Star of the Month: Bette Davis
November 1, 2019 | by Shannon
Love her or hate her, Bette Davis is a classic star that evokes strong feelings! I’ve never met a Classic Hollywood fan that felt ambiguously about Ms Davis. Whatever your feelings about Bette, there is no question that she was a STAR in every sense of the word—talented, glamorous, temperamental, Davis, thirty years after her last film and passing, remains one of the greatest symbols of The Golden Age of Hollywood.
Bette is almost as famous for all the drama in her private life as she is for her consistently amazing film work. After getting to know quite a bit about Bette through my research for this month, I’m near convinced that Bette possessed some sort of gravitational pull that continuously brought chaos, cat fights, and physical and mental abuse into her life. Sometimes Bette was the victim, oftentimes she was the offender…
Bette may have played some really incredible characters in some pretty melodramatic films over the course of her career, but I would argue that Bette’s life, what she actually did and experienced, topped anything she acted on screen.
I would highly recommend reading her autobiography [aff. link] if you are interesting in learning all about Bette. James Spada’s Bette Davis: More Than a Woman [aff. link] is also fantastic. Ed Sikov’s Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis [aff. link] is another good source of info, though I find Spada’s book far superior. Here are a few things from Bette’s life that are particularly fascinating:
A Difficult Childhood Made Bette a Fighter
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 5, 1908, Bette was a New Englander through and through. Her father never warmed to Bette or her younger sister Barbara (who went by Bobby). Harlow Davis was a cold man who would not allow his daughters downstairs when he was home. Bette and Bobby were even forbidden from eating at the dinner table with their parents!
Ruthie and Harlow Davis divorced when Bette was ten years old. The absence of her father, and his insistence that Bette would NEVER be a successful actress through their strained interactions over the years, only pushed Bette to accomplish her acting goals. In Bette’s own words:
“He certainly inspired me no end to prove he was wrong. He made me prove a lot.”
She Trained with Martha Graham
YES! Bette Davis was a dancer in her youth, and trained with Martha Graham, the “Dancer of the Century”! Bette was so inspired by Graham’s free movements that Graham became the model on which Bette based her legendary walk. As Bette’s former classmate Ginny Conroy shared,
“[Bette] exaggerated it [Graham’s walk] into a swivel and made it her own, a characteristic later beloved by her imitators.”
Bette's Eyes Saved Her Film Career
As a young contract player at Universal Studios, Bette learned that her looks were unconventional to most, and downright unappealing to others. Having been voted the class beauty at her high school, this was indeed a new experience for Bette!
On the set of her first film, The Bad Sister (1931), Bette overheard Universal Studios big-wig Carl Laemmle say about her:
“What audience could ever imagine the hero going through hell and high water just to kiss her at the fadeout?”
Laemmle almost dropped Bette’s contract, but her fate was saved by cameraman Karl Freund, who told Laemmle to keep the Davis girl on because of those luminous eyes. As Bette related though,
“While his [Freund’s] words saved my career, they were cruel as can be uttered about a girl who thinks that she is fairly easy to look at and who has the hope that somebody will regard her as a capable actress.”
But maybe realizing so early on that to succeed in Hollywood, Bette could not skate by on physical appearance alone, is what propelled Bette to develop her natural acting talents, and become one of the best actresses of American cinema.
“Women’s Pictures”—films with strong female leads and storylines where the female protagonist is the center of the movie, often overcoming great obstacles (or dying tragically at the end!)—became Bette’s specialty.
Bette and Oscar
Bette was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar ten times, and won twice. WOW! Her first win was in 1936 for Dangerous (1935). At this time, no one called the Academy Awards “the Oscars.” Bette changed all that.
As Bette held her much deserved and hard-earned Oscar the night of her win, she realized that the statuette’s rear looked strangely familiar…in fact, it looked just like her husband’s! Bette’s husband’s middle name was Oscar, and somehow, it just seemed like the fitting name for her new award. So she christened her Academy Award “Oscar.”
The name caught on not just for Bette’s Academy Award, but for all Academy Awards. And as we all know, the nickname has stuck through the years, and the name “the Oscars” is used interchangeably with “the Academy Awards” to this day!
Bette’s Four Tempestuous Marriages
Hollywood is a hard town to remain married in, and Bette’s natural need for chaos and attention, coupled with her superstardom by the late 1930s, pretty much guaranteed that none of her marriages would succeed. Here’s a rundown on the four marriages and men who would each hold the tile of “Mr. Bette Davis” over the years:
Harmon "Ham" Nelson (married 1932-1938)
Bette, with her New England roots, was a virgin when she married her high school sweetheart, Harmon “Ham” Nelson in 1932. Ham found it really difficult to have a wife who brought in about 90 percent of the couple’s income. When Ham found out Bette was having an affair with Howard Hughes, he wired the bedroom with recording equipment to catch Bette and Howard in the act. He succeeded. Bette and Ham divorced shortly after.
Arthur Farnsworth (married 1940-1943)
Farnsworth was a former WWII pilot, and Bette discovered soon after the marriage that her new husband was an alcoholic. By this time, Bette was known to throw a few drinks back herself, and the two argued incessantly during long, boozy nights.
Farnsworth died from head injuries after a fall on the streets of Hollywood just before his divorce from Bette was finalized. The circumstances surrounding his death are still a mystery. Some even suggest that it was Bette who pushed Farnsworth to his death (not intending for him to die, just another one of their arguments.)
William Grant Sherry (married 1945-1950)
Another WWII vet and artist, Sherry gave Bette her only biological child, Barbara Davis “B.D.” Sherry. Though Bette encouraged Sherry to be the homemaker in their relationship and to not find work for income tax reasons, she also berated him for “mooching” off her. After the divorce, Sherry married Marion Richards, whom Bette herself had hired a few years previously as her daughter B.D.’s caregiver!!! (This may be the first instance of a Hollywood nanny ending up a part of the family.) Incidentally, Sherry and Marion remained married until his death, in 2003.
Gary Merrill (married 1950-1960)
Bette met Merrill, also an actor, on the set of her comeback film, the classic All About Eve (1950). Merrill and Bette were arguably both alcoholics by the time they got married, and confused the characters they played in All About Eve with real life. The marriage to Merrill was probably the most volatile of Bette’s unions. It’s pretty safe to say Gary was physically abusive, though Bette surely goaded him on.
Bette and Merrill adopted two children together, Margot (named after Bette’s Eve character) and Michael. When Margot was a toddler, it was discovered that she was mentally disabled. Doctors said Margot’s disability most likely stemmed from some sort of head trauma sustained either during childbirth or shortly thereafter.
Two staff members in the Davis/Merrill home at the time, Margot’s nurse and the family housekeeper, are of the opinion that Bette or Merrill, with their short tempers and alcohol consumption, were in some way responsible for Margot’s mental handicaps…we’ll never know for sure.
When asked towards the end of her life which of her husbands Bette liked best, she responded with classic Bette Davis wit:
“Obviously I had no favorite since I dumped them all!”
YES, the Feud with Joan Crawford was Real
Bette actually got along with very few of her female costars. Male costars, not really a problem for Bette. But the females!!!! Cat fights with just about every one, from Miriam Hopkins to Susan Hayward (Olivia de Havilland and Anne Baxter were the only two female co-stars who remained on friendly terms with Bette). But the most notorious Davis feud of all was with the equally legendary Joan Crawford.
Ok, so the feud started back in 1935, when Bette made Dangerous with Franchot Tone. Bette had an affair with Tone, who was engaged to….Joan Crawford! Bette at the time was more than a little jealous of Joan, who was a big star at MGM, getting plum roles and the royal treatment, while Bette was stuck in “B” pictures at Warner Brothers, despite her greater acting talent. It’s likely that Bette knew exactly what she was doing when she chose to pursue a relationship with Tone. Obviously, this made Joan mad, and so the lifelong cat fight began!
By the time Crawford and Bette both signed on to make What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), both actresses were experiencing career and financial low points. Nothing else would have motivated them to work together! Constant fighting and vicious words prevailed on set, and the cherry on the cake was when Bette received a Best Actress nomination for her work on the film. Joan did not.
So what did Joan do? She contacted all the other Best Actress nominees, and offered to accept the Best Actress Oscar on their behalf should any one of the nominees win and not be able to attend the ceremony.
As it turned out, Anne Bancroft won that year for The Miracle Worker (1962), and Joan had the time of her life waltzing past Bette with a gentle “Excuse me” to accept the coveted Oscar. These two never quit!!!
A Heart of Gold
Well, if it seems like most of what I highlighted from Bette’s life shows her in perhaps a rather harsh light, it’s only because much of her life was, well, rather harsh! Underneath that rough exterior though, Bette definitely had some shining qualities and characteristics.
For instance, in 1942, Bette founded the Hollywood Canteen, a club for soldiers to enjoy free of charge, where beautiful celebrities would be in attendance every night to chat and dance with the boys before they went off to war. Guess who was at the Hollywood Canteen nearly every night after long days at the studio to serve the soldiers food, dance, and converse with them? Yep, Bette Davis.
Bette also supported both her mother Ruthie and her sister Bobby financially from the time she became a star until their respective deaths. This included buying her mother nice homes in the Hollywood area, indulging Ruthie’s extravagant lifestyle, and footing the bills for Bobby’s frequent stays in various mental institutions. Bette definitely had a big heart beneath her often rough exterior.
Join me in celebrating Bette Davis this month on TCM! Head on over to TCM.com for a complete list! With over 120 credits to her name, TCM is showcasing basically all of Bette’s films.
Are you a Bette Davis fan?