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Despite the many milestones achieved by women in the relatively brief history of feminism, to this day, there are many industries in which they are still struggling to access the same opportunities as men. The Hollywood film industry is a perfect example; it was humorous to hear Amy Poehler and Tina Fey (at the 2014 Golden Globe Awards) ironically claim that there were “there are still great parts for Meryl Streeps over 60” – the idea being that few others older female actors can continue to survive in such a competitive realm.
If female actors of the 21st century often lament the uphill climb towards success, one can only imagine what it was like in the 1930s, when Bette Davis began her career in Hollywood. Bette had a rather difficult upbringing, which was marred by a profound sense of abandonment when her father left her beloved mother Ruthie, who fought tooth and nail to enroll Bette and her sister in the best schools possible, in an aim to provide them with the lifestyle they would have had if their father had not left.
In her autobiography, Bette Davis says that she was always an over-achiever: “I always had the will to win.” As a child, she says, the cookies she baked “had to be the best cookies anyone had ever baked”. Bette always credited her drive to excel to her mother’s great belief in her ability. It would stand the actor in good stead as she rose up the ladder of super stardom. In the 1930s, if a woman did not fight for herself, the most she could probably look forward to were roles emphasizing her beauty or that of the ‘perfect housewife’.
The Price Paid for Success
Her penchant for perfection, however, was her downfall in another sense: Bette lamented the fact that none of her four marriages (one of which was to her All About Eve co-star, Gary Merrill) worked out. Her first husband, Harmon O. Nelson (who had been her highschool sweetheart), fell prey to the prejudice of the days when a man was expected to provide for his wife or at least earn more than she did. Bette explains their awkward dynamic: “I would come home exhausted after a hard day’s work, expecting to be soothed by a loving, tender spouse, and I would find Ham relaxing with his pipe and slippers expecting the same kind of treatment. I suppose what I really needed was a good wife”. Despite her busy work schedule, Bette had one biological child and two adopted children. They were, say those in the know, her second greatest source of pride after her career.
Bette Davis pushed the limits of the female film star of the 1930s and 1940s. She was convinced that her extraordinary talent required the right scripts and the right directors. Although she craved success on the silver screen, she was not prepared to sell her soul to achieve it.
Bette began her acting career in the theatre. In 1930, she was headhunted from Broadway and offered a contract with Universal Studios, an opportunity she accepted gleefully, only to become severely disappointed when the parts she was offered fail to satisfy her artistic demands. She returned to the theatre, though Hollywood failed to give up on her – she was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from no less than legendary actor, George Arless, of Warner Bros. Once again, she signed on with a hopeful spirit, not realizing that she would, in effect, become Warner’s property. In the 1930s, top billed actors churned out up to seven or eight films a year.
The Search for Meaning
Starved of choice and faced with a string of meaningless roles, Bette longed for a part she could sink her teeth into. She found it in Of Human Bondage (1934), where she played the evil anti-hero, Mildred Rogers – a despicable vixen who destroys a man’s life for selfish reasons. It was a role that “all the glamorous, beautiful actresses turned down,” says Davis, yet she fought “like a lioness” for it, camping out at the office of Warner’s Director until he gave in. “They said that the role of Mildred Rogers was so hateful that it would ruin an actress’ career, yet it made mine,” said Davis. Her performance, which garnered her critical acclaim, was touted as the rawest, most realistic portrayal of female strength in film history thus far.
Women Nobody Could Love
This type of honest, powerful, sometimes aggressive type of women would mark the kind of roles Davis would be attracted to in the future. “I always wondered why I got such enjoyment from playing these women and the answer is probably that they are inherently enjoyable to play. I always wondered if (this type of woman) was really in my nature, way underneath”. Similar roles would see her take on women who had fallen into the trap of substance abuse. In The Scapegoat (1959), based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, she would play a drug addicted Countess whose evil son is involved in an identity exchange with murderous intent. In All About Eve, her addiction to alcohol and cigarettes was as destructive as her character’s blind ambition. If one thing marked Bette’s most memorable roles, it was her low tolerance for affectation, married to an all-consuming love for her craft. This would attract her to play unpleasant, repulsive characters, whose apotheosis audiences would find in a performance which can only be described as genius, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962).
Despite all the perks of being one of the highest paid actors at Warner, Bette refused to accept poor quality work, indulging in litigation against the studio to ‘buy back’ her independence. Although Warner was victorious in the courts, Bette spend the next few years fighting and when she finally achieved her coveted release, she continued to battle for Hollywood’s top roles. Bette worked steadily in the 50s, though it was not until the 60s that she truly revived her career, this time in horrific roles such as that of ‘Baby Jane’. It may not have been the ideal image she sought to portray, yet it garnered her an Oscar nomination and the kind of critical appraisal she craved. Until the end of her days, she was said to be ‘sharp as a tack’, recalling with crystal clear perfection the rocky road she chose to tread. Today, many female actors have her to thank for taking the road less traveled by. “Bette Davis, we love you”.