davis also gained a reputation as an actress unafraid to play unlikable, even villainous characters, which was further cemented by her role in The Little Foxes, a drama (by Lillian Hellman) about a poisonous Southern family in the early 1900s. Davis plays Regina Giddens, who (unlike her brothers) is reliant on her husband to keep her in great wealth. When the brothers approach her with a scheme to make them all rich, she jumps at it, but her invalid husband stands in the way. If only he could be gotten rid of.… Theft, deceit, alcoholism, and maybe even murder figure in this gloriously nasty film about the greediness of humanity and the bleakness of life.
Perhaps Davis’ best known feature today, All About Eve tells the story of aging actress Margo Channing (Davis) whose position is usurped by her young, “naïve” assistant Eve (Anne Baxter). As Eve’s treachery is revealed, Margo’s friends and acquaintances (Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Thelma Ritter, and George Sanders) are thrown into a wild web of deceit. All About Eve is generally considered to be one of the best films ever made, and for obvious reasons. Davis’ acidic delivery, the film’s dark humor, and knockout performances by all of the stars make this a film for the ages. And of course, there is the ending…
Death on the Nile –
After the glamorous all-star version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express proved to be a smash hit, the producers followed it up with yet another mystery for all time, Death on the Nile, filmed on location in Egypt and starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. Though he fails to deliver an accurate performance as the small Belgian sleuth, he is fun to watch in action. Davis joins Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, Mia Farrow, Olivia Hussey, David Niven, and Jane Birkin as suspects in this period piece. Though unfortunately the Seattle Public Library does not have a copy, it is well worth a watch, because it transports viewers to the sun- and blood-drenched Egyptian sands.
Davis’ last completed film, The Whales of August pairs her with another infamous star of the silver screen, albeit from the silent era, Lillian Gish (age 93). These two film giants, along with Vincent Price and Ann Sothern tell the story of Sarah and Libby, elderly sisters who live on the coast of Maine. Davis’s character is blind and bitter, while Gish’s takes a more philosophic view of the world. The film is neither fast paced nor action filled, but it is deeply satisfying, and a fitting swan song for both of these great actresses.
(Davis’ personal life is filled with stories as equally entertaining as the films she appeared in. Ed Sikov’s wonderful biography Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis is an excellent place to start. For a complete filmography, see the lavishly illustrated Bette Davis: Larger Than Life. Lastly, David Thomson’s slim volume Bette Davis provides a concise account of her life, and makes a nice jumping-off point.)