What can you say about Bette Davis and her devilishly entertaining career that spanned some 50 years of Hollywood’s golden age? She was called the “First Lady of American Film” and while only 5’3”, her personality was larger than life. Bold, brash and ballsy both on and off-screen, Davis became known as much for her scandalous affairs and bitter feuds with Hollywood rivals like Joan Crawford as for her Academy Award-winning acting. It was rumored she had affairs with George Brent, William Wyler, and billionaire Howard Hughes, among others. She was married four times, three of which ended in divorce, and always said that her career always came first. Her large, piercing trademark eyes inspired a #1 song in 1981, Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes.” She had numerous biographies written about and even penned her own story, but it was her daughter Barbara “B.D.” Hyman 1985 tell-all book, “My Mother’s Keeper,” that painted her as a ruthless bully who faked attempted suicides for sympathy.
Davis once said “old age is no place for sissies,” though no one would’ve ever dared call her such a timid or fragile creature no matter her age. On-screen she played up her deliciously evil, sarcastic, and sardonic personality. Her powerful, outspoken, unapologetic, go-for-it-all female roles were just as devious, scheming and selfish as any male. Davis earned star status with “The Man Who Played God” (1932), known as the actress that could play a variety of very strong and complex roles. But it was the role of Mildred Rogers in “Of Human Bondage” in 1934 that would finally give her major acclaim from the film critics, but resulted in a Best Actress nomination snub.
Davis sought the part of Mildred aggressively, feeling that it could be her breakout role after years of starring in Warner Brothers films that weren’t furthering her career. She begged studio chief Jack L. Warner to let her out of her contract so she could make the film. He relented, misguidedly thinking she would fail. When her standout performance sparked Oscar buzz, Warner went on the offensive with a spite campaign encouraging academy members not to vote for her.
Davis fans and supporters protested though and she garnered significant write-in votes for the Best Actress nod though she lost to Claudette Colbert for “It Happened One Night.” After that incident, write-in votes were never allowed again and the academy handed over the counting of the results to PriceWaterhouse, who still does the official counting.
Davis finally received her first Oscar for her role of Joyce Heath in 1935’s “Dangerous.” The one role that got away from her was Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.” Warner Brothers wouldn’t allow David O. Selznick to use her unless Errol Flynn played Rhett Butler.
Adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel, “Of Human Bondage” was a meaty role for Davis who reveled in the trashy, selfish waitress, playing opposite Leslie Howard’s Philip Carey, a club-footed young man who leaves art to study medicine. He is obsessed by the vulgar, low-class Cockney-accented blonde. He is smitten, even though she shows him nothing but disdain, repugnance and cruelty. Mildred is a manipulative, exploitative, two-timing, shrewish woman who distracts him from his studies and later more sympathetic love interests. When he proposes, she refuses and tells him that she will instead marry a salesman named Emil Miller (played by Alan Hale). The self-centered Mildred vindictively berates love-struck Philip with nasty insults proclaiming, “You dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once. I was always makin’ a fool of ya. Ya bored me stiff. I hated ya. It made me sick when I had to let ya kiss me. I only did it because ya begged me. Ya hounded me and drove me crazy! And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!”
The bumpy ride continues in “Another Man’s Poison,” based on a play by Leslie Sands. On the heels of their success and newfound love in “All About Eve,” Davis and husband Gary Merrill made this independent film noir feature set in an isolated house on the English Moors. Adulterous mystery writer Janet Frobisher is involved in murderous relationships. “Another Man’s Poison” is a sordid tale of murder, deception, and desire masterfully played by Davis and Merrill, one of three feature films the husband and wife made together.
Ironically, Davis’ Janet Frobisher kills her estranged husband with poison. When his bank robber partner, George Bates (played by Merrill) comes calling, Janet confesses the murder to George. As they are trying to dispose of the body, George conveniently passes himself off as the Himalayan-traveling husband to Janet’s nosey neighbor, her illicit lover and his fiancé (who just happens to be her secretary). Plot twists and turns and plenty of deception keep both Davis and Merrill on their toes. Finally, when George kills Janet’s beloved horse Fury, the only thing she truly loves, Janet plans to get rid of him once and for all. The dialogue is fast-paced and edgy, reinforcing the cat-and-mouse game the leads are playing. It’s Bette Davis at her bitchy and brutal best!
Check out both Davis films now on MovieZoot.com here.