“I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile and often times disagreeable. I suppose I’m larger than life,” Bette Davis.
It’s easy to take Bette Davis for granted today in the year 2016. She was a gamechanger who proved that women could take on a variety of roles on screen and that women aren’t just beautiful creatures to be gawked at. She showed that women didn’t have to be likeable, didn’t have to be pretty, and with their flaws could still be affective in a film. Her powerful roles gave her the ability to showcase women who took charge, disrupted lives and even ruined their own. But also in the year 2016, it’s a shame that women are still being rewarded with Oscars for donning prosthetics or not wearing makeup and those films that make the Oscar shortlist are usually the only few and far between films that give women strong roles. This shouldn’t shock us, this should be the norm.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Bette Davis. It was actually one of her most memorable roles as Margo Channing in All About Eve. It was an afternoon at home on a weekend after I had watched a documentary on 20th Century Fox on AMC. Before the film I was immediately enthralled by her because the documentary featured the clip of her with Gary Merrill in the dressing room. Bette’s Margo Channing talks fast in that scene, in the whole movie actually but it stuck out to me because in the scene she has taken off her wig and is removing her makeup with her confidantes and boyfriend essentially at her feet. She commands the entire thing. I didn’t know the context of the scene as it was just a clip in a best of compilation but I was so struck by Davis. I wanted to be that voice in the room, I wanted to be that powerful. Luckily the film aired right after the documentary so I was able to see this film play out. In All About Eve, Davis is peak Bette Davis. she’s sharp, quick witted and in charge but at the same picture she’s quietly vulnerable. Margo is a wildly successful actress but is also aging (by theater standards). In Eve she sees the future of the business and grips at the fact that she will soon be replaced. It’s a film and a performance that gets stronger every time I see it.
I consider myself spoiled for having seen All About Eve as my first Bette Davis film because it just displayed the legend that Bette Davis was but I didn’t grasp the actual impact Davis has on Hollywood, women, and the zeitgeist until I saw more of her filmography. The film that put Davis on the map and is the indication of her reputation as gamechanger is Of Human Bondage. Davis is cruel and despicable as Mildred, a waitress who destroys both a young art student and herself. And yet, you can’t look away when you watch her and feel sympathy for her. Not only does Mildred self destruct in her life, we see the physical transformation as the film jumps in time. Davis had made 21 films before Of Human Bondage but this made her a star. It’s a pre-code classic and although may women played a variety of strong parts during this time, this is a role I don’t think many would have taken on. Davis threw herself into this part, learning the Cockney accent and even doing her own makeup for the later scenes in which Mildred is emaciated due to illness. She holds nothing back in a climatic scene where she tells Leslie Howard’s character how she really feels about him. Her character is raw and gritty. The moment is very powerful.
A slew of roles like this would follow but these weren’t just ‘grotesque’ characters, Bette Davis played characters who weren’t afraid. Bette Davis was so fiery in each of her films. Jezebel, Dangerous, Marked Woman, Dark Victory, The Letter, My Skeffington, Now Voyager, Deception, this list doesn’t even scratch the surface of her filmography and is already super impressive. Her presence alone could burn up the screen without even saying a word. It’s a presence that both women and men aspire to.
Bette Davis was a badass and awakened the badass within myself. Bette taught us to defy expectations not only in her roles but in her own life. The stories of her standing up to studio brass are well documented as she yearned for greater scripts that would test her talent. How many of us wish we could the same when we are unfilled at our own jobs? How many of us actually do it? A woman like Bette Davis reminds us that it’s our right. Sure, she may have suffered but look where she got? She was brave because she stood up for what she believed in. When she felt powerless, she fought for it. Bette Davis was no pushover and turned the word bitch into a good thing.
In an interview in 1963 that was presented in an animation format for PBS’ Blank on Blank series, Davis discussed the sexism within the film industry. Her remarks are sadly as relevant as ever but they are influencing a new generation of women like myself. She says the following:
“I think it’s a terrible hindrance for any female to have a lot of intelligence in private life. But I think in business sometimes it’s even worse because there’s deep resentment … from the male side of the business. We all work for men, you know, they’re the people in charge, and I think they find women easier who haven’t the ability to think for themselves or stand up for themselves. One can make more enemies as a female with a brain, I think.”
It’s striking how Davis speaks a truth that still exists today more than 50 years later. Davis was fighting the good fight and her words remind us that if you’re going to get anywhere in this world, you’ve got to speak. Bette Davis was always ahead of the game. We’ll never have another Bette Davis but we continue to feel her influence. Her roles and her life show us what can be done when you create your own rules. It’s a shame she didn’t write an autobiography because I’d love to live life under the gospel of Bette Davis but thanks to her body of work and technology, we can take notes forever.