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Accidental Heroes

Bette Davis
By Martin Kelner on Jun 27, 2017 - 1:17:00 PM

In the late fifties, when her career was on the wane, Bette Davis took a full-page ad in the Hollywood trade papers: "Mother Of Three, divorcee. Twenty years experience as an actress in motion pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumour would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. References upon request."

The gesture was typical of the actress. She didn't care. "An explosive little broad with a straight left," Jack L. Warner called her, as well he might after his courtroom battle with Davis in the thirties. In the middle of a long-term exclusive contract with Warners, Davis had fled to England rather than make more gangster flicks and screwball comedies like Fog Over Frisco and Jimmy The Gent ("fast and flip, rough and rowdy," according to the New York American).

Warner sued for breach of contract. Amazingly, Davis counter-sued, at a time when actors, let alone actresses, were considered mere chattels of the studio.

She lost, but she must have frightened the life out of Warner, because rather than punish her, he started casting her in more prestigious films, wet Sunday afternoon classics like Dark Victory, in which Davis plays a good-time girl who discovers she is dying of a brain tumour, Mr. Skeffington, as a fading beauty with a blind husband, and Now Voyager, another doomed love affair ("Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars").

When these melodramas, and others Davis made in the forties, were called "women's pictures" it was usually meant pejoratively, but it could equally be used to describe the unique connection between Bette Davis and the female audience. She was perhaps the only Hollywood actress more adored by women than men. Brigid Brophy once compared her to Saint Teresa.

That might be stretching it, as might critic Gilbert Adair's description of Davis as "the epitome of the castrating female." There is little doubt, though, that Davis's single-minded pursuit of what she knew she could achieve on screen created a series of fascinating heroines - even in the bad movies - beside whom leading men like Claude Rains and George Brent became empty suits.

Davis's looks, of course, gave her a distinct advantage when it came to playing interesting women. The make-up man on her first film told her: "Your eyelashes are too short, your hair's a nondescript colour and your mouth's too small." She herself admitted to her lack of glamour: "I was the first star they allowed to come out of the water looking wet."

Davis was rarely lost for a salty quote. She never hid, for instance, from the Hollywood gossip sheets details of her battles with studio bosses, establishing a reputation as feisty before the word was even in regular usage.

Stories of Davis's imperiousness did no harm at all to films like William Wyler's 1941 version of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, in which Davis's wicked scheming Regina must have seemed tantalisingly close to the truculent drama queen ruling the roost on the Warners' lot.

It was an image she sent up hilariously in the gothic horror film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, which revived her career in 1962. She worked until she was eighty and heroically failed to mellow. Lindsay Anderson, who directed her last movie, said "directing Bette Davis was like playing with a very sharp knife."

Like most of our accidental heroes - of whom Homer Simpson is probably the only one truly at ease with himself - Bette Davis was driven by personal demons, notably a cruel and distant father she was desperate to impress. That she never achieved.

In the attempt, though, she became a captivating and enduring presence on screen, while her life seemed to echo her famous words in the film All About Eve: "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

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