Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy Birthday, Bette Davis (Apr. 5, 1908-Oct. 6, 1989): A Talent for Hysteria

Note: This tribute to Bette Davis appeared previously in online Bright Lights in 1997.

“Millions of moviegoers responded to the challenge of her headstrong, neurotic heroines who, like Frankenstein’s monster, were made of mismatched parts and bolts of electricity. Her cluster of quirks attracted as they repelled.”

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Bette Davis is the exception to every rule. The tin-plated platitudes out of which show-biz bios are fabricated simply don’t work. Stars were supposed to be “pretty,” but her eyes bulge, her nose droops over thin lips, her breasts sag, her hips spread, and any display of legs would most certainly have hindered the war effort. Female stars were supposed to be “feminine,” but Davis thrust raw emotion at audiences without apology, demanding that attention be paid. What’s more, during a period in their heads for more than chapeaux. (Of course, her brainpower tends to be harnessed for selfish schemes rather than for humanity. Unlike Greer Garson, she felt no compulsion to discover radium.)

Millions of moviegoers responded to the challenge of her headstrong, neurotic heroines who, like Frankenstein’s monster, were made of mismatched parts and bolts of electricity. Her cluster of quirks attracted as they repelled: jerky movements suggesting carburetor trouble; the catapulting of consonants from her lips with invisible hyphens placed between syllables; volcanic outbursts accompanied by fire breathing and smoke swallowing; that throaty, defiant laugh. One must search the animal kingdom to find a creature so strangely arresting. The walk of a caged lioness, the instincts of a wolf (in Italy she was known as “La Lupa”), and the appetite of a black widow spider. And nothing canine is foreign to her.

Davis is a grab bag of contradictions. Take your pick. Is she a forthright defender of dramatic truth, or a saboteuse whose wrong-headed interference botched movies? Is she Hollywood’s most self-effacing artist or its most outrageous show-off? The answer to all these questions is yes!

Being a histrionic performer, Davis emphasizes polarities. The tendency to underline extreme emotions is both her greatest strength and greatest weakness. The actor creates the characterization, but the strong director creates the context, modulating the performance to harmonize with all other elements. Like the equally recalcitrant Marlon Brando, she often seems to be on her own wavelength, listening to her own voices. If there is an imbalance in many of her films, it’s because nothing and no one could match their fervor. One doesn’t need an ax to cut a cupcake.

Davis has always felt that since she is accountable for what’s up on the screen, she must fight for what she believes to be right. However, on examining her films, she appears to have often been wrong. Certainly, many of the directors she directed were pitifully lacking in any real point of view, but Davis didn’t sanction strongmen either. She battled William Wyler, Michael Curtiz, King Vidor, and Raoul Walsh (who did retakes on In This Our Life after John Huston was dismissed), preferring the more easily intimidated Irving Rapper.1

Joseph L. Mankiewicz remembers several foreboding phone calls from directors who were veterans of wars with Davis when it was announced that she would take over the role of Margo Channing in All About Eve. A Cassandra-like Edmund Goulding warned, “Dear boy, have you gone mad? This woman will destroy you, she will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away. You are a writer, dear boy. She will come to the stage with a thick pad of long yellow paper. And pencils. She will write. And then she, not you, will direct. Mark my words.”2

Many of her miscalculations involve an over-eagerness to externalize. She showed the world that she put characterization before self-flattery via strenuous makeup jobs transforming herself from homeliness to beauty, or youth to hagdom. But these effects – the caterpillar eyebrows during the first quarter of Now, Voyager, the ghostly white powder in The Old Maid, and the fish-skin during the latter sections of Mr. Skeffington – distract, since everyone else looks human. As previously indicated, stars need a firm, objective hand to tell them when to turn up the heat and when to lower it. Although fans loved her viragos, her acting is too frequently overbaked.3

Beyond the Forest is one of the few occasions in which Davis’s talent for hysteria is intelligently used. For a change, she is not allowed to act in a vacuum. King Vidor’s sense of spectacle unites with her high-powered mannerisms to make Rosa Moline, smalltown slut, a misfit of mythic proportions. Here is a monster whose insatiable passion is given visual correlatives in fiery furnace blasts and the phallic splendor of an onrushing locomotive. Yet, galvanized by hatred for her tacky surroundings, she seems more alive and hence more sympathetic than characters with conventional morals. Too misanthropic for Loyalton, Wisconsin, yet too backward for The Big Town and The Big Time, Rosa is at once ridiculous and tragic. “If I don’t get out of here, I’ll just die!” she seethes. “Living here is like waiting for the funeral to begin. No, it’s like waiting in the coffin for them to carry you out.” As a sidelight, it should be noted that Davis’s own hatred of script, director, and studio gave Rosa continuous booster shots of venom.

The physicality that Vidor demanded of Davis – her death-crawl is epic – should be a revelation to those bored with the well-groomed young matron of so many middle-class entertainments. Her favorite man (or mouse) behind the megaphone was Edmund Goulding (That Certain Woman, Dark Victory, The Old Maid, The Great Lie), something of a cross between Mitchell Leisen and George Cukor. Like Leisen, he fussed over costumes and hairstyles, and like Cukor, he took responsibility for the smallest gestures. (Goulding was famous for acting out all roles and expecting reasonable facsimiles from the cast.) However, in the long run he lacked both Leisen’s sense of design and Cukor’s psychological insight. Until he became disposed toward roving camera movements after leaving Warner Bros., Goulding’s movies tend to be plainly made. Dark Victory, for instance, is almost entirely dependent upon rhythms created by the actors. That gets word-wearying, but the two sides of the star’s persona are cleverly showcased. Gestures are staccato when living it up as a devil-may-care playgirl; then her mood turns legato as true love, imminent death, and Max Steiner’s heavenly choir perform a spiritual uplift.

Valiant is also the word for Bette in two dramas directed by Anatole Litvak. Set in San Francisco, The Sisters, a sort of west coast Little Women, is briefly enlivened by the inevitable earthquake. As a very long suffering wife, Davis contributes well worked out bits of business, but meticulous fidgeting cannot vivify a dull character. The Sisters and All This and Heaven Too prove that only in fables does the tortoise win the race. Not that a Litvak production can seriously be compared to a relay. To borrow a metaphor from Ms. Moline, All This and Heaven Too takes 140 minutes to reach the cemetery. Seldom have so many rooms been the scene of so little action.

Irving Rapper (Now, Voyager, The Corn Is Green, Deception, Another Man’s Poison) was a protégé of Michael Curtiz. Lacking the latter’s muscularity, Rapper’s niche became the moist woman’s film and the timid biography (The Adventures of Mark Twin, Rhapsody in Blue, The Christine Jorgensen Story). It would be a mistake to criticize him too harshly; some men are not born to lead. He simply upheld the lacquered Warners house look without either mangling or embellishing material assigned him. Now, Voyager is still beloved by spinsters of both sexes for Davis’s Cinderella treatment (accomplished with a little help from her friends Perc Westmore and Orry-Kelly) and for the unflinching romanticism of the Davis-Henreid close encounters. Like Litvak, Rapper seemed to go out of his way to prove that no speed freak he – as if slow pacing were a passport to respectability.

Of the Warners workhorses specializing in sentimental subjects, Curtis Bernhardt (A Stolen Life, Payment on Demand) had the best eye for composition. Schooled in the shadow-bound German cinema, he occasionally succeeded in letting images rather than dialogue carry the ball. Although he never found universal truths lurking beneath the mechanisms of melodrama, nor exposed bourgeois hypocrisy through domestic conflicts, he did approach the woman’s film with conviction. He is to be preferred to the bone-dry Vincent Sherman (Old Acquaintance, Mr. Skeffington), who presented even the most florid situations with a straightforwardness bordering on disinterest. About Bretaigne Windust (Winter Meeting, June Bride), the less said the better.

Unlike many of the films mentioned above, All About Eve is not a star vehicle. Davis has the most flamboyant part, but Margo is not what the show is all about. Anne Baxter actually has the pivotal role, but Mankiewicz never allows anyone to hog the spotlight. This ensemble feeling is as pleasing as it is rare. Davis gives a performance ranging from childishness to mature self-awareness. Her reflections on her life as an actress and woman while stranded in a car on a lonely highway are what screen acting is all about.

Under William Wyler, Davis’s effects are also well judged. She is controlled yet spirited in Jezebel, her face softened by antebellum styles. Unfortunately, Wyler’s cool and elegant approach is at odds with the feverish material and a certain urgency is missing. The Letter is far more satisfying because Wyler takes more chances. Melodramatic flourishes such as brooding shots of a cloud-shrouded moon convey the tension between colonial repression and tropical heat. The wordless opening – Davis in flowing robes circling a prostrate body as she fires a revolver with icy resolve – is truly gripping, ranking with similar bang-up sequences in Mildred Pierce and Written on the Wind.

The Little Foxes is more typical of Wyler’s and Gregg Toland’s deep-focus, long-take style (which occasionally makes rooms look as formally laid out as chessboards). As in The Letter, Davis is extremely subtle, getting more out of doing less. Once again she plays a shrewd woman; however, Regina is more forthright, less adept at disguising her feelings. Bursts of temper are all the more effective for disturbing a masklike face.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

The ravages of time brought that face further and further from womanhood toward dragonhood. Few of her films after 1950 are better than sideshow attractions. Like Vincent Price, she will parade the accumulated tics of a lifetime for any producer willing to meet her terms. An exception is Seth Holt’s undervalued chiller The Nanny, a sensible performance in sensible shoes. Her gruesome twosome for Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte) are also more than simply exploitation items. While quenching the public’s thirst for shock and grotesquerie, they manage to go beyond genre stereotypes; Baby Jane is such a bundle of hurts that we identify with her zest for cruelty, and Charlotte’s wounded-animal quality makes her ferociousness touching. Both pictures benefit immeasurably from the sadness in Davis’s eyes. After Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Davis was mired in cinematic sludge. Yet she remained never less than watchable.

  1. According to Bette Davis historian David Chierichetti, Davis personally shifted around other performers during the gangplank sequence of Now, Voyager and insisted on coming to The Corn Is Green set on a day in which she was not needed in order to supervise the proceedings. []
  2. Mankiewicz’s experience with Davis was most pleasant, a tribute, perhaps, to his foolproof script. []
  3. Perhaps most flagrant is her Stanley Timberlake in In This Our Life, a portrayal that cries out for exorcism. []