I would not think that Bette Davis is remembered much today or much known among younger audiences. Perhaps I am wrong. I hope I am. Thirty-two years ago today, October 6, the famed actress died.
The first Davis movie I ever saw was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in about 1963 or 1964 when it was first telecast. I must have been eleven or twelve, and the film scared the heck out of me. I thought Davis was an atrocious person, this horrible hag, this menopausal monster, battering poor Joan Crawford. (At that age, I found it difficult to separate actors from the roles they played. Crawford was good and Davis was bad. I knew nothing of the professional rivalry between the two women as, at the point, I knew nothing about their careers.) There was something horrible about being old, and there was something particularly horrible about being an old woman. (A host of films from my boyhood, from The Leech Woman to The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die, showed women in old age as somehow being dehumanized by it.) Davis’s performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? mesmerized me. And I watched it many times during my boy and teen years. I have, in fact, watched it more than any other Davis movie.
It was years before I saw another Bette Davis movie. I was a graduate student when I saw All About Eve and actually understood her power as an actress. The film stunned me; it is so well-written. Actors are willing to kill to get the lines of the characters in All About Eve. Davis certainly seemed to think she hit the motherlode here. Her acting in this film has such assurance and depth; her sexual power was at its height, even though she was over forty when she made the film.
Then I saw In This Our Life (with a great somber performance by Hattie McDaniel; the Black characters having greater dimension than is typical of a Hollywood film of this period) and saw another version of Davis as an actress, another kind of unattractive character, and then The Corn is Green and saw her in still another way as the dedicated teacher. Then, The Little Foxes, a southern gothic, (with a wonderful performance by Black actress Jessie Grayson) and discovered that Davis had a bit of métier playing scheming, independent women in southern gothics. Finally, I saw The Letter. What a movie! An instance where the orientalism is an astonishing effect! After watching The Man Who Came to Dinner I understood how rich her craft was. Those eyes, those lips!
She was a compelling actress who emerged in the age of Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Ann Sheridan, Miriam Hopkins, Olivia de Havilland, Eleanor Parker, Jane Wyman, and Loretta Young, among others, all top-notch craftspersons, tough competitive actresses.
I went back to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? last year and realized not only how funny the film is, but the various parodies Davis was performing: the crazy old bitch, the has-been, the psychotic, the schemer, the actor-in-the-actress, the adult-as-screwed-up kid, the jealous bitch-goddess. It unfolded as I remember her in the other films I had seen. As Hank Williams sang, “Praise the Lord. I saw the light.” I finally understood what she was doing, why I liked the film so much as I was horrified by it as a kid. Davis was one of the great performers of our time, of the last century. Too bad most of the public probably does not remember.