Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Bette Davis

(1908-1989)

Bette Davis, an American movie actress known for portraying strong and complex characters, was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA. She studied drama in New York City at the Robert Milton-John Murray Anderson School of the Theater and made her Broadway debut by 1929. In 1930, she moved to Hollywood to make motion pictures. She was first under contract with Universal, but was fired after making the unsuccessful Bad Sister and she moved to Warner Brothers. In 1934, she received major acclaim for the movie Of Human Bondage. After this sucess, she started her long struggle with the studio to obtain stronger parts in future movies. In 1935, received her first Academy Award for her role in Dangerous.

In 1936 she was suspended without pay for turning down a role. She then sailed to England to make movies there, but Warner Bros. tried to stop her from working anywhere, since she was still under contract to them. She sued to terminate the contract and lost, but the studio paid her legal expenses and began treating her more seriously after that.

In 1938, she received her second Academy Award for Jezebel, playing opposite Henry Fonda. In 1941, she became the first woman to head the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. During World War II, she managed the Hollywood Canteen, a club where movie stars entertained and served the soldiers fighting in the war. She was also the president of the Hollywood Canteen Foundation, which donated money for various services for the soldiers. Forty years later, she received the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the Defense Department's highest civilian award for her efforts.

She also appered in theater (most notably in Night of the Iguana (1961) by Tennessee Williams) and in many movies made for television. Although a major box office attraction throughout World War II, the less favorable attitudes toward women prevalent after the war caused the decline of her career. She had a comeback with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which she played a deranged former child actress taking care of her crippled sister played by Joan Crawford. In 1977, she was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Life Achievenment Award and a special CÚsar for her life's work in films from the French motion-picture industry. During her lifetime, she received ten Academy Award nominations and appeared in over eighty films.

Bette Davis was married four times. She had a daughter, B.D. (Barbara Davis), with her third husband, William Grant Sherry. She suffered wife abuse in this marriage and finally obtained a divorce. While married to her fourth husband, Gary Merrill, she adopted two children, Margot and Michael.

In 1962, she published her first autobiography, The Lonely Life, and then another one, This'n That in 1987. In 1985, her daughter, B.D. Hyman, published a less-than-complimentary account of her life with Bette Davis in a book My Mother's Keeper.

Movies, starring Bette Davis (incomplete list):

  • Bad Sister (1931) with Humphrey Bogart
  • The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
  • The Man Who Played God (1932) with George Arliss
  • Of Human Bondage (1934) with Leslie Howard
  • Dangerous (1935)
  • The Petrified Forest (1936) with Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard
  • Jezebel (1938) with Henry Fonda
  • The Sisters (1938)
  • Juarez (1938) with Brian Aherne
  • The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
  • Dark Victory (1939) with George Brent, Humphrey Bogart and Gary Merrill
  • The Letter (1940)
  • The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941)
  • The Little Foxes (1941)
  • In This Our Life (1942)
  • Old Acquaintance (1943) with Miriam Hopkins
  • Now, Voyager (1943) with Paul Henreid
  • Watch on the Rhine (1943) with Paul Lukas
  • Mr. Skeffington (1944) with Claude Rains
  • The Corn Is Green (1945) with John Dall
  • Deception (1946)
  • Beyond the Forest (1949)
  • All About Eve (1950) with Anne Baxter and Gary Merrill
  • The Star (1952)
  • The Virgin Queen (1955)
  • The Catered Affair (1956)
  • The Scapegoat (1959).
  • Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) with Joan Crawford
  • Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Olivia De Haviland
  • The Whales of August (1988) with Lillian Gish
  • Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1998.

    Bibliography:
    1. American Women's History by Doris Weatherford, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994
    2. This'n That by Bette Davis (with Michael Herskowitz), Berkley Books, 1988
    3. Women's World: A Timeline of Women in History by Irene M. Franck and David M. Brownstone, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995
    4. Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia

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