A closer look at Bette Davis

When thinking about Hollywood today, I always drift backward in time to a Hollywood where connections and beauty meant a lot, but talent meant even more. Don’t get me wrong, I love contemporary Hollywood, and I think it generates many wonderful films, but I think it is important to take a gander into the past to find some of the best stars and films of all time.

Regarding the list of Old Hollywood bests, I would have to include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. These films all have very different stories to tell and quite varied talents playing the roles, but all three have one common thread. They all tell a grand story with class, style and elegance.

Now, to deviate from an overview of Old Hollywood, I would like to mention an actress who transcended the expectations of Hollywood itself and transformed her job as actress into what I feel is an archetype of what Hollywood actors of today should strive to be. I can name at least five films she starred in that make the list of Old Hollywood bests. There’s been a lot of talk about her eyes, but let us now talk about her talent.

Still wondering who I am referring to? Even after the mention of her eyes? Why Bette Davis, of course; the actress who helped to shape Hollywood’s standards of excellence forever. Let’s take a look at some of her films, shall we?

Set in antebellum New Orleans in the early 1850s, Jezebel (1938) is a fine film that follows Julie Marsden through her quest to social redemption on her terms. Davis plays the free-spirited Southern belle whose dominance and overbearing ways runs off her beloved fiancé Preston Dillard. To win back his heart, she plays North against South amid a deadly epidemic of yellow fever which claims a surprising victim.

Davis plays this role brilliantly, as her drive and fierce personality off camera shines through to reveal a young woman with only one thing in mind, getting exactly what she wants against all odds. This reflects one of Davis’ most outstanding attributes in real life.

Speaking of real life, I wonder to myself if the next film I mention was a fictional motion picture, or a true story about Davis herself. I mean, she does play a powerful and talented actress who will ultimately let no one stand in the way of that.

All About Eve, (1950) perhaps my favorite, if not close second favorite, Bette Davis picture stars the diva as the great and temperamental Margo Channing, a renowned stage actress who becomes close to the manipulative Eve Harrington, an aspiring theater actress who uses any tactic necessary, including using the lives of Margo and her friends, to get ahead in the theater business.

Davis claims to have based her role on the persona of film actress Talullah Bankhead. And Davis’ famous line, "Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride," is now a household expression, although the entire script shines with beautifully rich dialogue. Eve is a story of ambition and betrayal, which has become an integral part of American folklore.

Now let us turn to Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). In this classic film, the arrival of a lost relative engulfs terror upon an aging Southern belle, forever plagued by a horrifying family secret. Davis plays Charlotte Hollis, the aging recluse deluded into a state of dementia by horrible memories and hallucinations. She lives in a secluded house where some thirty seven years prior her married lover was beheaded and mutilated by an unknown assailant.

Similar to the plot of Dolores Claiborne, Davis is accused of the murder and must prove her innocence. This film is epic in scope and leaves nothing to be desired. Again, as I find often in old Hollywood films, the ending is spectacular.

And lastly, I would like to mention what is perhaps Bette Davis’ most well-known film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) where she co-stars with the endlessly talented Joan Crawford. This brilliant classic is about two sisters, Baby Jane and Blanche Hudson, living in a decaying old Hollywood mansion. Baby Jane is a former childhood star, while Blanche is a movie star forced into early retirement after a crippling accident.

Baby Jane, after years of being overlooked because of her sister’s great success, turns the tables on Blanche by "taking care" of her without the help of any outsider. What we get is a helpless woman with a good heart imprisoned by her psychotic sister. With one of the most memorable endings of any film I’ve ever seen, this film is one of the shining examples of why Hollywood is known for producing the best movies in all the world.

And I’ve also heard it uttered that Bette Davis was the one and only actress in all of Hollywood at the time who intimidated the all-powerful Joan Crawford. Put two fiery Aries women in a room together and what have you got? One of the best motion pictures ever made.

Bette Davis was known for her "my way or the highway" attitude about her career, and she took many steps to ensure that things went her way. She tried to get out of her contract with Warner Brothers and ultimately sued them for not giving her good enough roles. When she went back to Warner Brothers, lo and behold, her roles improved.

Davis was also all over the headlines for alleged arguments with film executives. In those times Davis’ arguments and drive for a better career was as popular as Brittany Spears’ shaved head. My oh my, how the times do change!

As far as awards, Davis won two Oscars for best actress, and was nominated for many others. Having played in 121 quality films from 1931 to 1989, a whopping 59 years in the business, Bette Davis certainly deserves her star on Hollywood Blvd., as well as all of the attention she still garners in film-loving circles.

I highly recommend that you see all of Davis’ pictures, and you can start with the ones mentioned by dropping in Outloud! Books and Gifts on Church Street.

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