The Kennedy Center

Bette Davis


Bette Davis
(actress, born April 5, 1908, Lowell, MA; died October 6, 1989)

Often referred to as "The First Lady of the American Screen," Bette Davis was most recognized by her succinct, deep-timbered, slightly grave, no-nonsense voice. After several years of fighting through three serious illnesses and "learning to walk again twice," she returned to work on October 30, 1984, starring with Helen Hayes and John Mills in Agatha Christie's "Murder With Mirrors," a television movie which was broadcast early the following year on the CBS Television Network. On the first morning of filming in the fog-drenched, soggy gardens of a "stately home" in Hertfordshire, England, she proclaimed it "one of the really wonderful days of my life."

The actress, whose career spanned six decades, was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts, where her father, Harlow Davis, had a law practice. After the divorce of her parents in 1916, she and her sister Barbara and their mother, Ruth Favor Davis, who had taken up photography as a profession, lived in various New England communities. While in her freshmen year of high school, Bette abandoned plans to become a dancer in favor of an acting career. After performing in school productions, summer stock and with semi-professional groups, she went to New York for an interview with Eva LeGallienne. The established actress found her lacking in seriousness and advised her to study in some other field. Undaunted, she enrolled--and later won a scholarship to--John Murray Anderson's acting school in New York. From there, she joined George Cukor's stock company playing at the Lyceum Theatre in Rochester and made her professional debut in Broadway.

After a season with the Provincetown Players in New York City and two Ibsen roles with a touring repertory company, Davis bowed on Broadway in the domestic comedy Broken Dishes. The following year, while appearing in a short-lived Broadway play Solid South, she made a screen test for Universal Pictures and was signed. She arrived in Hollywood as a contract actress in December, 1930. She made her film debut in 1931 in Bad Sister.

Her major achievements began, however, with the film version of Somerset Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage in 1934 and continued with her two Academy Award-winning roles as Best Actress--for Dangerous in 1935 and Jezebel in 1938. She also earned eight additional Oscar nominations, for Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes, Now Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, All About Eve, The Star, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She was also named Best Actress by the New York Film Critics for her role as Margo Channing in All About Eve, establishing the much imitated line "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."

She developed a reputation for cajoling and even badgering Warner Brothers into buying stories she believed in, such as Jezebel, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Now Voyager, and Dark Victory.

"You know it took me three years to get Mr. Warner (Jack L. Warner) to make Dark Victory," she recalled in 1984. "He said, 'Who wants to see a story about a girl who dies?' But he saw it was a great part and finally let me do it. I never thought it was sad. It was very hopeful, and I loved doing it."

"I miss motion picture executives like Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Darryl Zanuck," she added. "They were gamblers. They gave us all a chance. They gave me a career."

The actress's career had its "bumpy nights"--and days--but its highlights have outshone them. She sailed smoothly into the age of television, winning an Emmy Award for her performance in the drama Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter. Other television films in which she starred are While Mama, The Disappearance of Aimee, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, Family Reunion, and Right of Way, in addition to Murder with Mirrors.

Davis never gave up her big screen roles, however. She is one of the very few stars in history who celebrated the 50th anniversary of the start of her film career by starring in a new movie. That was in the 1980 film The Watcher in the Woods, her 85th. For her luminous screen career, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Film Institute in 1977.

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