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Bette Davis (1908 – 1989)


Bette Davis

Bette Davis was shocked when Hollywood first came calling. She had never thought a world that worshipped beauties like Jean Harlow would take an interest in her. Yet her confidence grew with each picture until, insecure about her talent no longer, she was like a boxer, going rounds with costars and directors, scriptwriters and studio executives. She was so tough, in fact, that her boss at Warner Bros., Jack Warner, was afraid of her. Ironically, her career took off when Warner reluctantly loaned her out to RKO to make Of Human Bondage (1934). He cautioned that playing the totally unsympathetic role of a seductive waitress would sink her career, but when critics hailed the performance as the best in screen history, he had to admit he had been wrong. Yet he was still slow to capitalize on her talents, working her tirelessly in numerous thankless parts for each decent role. She tried to walk out on her contract but was forced back by the courts. When Hal Wallis took over production, Warner Bros. started making glossier productions, including the kinds of moody dramas and unconventional romances that best suited Bette’s keen intelligence and captivating manner. Jezebel (1938): Dark Victory (1939); The Letter ((940); Now, Voyager (1942)—in each film she shattered the stereotype of the helpless female, so popular on screen at the time. Instead, she brought audiences spirited women with inner resources and unwavering standards, not unlike the American women who had survived the Depression to man the home front during World War II. Bette made two comebacks in her decades-long career. When age and declining box office led to her departure from Warner Bros., she scored the role of aging actress Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) at 20th Century-Fox, a part planned for Claudette Colbert until she injured her back. Facing career doldrums again more than a decade later, she took a chance on horror in 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Joining forces with offscreen rival Joan Crawford, she created a juicy camp fest and paved the way for other aging actresses in search of interesting roles.

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