Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bette Davis - No Apologies

First in a monthly series about strong women in film. Strong women are independent, beautiful, sexy, feminine and just want everything in life that a man wants and believe that they have every right to have it!

Bette Davis was not apologetic. In a world that values surface over substance, frivolity over soul and youth over age, Ms. Bette Davis flipped a figurative bird to anyone who thought they could be her boss and rode roughshod over them all. And often looked mighty adorable while doing so!


She was, like all great stars, unique. Nobody looked like her, sounded like her, or moved like her. Her early roles sometimes called upon her to be nothing more than a blonde cutie, but even then she seemed like a bundle of pre-lit dynamite rather than the babe-next-door. She might not have been the most beautiful gal in the room, but she made you believe she was. Bette was always highly impressed with herself and probably the least convincing of her characters were the demure ones (except when they later morphed into a chic tigress with a spine of steel).  In "Fashions of 1934 " her part could have been played by any number of ingénues on the Warner Brothers payroll, but once she appears you find yourself asking "where did she come from?" or "how did this seemingly intelligent, educated, and clever gal get mixed up with this bunch of dopes?"

Though Bette sometimes played low-class women, she never had that "regular Jill" way about her like Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Blondell. Her trashy tearoom waitress, Mildred, in "Of Human Bondage" was not always believable, but her barely controlled wildness put it across. She seethed.


At the height of her powers no one could touch her. She got the right scripts and the right directors and she flourished. Beneath the good breeding and upright Yankee background simmered a woman of passion. "Jezebel", "The Letter", "Dark Victory" and "Now Voyager" showcased her range, her passion, her sex appeal and her strength and produced portraits of unforgettable screen heroines. 


Starting with the 1950s, no longer young by Hollywood standards, Bette soldiered on and gave us a gallery of women fighting to be noticed in a society where they have become invisible. "All About Eve" gave us an aging star eclipsed by youth (and treachery). Her sophistication and wit were on display, but she made you feel the pain. "What Ever Happened To Baby Jane" and "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" gave us women who flamboyantly  demanded that the world pay attention. Behind the aging facade were individuals who were vulnerable and whose feelings mattered.


What is an independent woman? To our modern sensibilities, it is a woman who makes her own way in this man's world. To movie audiences in the 20s through, let's face it, the present, that vision of an independent woman is often flirted with, but love is always the goal. Bette's roles were no different. Her strong personality ideally fit those roles of either career women or women whose passionate desires were repressed by society, but she succumbed to love willingly and beautifully. What made her unique was that  her independence was organic. Her personality seemed to need no one. She was enough for her self by herself.


Of course, the fact that she was a slam-bang great dramatic actress helped! Like a great prize-fighter she was canny, light on her feet and, above all, courageous.She was, and is, an inspiration to all who admire great acting by a great individual with the heart of a lion. 


11 comments:

Pax Romano said...

Outstanding!

I've never read anything that so succinctly summed up Ms. Davis - well done.

Reel Revival said...

A very nice summation of Ms. Davis! I think you captured very well her essence - the aura that makes her so interesting to watch.

Incidentally, I just posted a poll on Reel Revival asking how Ms. Davis compared to Joan Crawford. There are only three responses thus far, but Bette Davis is running away with it!

Jan Miner said...

Very nice. When my daughter was small, her favorite song was "Bette Davis Eyes." She had no clue who BD was but she managed to look sultry and BD-like as she sang.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Very enjoyable profile of Ms. Davis. We're also covering strong women in film at the Cafe this month--and spotlighted one of Bette's films, of course (THE LITTLE FOXES). In addition to her wonderful acting, Bette (along with Olivia de Havilland) contributed significantly to the end of the "studio system" whereby actors were signed to long-term, restructive contracts.

RB said...

Even in an early minor role in the 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge (head and shoulders above the tamer 1940 version btw) Bette stands out. She couldn't help it.

Freder said...

Bang on the nose!

The Lady Eve said...

I liked your assessment of BD so much I tweeted it...will be watching for your coming posts on strong women in film...

Sandra Branum said...

One of my favorite movies is "Pocket Full of Miracles" mostly because of Bette Davis and her unique voice.

VP81955 said...

I have no qualm with Bette Davis' talent; my regret is that she never really got to show the versatility that, to me, makes someone like Barbara Stanwyck so special (I can't think of a genre she didn't excel in).

Part of me wishes Davis -- who had an often-stormy relationship with Warners -- had gone to another studio where she might have been able to work in more genres, specifically comedy, which I'm sure she could have pulled off.

In the late 1930s, Warners was probably the studio least equipped to do screwball (its clumsy "Fools For Scandal" turned Carole Lombard from the hottest actress in the industry to someone who did dramas for the next two years). Yes, in 1941 Bette did "The Bride Came C.O.D." with James Cagney, but she's a bit long in the tooth to play a debutante and the script (from the people who later did "Casablanca"!) lacks the subtlety of the best screwballs.

Imagine Davis at RKO, Columbia or Paramount working with directors or writers like Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Norman Krasna or Mitchell Leisen. It's a delicious "what if."

ClassicBecky said...

Hey Flickchick, I'm a little late with my comment, but I'm just getting to know your blog. Bette Davis is without doubt my favorite actress, classic or modern. She was everything you said, and I wish I had half of her self-confidence and chutzpah! Really good article about her, and I enjoyed it very much!

ClassicBecky said...

P.S. I just read the other comments on this poast and saw that Classic Film Cafe mentioned an article done there on The Little Foxes...I wrote that one! What a fabulous performance she gave. But then, even if a movie was not good, she never gave a bad performance!