Turner Classic Movies
Davis, Bette
Written by Diana Saenger   


Bette Davis in All This and Heaven Too
Bette (pronounced Betty) Davis was born Ruth Davis on April 5, 1908 to Harlow and Ruthie Davis. Her father moved out when Davis was 10 and soon after she was sent to Cushing Academy boarding school. After graduating, she enrolled in John Murray Anderson's Dramatic School. Davis had wanted to attend Eva Le Gallienne's Manhattan Civic Repertory, but her feisty personality was already a detriment because she was considered insincere and frivolous. Davis made her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes in 1929. She thought she'd prefer a film career to the stage and moved to Hollywood in 1930 to screen test for Universal.  


All About Eve   ©  20th Century Fox


Davis' first film was The Bad Sister with Humphrey Bogart in 1931 for Universal. Studio head Harry Warner remarked that Davis had "as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville," and no one at Universal was impressed with her performance in her first film. The studio wanted to change her name to Bettina Dawes, but Davis refused on the grounds that she didn't want to go through life with a name that sounded like "Between the Drawers."  

In 1932 she signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers and Davis' first film that year,  The Man Who Played God proved Davis she what it takes. Davis also took on another new adventure in 1932 when she married Harmon Nelson. The couple divorced in 1938. In only two years Davis had her first critically acclaimed hit when Warner loaned her out to star in RKO's  Of Human Bondage (1934). In 1935 Davis became Warner Bros. first actress to win an Oscar with her role in Dangerous.

Davis, known as the Fifth Warner Bros., wasn't happy with the roles she was getting. In 1936 she went to England to make pictures, but was forced to return to Hollywood when Jack Warner sued her. Davis' drastic action paid off. She got a new contract and better roles. She won her second Oscar for Jezebel(1938), and received Oscar nominations the next five years in a row. During this time Davis had hoped to win the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Warner, however, wouldn't loan her to David O. Selznick unless he hired Errol Flynn to play Rhett Butler. That never happened.  

Davis did star in the melodrama All This, and Heaven Too (1940) with Charles Boyer. Warner Bros. saw the film as their answer to MGM's Gone With The Wind.  While we are used to seeing her in more contentious and heated roles, in All This, and Heaven Too she proves again what a great actress she was. But although the film won three Academy Awards sadly Davis was overlooked, but certainly deserved a nomination.


The 1940s were awakening years for Davis. She married Arthur Farnsworth in 1940 and remained married to him until his death in 1943. She was gaining that reputation for being difficult to work with that followed her all her life, but oddly by 1942, Davis was the highest paid woman in America. In 1945 she married William Grant Sherry. The couple had a daughter, Barbara, but divorced in 1950. Davis also began to realize the downside of a showbiz career. She was rumored to have several affairs, one reason why her marriages may have suffered. By the late 1940s her film roles were weak.  

In 1950 Davis married actor Gary Merrill (who made more than 100 films). The couple adopted two children, Margot and Michael, and divorced in 1960. With amazing performances as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), and   Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1963), Davis resurrected a sagging career. But, her difficult personality and the influx of other rising stars, gave the woman referred to as "The First Lady of the American Screen," competition.  

Davis continued to make films such as Dead Ringer and Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte, (both 1964) during the 1960s, but her stardom was fading. She appeared in some TV shows, and even placed her own "job wanted" ad in the papers.  

After winning a Best Actress Emmy for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter on TV, Davis filmed a pilot for the series Hotel. She suffered a stroke during this time. In 1985, her daughter, Barbara Hyman, released an unfavorable book My Mother's Keeper. Davis' strong will helped her work though her stroke, during which time she penned her book, This N That. Her memoir Bette Davis, The Lonely Life, released in paperback in 1990, was a recap of her life from 1962 to 1989. She played a blind woman in 1987 in The Whales of August.   Her last film was The Wicked Stepmother in 1989.  


Davis contributed to the WWII effort by helping to organize the Hollywood Canteen for soldiers passing through Los Angeles. She transformed an abandoned nightclub into an exciting entertainment facility. "There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them," Bette later commented. She was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal in 1980, the Defense Department's highest civilian award, for running the Hollywood Canteen.  

Jezebel   © Warner Bros. Pictures

In 1935 Davis was nominated in a write-in nomination for Best Actress in Of Human Bondage. She won Academy Awards for Dangerous (1936) and Jezebel (1939. Davis received more Best Actress nominations for Dark Victory (1940), The Letter (1941), The Little Foxes (1942),   Now Voyager (1943),   Mr. Skeffington   (1945),   All About Eve (1951), The Star (1953) and     What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?(1963). Davis also won numerous Bafta, CableAce, CĂ©sar, film festival, Emmy, Golden Apple, Golden Globe, Laurel and Crystal awards.  

Of Human Bondage © RKO Pictures

Davis was the first woman to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was also the first actress to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1977. In 1999 AFI voted Davis the second greatest (to Katharine Hepburn) female film legend of all time. She was named #2 on The Greatest Screen Legends actress list by the American Film Institute, voted the 10th Greatest Movie Star of all time by   Entertainment Weekly, and named the 25th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Premiere Magazine.  

Bette Davis arrived in Hollywood at a time when Hollywood needed screen idols bigger than life, and Davis certainly fit the bill. She made more than 100 films, and as her tombstone reads, "She did it the hard way." She is also known for many zingers and memorable quotes - especially addressing her long running feud with Joan Crawford - such as, ""I wouldn't piss on her if she was on fire."  

In his review of The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography, film critic and book reviewer James Colt Harrison said, "Bette Davis was the quintessential film actress. She entertained audiences for five decades or more with her unique style, her dramatic histrionics, and her captivating screen presence."

In my interview with Robert Osborne, film historian and host of TV's Turner Classic Movies, Osborne admitted Davis was his favorite actress. "I think I admire Bette Davis the most," he said. "She was so professional in everything she did, and she was a terrific person to be around until the time she got sick, and then she was impossible. I loved that she could go to a party and didn't have to be the center of attention."

Davis was recently included in Turner Classic Movies and Chronicle Books' Leading Ladies, a spotlight on the 50 most unforgettable actresses of the studio era.

As executors of her estate, Davis' son Michael Merrill, and Kathryn Sermak, her personal assistant and friend, created The Bette Davis Foundation in her memory. The Foundation provides financial assistance to up and coming actors and actresses.  




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