Written by Gigi Anders. Originally published October 2009 on Obit-Mag.com.
It was her audacity. The impatient kind that does not suffer long or suffer fools. The bitchy kind that beguiles gays and jolts the rest. The professional kind that makes every victory a hard-won struggle engendering wealth, power, enemies, a hard shell, and abiding loneliness. Bette Davis was surrounded by so many men throughout her life, and she defied, bedeviled, and bedazzled every last one of them with that singular audacity. The ones who ran the Hollywood studios in the ’30s and ’40s, who called her “a naughty little girl who wants more money” for daring to demand better scripts or she’d walk. The illustrious ones she played opposite in more than 80 films: Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney. The four husbands, one of whom died, the rest she divorced.
The petite Massachusetts-born Bette Davis never was the prettiest girl in the room nor the sexiest, but she always stood out, she always made you sit up and stare. Not only at her huge eyes — immortalized in Kim Carnes’ 1981 song and in Al Hirschfeld’s drawings — but at the intransigent little force of nature that she was. Bette was the woman you wanted to be, whose rat-a-tat epigrams you’d die to say:
• “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” (The Cabin in the Cotton, 1932.)
• “Ya bored me stiff; I hated ya! … And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe. My. Mouth!” (Of Human Bondage, 1934.)
• “Moving to Vermont, are you? What do you do there in between yawns?” (Dark Victory, 1939.)
• “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed.” (The Letter, 1940.)
• “What a dump.” (Beyond the Forest, 1949.)
Consider Bette’s ferocious yet feminine performance as a boozy, self-destructive actress convinced she’s a man jinx in 1935’s Dangerous (“You’d better run for your life,” she warns), a trashy movie that nonetheless earned Davis the first of two Academy Awards (the second was for Jezebel in 1938; she would be nominated eight more times from 1939 to 1962). Or behold Bette’s ballsy prostitute in Marked Woman (1937). She gets beat up, smiles sweetly, and tells her mobster pimp, “I’ll get you. Even if I have to crawl back from my grave to do it.”
She had that over-the-top quality: claws out while the red lipstick and black heels stayed on. Ambitious, intelligent, and glamorous, Bette slammed, slapped, shrieked, drank, and chain-smoked her way through life and work, which for her were inseparable. Love and marriage were a series of short-run hits resulting in mostly estranged relations with her three children. As her character Henriette Deluzy-Desportes says in All This, and Heaven Too (1940), “Happiness isn't a little cake which we can cut up to fill our appetites.”
All but washed up by the end of the ’40s — there was only so much the Warner Brothers suits could take, so they cut her loose — Bette roared back brilliantly in 1950 with All About Eve. As aging Broadway star Margo Channing (“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”), Bette, whose own career began on the stage, was picture-perfect in the wittiest, most biting and sophisticated movie she ever made. It was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won six, including Best Picture. There were a couple of campy box-office smashes after that, freak show howlers of fright-wig spectacle and cruel pity: What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965).
What Bette showed us by throwing herself into gothic, garish, creepy parts, what she did in the end (besides appear on late night talk shows and in a handful of minor films and some 50 made-for-TV movies), was brave. She captured the full range of women’s personalities and made each character she played deliciously, outrageously, even repulsively real. By exposing the truth, she extended her shelf life by years, maybe even decades, and inspired others to follow suit. (Look at Meryl Streep.) That abandon (and Yankee pragmatism; Bette needed to work like she needed to breathe) paved the way for actresses in our time to tackle similarly unappealing roles and win Oscars for it: Kathy Bates in Misery (1990), Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), and most recently Kate Winslet in The Reader (2008).
Thank you, Bette. Young or old, sweet or sour, you’re a legend. We’d like to kiss ya, but we just washed our hair.