She lived and died before I was born, but for the longest time, Bette has been, and I believe, will always remain, a great hero of mine. I write this article in an attempt to articulate exactly why someone, a stranger to me, can command such reverence and deep admiration.
Ruth Elizabeth, “Bette” to her friends, was a relatively ordinary little girl. Bette was pretty, but others in her class were perhaps more so. She had a delightful wit, but on many occasions it was eclipsed by a painful shyness. And even her inherent generosity could disintegrate once in a while into a perfectly unalterable stubbornness. However, it was, in fact, this stubbornness, a quality just a shade away from incredible determination, that stirred a little something up in Ruth Elizabeth Davis. It was this that made her a movie star. The road to great success would, however, prove to be a difficult one.
For one thing, Davis wasn’t conventionally beautiful. While she was perfectly lovely in her own way, she certainly didn’t fit that “American ideal circa 1930” mold either, that Pre-Code look most epitomised by the likes of Lombard and Harlow. Upon her first arrival in Hollywood, Davis was surprised to find that no one was there to meet her. The famous story goes that a Universal representative had been to the station, and had left when he did not see anyone who looked like a real “star”.
Incidents like these, as well as the occasional accusation of being about as sexy as Silm Summmerville, plagued Davis during her early years in Hollywood. Yet everything about her physical appearance would end up becoming one of her greatest assets. Her voice, her cool smile, and particularly… her eyes.
With her pair of extraordinarily expressive eyes, Bette Davis could communicate to her audience the world, exactly as she saw it. In her eyes there was a great and unbreakable hope at times, a torturous tragedy at others. But always they were filled with an enormous, almost intolerable intensity; brimming with a passion so striking that one would often be taken aback, and yet be quite unable to look away even for a moment.
And for all her dramatics, there was also always a deep-rooted subtlety, a little hint of something lurking beneath. Most of all though we sensed, at the end of another grand performance, an enormous desire to do the best she possibly could, to be the best she could possibly be for an audience who had stood by her, and championed her through times of difficulty.
Why did the audience do so? To a large extent, it was her onscreen persona. She often played women who were strong-willed, courageous, intelligent, (a little evil too at times but frankly the audience loved that side as well). However it was equally, and perhaps even more so, the woman off the camera, the actress’ who possessed many of the qualities the heroines she played were blessed with.
The life of Davis was punctuated with many triumphs and breakthroughs, but perhaps the most spectacular of these, a culmination of everything Bette had fought for, happened in the winter of 1950. At the age of 42, a rather dangerous time for actresses in which the public quietly latch onto the new crop of golden girls, Bette received the role of Margo Channing, the immortal fading star of All About Eve.
The film was the first of her many successes as an independent actress. After 17 years at Warner Brothers, Bette Davis showed the world her victory against the studio system, her triumph in the long and arduous fight for artistic freedom for her peers, as well as all those that would follow in her footsteps.
Today, many of us look back on the performances of Bette Davis as overtly stylised, realism thrown right out the window. I see it all though, every look, every weighted word and steely smile, as something unforgettable. Indeed, I do believe Davis is a woman who should not be forgotten. In her long career, she proved to the world her unbreakable determination, the immense courage in her own convictions, and her great devotion to her craft. She is someone, I believe, whom we can all learn a little from.