Silver Screen Standards: Bette Davis
Recently I rewatched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the 1962 film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as aging sisters in a deliriously dysfunctional relationship. Baby Jane Hudson gave Davis a chance to horrify audiences and test the limits of her talent for disappearing into difficult characters, but Davis had been pushing the envelope with those kinds of roles her whole career. Casual moviegoers today might think of Bette Davis primarily as a screen goddess of glamor, thanks partly to the enduring popularity of “Bette Davis Eyes,” but the Davis who has always fascinated me is the chameleon, the ugly Bette digging into characters who dare us to look beyond the shocking surfaces of physical ruin or decay. Luckily for us, Davis not only accepted such roles but actively pursued them, leaving us with a whole body of films in which the star throws glamor to the floor and kicks it to death.
Davis had to fight for the role of Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934), which would be her first big chance to show what she could do with a damaged character on a downward spiral. Playing opposite Leslie Howard, Davis spits tacks and radiates spite as the fickle, opportunistic waitress who uses a man’s love and then throws it away. Her emotional performance is mesmerizing, but her physical transformation is absolutely horrifying as Mildred succumbs to the effects of prostitution, substance abuse, and disease. When we first see her, she’s a young, lovely girl (Davis was 26 at the time), but over the course of the picture she hardens, ages, and then withers as her destructive choices catch up with her. Her final look is shocking and a huge gamble for Davis, who might have repelled audiences and ruined her career but instead became a star. Her supporters’ write-in nomination for a Best Actress Oscar got Davis her first Academy Award attention, though she would not win the category for the first time until 1936 for Dangerous (1935).
In 1939 Davis got another opportunity to inhabit a physically extreme character when she played Queen Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a lavish period drama costarring Errol Flynn. Davis was many decades younger than the aging queen she portrays in the picture, but beneath the elaborate red wig and the frightful white facepaint, it’s hard to tell. The star shaved her hairline and her eyebrows to look more like Elizabeth, a big risk for an actress who had to be glamorous for other parts at a time when she made several films a year. Ironically, Davis would return to the role years later for The Virgin Queen (1955), playing a younger version of Elizabeth than she had in the first film.
In Now, Voyager (1942), Davis transforms from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan, but she makes certain that viewers remember the homely version of Charlotte Vale who starts the picture. Really, Davis’ look as depressed Charlotte is more about body language and expression, since her “ugliness” mostly relies on glasses, full eyebrows, and an old-fashioned hairstyle. The glamorous Charlotte we see in the rest of the movie is better dressed and made up, the better to attract the attention of handsome Paul Henreid and the Academy, who recognized Davis with her seventh nomination for Best Actress. The movie proved to be one of the biggest box office successes of Davis’ career and remains one of her best-loved pictures, but in terms of transformation it’s one of her most modest efforts.
Far more shocking is her appearance in the third act of Mr. Skeffington (1944), in which Davis plays Fanny, a vain young beauty who marries a wealthy Jewish man (Claude Rains) for his money and then makes his life miserable. The role calls for Davis to age considerably, as the action begins in 1914 and ends during World War II, but Fanny’s beauty is ultimately destroyed by a bout of Diptheria, leaving her humiliated after a lifetime of narcissism and shallow pleasure. Her performance earned Davis an eighth Oscar nomination for Best Actress, proving once again that her willingness to abandon glamor for challenging roles served her career well.
By the time Davis reached What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, she had decades of experience with roles that called for startling physical transformation. Like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, the film calls for Davis to maintain her extreme look for the duration of the picture, with caked-on white makeup, ghoulish eyeliner, and lipstick, and a blonde wig decked with girlish curls that accentuate the horror of her character’s psychological decay. What’s really different about Baby Jane is that Davis is willing to embody this ravaged character at an age when most actresses, especially those from the glamorous golden age, would have run screaming from such a role. It’s one thing to appear old and ugly when you can go back to being young and beautiful after filming ends, but it’s quite another to do it when you’re in your fifties. Davis, however, threw herself into the part and earned her final Best Actress nomination as a result.
As much as I enjoy glamorous stars and swoony romances, these gripping, daring performances from Bette Davis are some of my favorite classic movie moments. I admire her courage for taking these roles, defying expectations, and playing complicated and even horrible women. She could be beautiful and sympathetic when the role called for it, but she could also plunge into the dark side and revel in it. More than her beauty, more than her famous eyes, Bette Davis’ greatest asset was her skill at plumbing the depths of her characters and showing us the truth about them on screen, even when the truth was ugly.
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.