What do you think of when someone mentions Bette Davis? The full-of-life doomed Judith Traherne with a brain tumor in Dark Victory? Or is it the cheeky Mildred tormenting a devoted Philip in Of Human Bondage? Perhaps she is most memorable for you as Baby Jane Hudson. For me, no part was more memorable than her portrayal of Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager. I am sure that I related to her repression and heavy-handed mother. It was a pleasure to look on the screen and see a woman who never flinched, and who was determined to fight to get her own life back for herself. That impressed the hell out of me. Because it was Bette Davis on the screen, I believed every bit of it.
In more than one interview, I heard Bette speak of her first arrival at Universal Studios. In her words, “They didn’t know what to do with someone that looked like me.” I heard once that a director said, after viewing her screen test, “Why are you doing this to me?” Little did they know the talent she had going for her.
Here she is giving all kinds of grief to Henry Fonda in Jezebel.
When someone makes a list and waxes long about femme fatales, Bette Davis’ name does not always come up. But her characters made some strategic moves in the way they dealt with men. In The Little Foxes opposite Herbert Marshall, she demonstrated a common trait of the femme fatale, how she took the upper hand, then despised the man for falling for it. In the scene below, she pulls no punches.
The audience is not spared from the sometimes ugliness in people. Miss Davis was top of the barrel, bold, brave, unflinching, and direct and cutting when she needed to be. In part 2 next Tuesday, we’ll talk about the films she made past age 40, and the books that she authored. You won’t want to miss this.