Happy Birthday, Bette Davis!

Bette DavisApril 5th marks the birthday of one of greatest actresses of all time, Bette Davis. Davis, throughout her acting career, challenged many of Hollywood’s strongest archetypes. She wasn’t a screen siren using her sexuality to draw crowds to lackluster comedies. Instead, she opted to take on the parts others didn’t want, and dazzle in them. While her list of film credits contains many fantastic films, let’s take a look at some of her best roles (in my humble opinion) in honor of her birthday.

NOW, VOYAGER (1942)

In this classic film which earned her an Academy Award nomination, Davis plays Charlotte Vale, an aging spinster who has long been the subject of her wealthy, yet tyrannical, mother’s barbs about Charlotte’s looks, weight, and her single, childless status. When Charlotte begins approaching her breaking point, her sister-in-law introduces her to a psychiatrist, who checks her into a sanatorium. Here, Charlotte is able to explore the woman she is, as opposed to who her mother thinks she is, and develops a renewed sense of self. Gone is the quiet girl of the past and instead audiences are introduced to a strong, empowered woman.

After being released from the sanatorium, Charlotte decides to go on a cruise where she meets a Jeremiah “Jerry” Duvaux Durrance. Despite him being trapped in a contentious marriage (which he stays in for the benefit of his daughter) the two of them strike up a friendship. They eventually fall in love, but decide to go their separate ways.

When Charlotte returns home her mother is shocked at the transformation, but still insists on trying to dominate her daughter through insults and belittling comments. Luckily, Charlotte is now impervious to her mother’s taunts. Shortly after Charlotte’s engagement to a wealthy man, she runs into Jerry again, prompting her to break off her engagement. When she tells her mother the two fight, and Charlotte is finally able to stand up for herself. Charlotte’s attitude shocks her mother so much that she promptly has a heart attack and dies, leaving Charlotte dismayed. Charlotte returns to the sanatorium, where she meets Jerry’s daughter Tina. The two women forge a mother/daughter like relationship that helps them both cope with their problems. When Jerry comes to visit Tina, he discovers the bond that Tina and Charlotte have formed, but both are unsure of what to do about the feelings they have for each other.

 

THE LITTLE FOXES (1941)

In this film set in the early 1900’s South, Davis plays Regina Hubbard Giddens, a wealthy Southern belle. Regina must rely on her ailing husband to financially support her while her brothers have full access to her family’s money since, as a woman, she has no claim to the fortune.

After her brother Oscar marries wealthy alcoholic to gain access to her family’s cotton plantation, the three siblings begin a scheming to get $75,000 from Regina’s husband Horace in order to build a cotton mill for Oscar’s cotton. They attempt to convince Horace to let Oscar’s son Leo marry the couple’s daughter Alexandra, but Horace is disgusted by the suggestion.

With the plan of marriage a failure, Regina’s brothers convince Leo, who works at the bank, to steal railroad bonds out of Horace’s security box. When Horace discovers this and informs Regina she begins hatching a blackmail plan against her brothers for a controlling stake in the mill. Horace, however, informs her he’s going to cut her out of the will and leave everything to their daughter, as well as state in the will that he gave Leo the bonds, making her blackmail plan impossible. During the fight that ensues Horace has a heart attack and collapses on the stairs. He dies without informing anyone about the changes in his will and Regina’s blackmail plan succeeds at the expense of losing her daughter, who, upon discovering her mother’s actions, runs away. (The Little Foxes, 1941)

 

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)

In perhaps one of her most infamous roles ever, Davis plays Baby Jane Hudson, a former vaudeville child star. As a child Jane was doted on and spoiled, at the expense of her older sister Blanche. When the sisters reach adulthood, during the golden era of Hollywood cinema,  Blanche becomes the screen siren and Jane is reduced to starring in a string of box office flops, causing her to develop a drinking problem in order to cope.

The film then jumps to 1962 when the aging sisters share a Hollywood mansion. Blanche has become a wheelchair bound recluse, opting to never leave the house and watch her old films all day. Meanwhile, Jane’s drinking has only escalated; she coats her face with makeup in a vain attempt to appear young and appears to be spiraling towards insanity.

When Blanche tells Jane she may be selling the house, Jane erupts and rips the telephone cord from Blanche’s bedroom wall, thus severing her last tie to the outside world. When Jane brings Blanche her lunch later, it’s revealed that Jane has killed her parakeet and served it to her along with tomato slices. Meanwhile, Jane decides to hire a piano player in an attempt to revive her career and leaves the house to place an ad for one. While she’s gone Blanche attempts to throw a note, containing a plea for help, to their neighbor through the window, but Jane arrives back home in time to prevent the neighbor from seeing it.

As Jane prepares herself for what she thinks will be her return to the spotlight, she imprisons Blanche in her bedroom. When Elvira arrives to clean, Jane fires her, which leads to Elvira’s suspicion. After sneaking into the house, Elvira discovers Blanche tied to her bed, but is killed by Jane, who then disposes of the body. When the police start asking questions about Elvira’s disappearance a week later, Jane finally fully snaps…

 

JEZEBEL (1938)

In another role as a Southern Belle, Davis plays Julie Marsden opposite Henry Fonda as Preston “Pres” Dillard in this film set in 1850’s New Orleans. After a spat between the two lovers during which Pres refuses to shop for a dress with Julie for the year’s biggest event, the Olympus Ball, Julie orders a bright red gown as opposed to the customary white gown single ladies are expected to wear.

When the two arrive at the ball, Julie’s irreverence for social codes shocks even the slaves who are working the event. The dance floor clears when they begin to dance, and Julie’s social faux pas becomes clear to the two of them, causing Preston to break off their engagement after the ball. The proud Julie refuses to chase after him, expecting him to return to her. He opts to head north for business instead, leaving her distraught.

When he returns a year later, she arrives at a party thrown in honor of his return in what could serve as a wedding dress, save for some excessive cleavage. Despite being informed by Pres he’s already married someone else, she attempts to seduce him, before insulting his wife in front of all of New Orleans society. Even with her now sullied reputation in town, Julie continues her scheming and convinces her admirer Buck and Preston’s brother Ted to duel, convinced that Buck will win. When Ted kills Buck, Julie’s scheming ways begin to become known to the public, which earns her the nickname of “Jezebel” in the society circles.

As yellow fever spreads across the city, a quarantine is put into place. Pres has been diagnosed with the fever and brought to Julie’s house, below the quarantine line. While Preston’s’ family searches for a permit to cross the line to see him, Julie sneaks down using a stolen boat and is attending to Pres by the time the others arrive.

When it comes time to send Preston to the island where the ill are being isolated, Julie convinces his wife, Amy, to let her go with him. She tells Amy that she knows Pres hasn’t loved her since the night of the ball. Amy agrees to let Julie do this to redeem herself from her scheming ways, and the two are sent to the island.

 

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)

Since its creation in 1950, All About Eve has become Davis’ signature film, despite never having won an Oscar for her role in it. In the film she plays Margo Channing, a bawdy, brash, Broadway diva who’s slowly coming to terms with the fact that she’s 40.

Backstage at her latest show, Margot is introduced to Eve Harrington, a super fan of hers, by her best friend Karen, who happens to be the wife of the show’s playwright. Margot is charmed by Eve’s small town girl turned war widow story and hires her as her assistant. As Eve attends to Margo, she’s also studying her, scheming to become her understudy.

As Eve charms the play’s director, Bill (who is also Margo’s boyfriend) and the playwright Lloyd into giving her the part of understudy, she convinces Karen, in a moment of anger towards Margo, to cause Margo to miss a show. Eve calls all the theater critics and gives a fantastic performance, which is used in an attack article on Margo, written by Eve’s mentor, theater critic Addison DeWitt. Margo is enraged with both Lloyd and Bill for making Eve her understudy.

However, the group makes up and the two couples go out to dinner, where Bill and Margo announce they’re engaged. Meanwhile, Addison and Eve are dining at the same restaurant and, in the ladies room later, Eve blackmails Karen into convincing her husband to give Eve the lead part over Margo in his new play Footsteps on the Ceiling. The night of the new plays premiere, Eve tells Addison of her plans to get Lloyd to leave Karen for her, and thus become the star of all of his plays. Addison then reveals to her he knows all about who the real Eve is, not the phony story she’s been telling people, and blackmails her into staying with him.

The film fast forwards to an award ceremony where Eve is given the Sarah Siddons Award for her role in Footsteps. She thanks Margo, Bill, Karen, and Lloyd in her speech, but with the four only sit in stunned silence. When Eve returns to her hotel after the ceremony she discovers a young girl named Phoebe who broke into her room. The girl is the president of her local Eve Harrington fan club, and Eve allows her to stay. While Eve is relaxing in the other room, Phoebe puts on Eve’s cape, holds her award, and poses in the mirror, echoing the mentality that Eve had displayed towards Margo.

 


Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment, film, fashion, and culture blogger for DirectTelevisionSpecials.org. He first came to know Bette as the glorious Margo Channing and has been entranced ever since. When he found a video store that carries almost every old film you can imagine, he quickly became a regular. He lives and works in Chicago.