The Fifth Warner Brother

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.
Annex - Davis, Bette (Dark Victory)_03
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!
Annex - Davis, Bette (Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The)_01
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.
Annex - Davis, Bette_62

Subscribe to Podcast


  1. October 7, 2014

    Lovely shots and tribute, Vickie. 🙂

    • October 11, 2014

      There aren’t many acting careers that rival hers — just an amazing lady.

  2. October 7, 2014

    Perfect tribute. An inspiring actress and woman, although I’m not sure I would have enjoyed working with her!

    • October 11, 2014

      I have a friend who worked on her last film, “The Whales of August”, who said it was a wonderful experience, but then again it was a magical (and perhaps very mellowed) cast.

      • October 11, 2014

        Mellowed?! Maybe that’s the only way! Hope you’re feeling heaps better.

      • October 11, 2014

        It’s kind of astonishing how much better I feel. Hugs from here! V

  3. October 7, 2014

    Gorgeous photographs of Bette, especially that last one. Your photos are worth price of admission!

    • October 11, 2014

      Thank you! I think the last photo was done by the Master of Starlight, George Hurrell.

  4. October 7, 2014

    The last photo is sublime.

    • October 11, 2014

      If it was taken by Hurrell, he was very artful, beautiful light and a lot of retouching…

  5. Heather in Arles
    October 8, 2014

    Loved the rhythm of the writing here. A strong woman is often detested…and if she is smart to boot? …

    • October 11, 2014

      Isn’t that the oddest thing? And I wonder what she would have made of the somewhat less than smart films that are being made now…

  6. October 11, 2014

    What I love about Bette is the same thing I admire in Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Angelina Jolie, and Charlize Theron – a willingness to play an ugly and/or unlikeable character if it’s important to a good plot. They don’t need to be the “hot chick” in every single film, or to only be cast in parts where they’re perfectly coiffed. Their bravery shows in their willingness to be filmed looking particularly awful, because they’re confident enough in their own skin not to give a crap what anyone else thinks.

  7. October 11, 2014

    She looks so modern in the last photo. She was remarkable.

  8. […] Yet in the end Davis got what she wanted. Better scripts and parts including one that culminated in her second Academy Award for Jezebel. This was a period where Davis morphed into the fifth Warner. […]

  9. […] Yet in the end Davis got what she wanted. Better scripts and parts including one that culminated in her second Academy Award for Jezebel. This was a period where Davis morphed into the fifth Warner. […]

Comments are closed.