Quick! What do the following films all have in common: Now, Voyager, Dark Victory, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Jezebel, The Letter, Mr Skeffington, The Little Foxes, and All About Eve? Okay, I know the answer is obvious – and the title of this tiny post is a huge clue – but I’ll say it anyway: BETTE DAVIS, THE FIRST LADY OF HOLLYWOOD.
It likely says something – and not a very flattering something, at that – that it was in the Thirties and Forties that some of the strongest and most popular female stars thrived. And Bette Davis was one of the stars that blazed the most incandescently. She asked for no quarter and gave none. She could be as tough and as obnoxious as any man yet she had to be twice as tough as the toughest of men as the dice were doubly loaded (forgive the strained metaphor) against her due to her not only being a performer within the studio system but being of the gender that was barred from a great deal of power. Her battles against the studio were legendary, Ms. Davis refused to meekly capitulate, to buckle under the studio czars’ insistence that she do it their way, and although it could damage her, she did not yield. She wasn’t accorded that “fifth Warner brother” nickname for nothing. She tended to know what was right for her and fought for it, even if among her least attractive qualities was the tendency to be belligerent and acidic even with some who didn’t deserve it. If we look to her art (and even that partial list of movies from her imperial period brings to mind brilliant performance after brilliant performance) we see that as an actress she knew full well what she was doing; be she playing gimlet-eyed Queen Bess or an “old maid” finding unexpected love — or any number of other memorable characters — we can only say that there will never be another Bette!
It is deflating therefore, to reflect on the ingratitude and fickleness of the Power-That-Was in Hollywood, and how after a certain point, despite undiminished ability, she was virtually abandoned. Not that she gave up. She was as full of piss and vinegar decades on as she had been kicking against the pricks (so to speak) at the peak of her popularity. Certainly it’s not as if the attitude to an aging Bette is very different to the attitude toward actresses past the “ancient” age of Forty (for God’s sake!) that often pertains today, which is pretty sad when you think of it. Especially when the likes of Juliana Margulies, Gillian Anderson, (forties), Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Bebe Neuwirth, (fifties), Helen Mirren (sixties), Judi Dench (seventies), Maggie Smith (eighties), are still great and successful. Still, let’s look at Bette Davis’s work and marvel. …Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.