TOP 10 Bette Davis Performances
You can’t go back and revisit a film from Hollywood’s golden age without quickly coming across the name Bette Davis. Those magnetic eyes, that quick wit that comes right off the page. Her name is synonymous with what it means to be a Hollywood legend.
At a time when actresses like Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Joan Crawford were captivating audiences with their beauty on the silver screen, Bette Davis stepped off the train in Hollywood to meet with executives from Universal Studios to screen test, only to find nobody waiting for her at the train station. Later on, an employee of Universal Studios said that he had come to the station and waited for her but left as he saw no one there who looked like a movie star.
This would be the niche that would surround Davis’s 60-year film career as she would never be considered a “glamour girl.” Instead, she would become one of the greatest movie stars of all time. And no one could deliver a line quite like Bette Davis. She could take a simple line in a movie and turn it into a quote to live by.
There are many iconic stars of the “Old Hollywood” period who made a point to say that awards aren’t important, that recognition is not needed, only the dedication to the work. Bette Davis was not one of them. She was indeed dedicated, working all the way until her death in 1989. She always wanted to be the best at her craft, the number one star. She wanted the awards, the recognition, and not because she deserved it, but because she earned it. And in a career that holds nearly 90 films, it is nearly impossible to select only a few stand out performances, but I’m going to give this a shot as I pick my Top 10 best performances by the one and only, Bette Davis.
“I'm bad for people. I don't mean to be, but I can't help myself.” – Joyce Heath
In what would become her first Oscar-winning role, Bette plays Joyce, an alcoholic actress who has squandered away her money and talent. The film is loosely based on the life of actress Jeanne Eagels. Having electrified audiences a year earlier in Of Human Bondage, many considered Davis’s Oscar win for Dangerous to be a consolation prize for not being nominated for Best Actress the year before. Nevertheless, her work in this film is a great example of Bette’s dedication to embodying a character who is on the edge of losing everything.
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
“You're a vile, sorry little bitch!” – Charlotte Hollis
By the 1960s, Bette Davis was no longer the queen of the box office and great roles were hard to come by. But after the huge success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? two years earlier, Davis once again reunited with Baby Jane Director Robert Aldrich in the similarly campy themed Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. While the film doesn’t pack the original punch that Baby Jane brought, Bette rises to the occasion and delivers an over-the-top yet still thrilling performance as Charlotte. It’s interesting to note that originally Joan Crawford was Davis’s co-star in this film but due to turbulent circumstances, Joan Crawford was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, not that Bette Davis grieved over the change. I would give anything to see the unpublished footage of Crawford and Davis interacting together on set.
The Letter (1940)
“With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” – Leslie Crosbie
In this film noir thriller set in Singapore, Bette Davis plays Leslie, a woman who kills a man in self-defense. But through some discovered letters, it is revealed that Leslie may have had a motive in killing her husband’s friend. The film is shot beautifully, and Bette Davis gives some of the greatest close-ups of her career in this movie. The lyrics to “Bette Davis Eyes” never applied more to a film of Davis’s than The Letter.
Lyrics from “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes:
And she'll tease you, she'll unease you All the better just to please you She's precocious, and she knows just what it Takes to make a pro blush All the boys think she's a spy, she's got Bette Davis eyes
Now, Voyager (1942)
“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” – Charlotte Vale
In what was one of the first classic romance films, Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a spinster who hides in the shadows because of her unsightly appearance and the constant bullying of her elderly mother whom she still lives with. After receiving psychiatric therapy, Charlotte undergoes a complete body makeover, losing weight, ditching her glasses, and glamorizing her wardrobe, though she is still the scared and hesitant girl inside. She goes on a cruise to expand her horizons and falls in love with a married man. The film is an enticing romance and the chemistry between Bette Davis and her co-star Paul Henreid is first-rate and culminates to one of the best final lines said in a film.
The Little Foxes (1941)
“I hope you die! I hope you die soon! I'll be waiting for you to die! – Regina Giddens
One of the many gifts Davis brought to a film was making the audience hate to love her and love to hate her. As Regina in The Little Foxes, Davis plays a ruthless and controlling wife and mother who doesn’t let the fact that she is a woman stop her from making others see things her way. Playing a much older woman than she actually was, Davis dons a heavy amount of white powder makeup on her face throughout the film and in every scene she is in, you can’t take your eyes off of her. The way she stands, the way she stares down at those she holds contempt for, it’s both frightening and thrilling. In one particular scene, as Regina’s husband Horace is having a heart attack, we don’t see Regina make any attempt to help her husband. Instead, she sits still, staring intensely at him as he makes his way up the stairs. Her icy gaze is enough to make the hairs on your arms stand up.
“This is 1852, dumpling, 1852! Not the Dark Ages. Girls don't have to simper around in white just because they're not married.” – Julie Marsden
Bette Davis didn’t get to play Scarlett O’Hara in the MGM epic Gone with the Wind in 1939 like she had pushed so hard for. So Warner Bros.’s answer to her efforts was 1938’s Jezebel, a story set in 1852 New Orleans. Bette Davis plays a rebellious southern belle who wears a red dress to the Olympus ball which causes heated controversy and her fiancé, Preston (played by Henry Fonda) to call off their engagement. Following her erratic behavior, Julie makes several attempts to develop her character and win Preston back. Bette Davis delivers an exceptional performance and was rewarded with her second Academy Award for Best Actress.
Of Human Bondage (1934)
“And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH!” – Mildred Rogers
The role that started it all. Although by 1934, Bette Davis had already made fifteen films for Warner Bros., it wasn’t until her portrayal of the cruel and devious Mildred in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage that audiences and critics began to take notice of her. In a performance that at the time was considered to be the greatest performance by an actress on screen, Bette Davis comes alive through playing a vulgar, promiscuous, drunk who pulls you in throughout the film with her unique and effective tones. In one scene, she tears her co-star Leslie Howard apart with her words and it gives insight on what is to be an incredible acting career. When Davis was not nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her performance in Of Human Bondage, the overall outrage caused The Academy to add “write-in” votes to the list of nominees that year, though Davis still did not win the award. Regardless, Davis’s portrayal of Mildred is considered to be her breakout performance.
Dark Victory (1939)
I think I'll have a large order of prognosis negative! – Judith Traherne
Bette Davis herself often cited Dark Victory as one of her favorite films. And it’s no wonder. Davis was at the top of her game during this time in her career. She had just won her second Oscar for her performance in Jezebel a year earlier and along with Dark Victory would release three other successful films in 1939. In Dark Victory, Davis plays a young wealthy socialite who suffers extreme headaches and dizzy spells. After undergoing surgery to remove a tumor in her brain, Judith believes she is healed and ends up falling in love with her Doctor who is too afraid to tell her the truth that the surgery did not work and that she only has a short amount of time to live. Once Judith learns the truth, we see her face her own mortality and in the final moments of the film, you are swept away by the tragic fate Judith suffers. This is a performance that is perfect from beginning to end and if there hadn’t been such a clear frontrunner for Best Actress in 1939 (Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind), I have no doubt that Bette Davis would have taken home her 3rd Academy Award.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
“You mean all this time we could have been friends?” – Baby Jane Hudson
A work of art this performance is. By the 1960’s, Bette Davis was struggling to find work in movies. Now in her fifties, she had been cast aside by the studios that had once bowed to her requests. It took the efforts of another veteran actress by the name of Joan Crawford to help Davis land her next role that would end up benefiting her far more than it ever did Crawford, which only enhanced their supposed “feud.” As Baby Jane Hudson, a former vaudeville child star who has now turned into an overweight, slovenly, alcoholic recluse, Bette Davis puts every ounce of her skills into this role. Playing a woman who is emotionally disturbed, when done the right way, can be one of the most electrifying performances for a viewer to watch and up until that point, no one could hold a candle to what Bette did in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The production and what went on between Davis and Crawford behind the scenes is enough to gain interest, but in this film, Davis not only gives a career comeback performance, but one of the greatest performances ever by an actress.
All About Eve (1950)
“Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!” – Margo Channing
In a career that consists of so many iconic and memorable characters, there are numerous roles that could top this list, but no performance of Bette Davis resonates with me more than her blazing portrayal of Margo Channing in the classic, All About Eve. Margo Channing is a triumphant Broadway star who has just turned forty and is beginning to doubt how much more of a career she will have at her age. She takes in a young fan, Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter) who after one meeting becomes her secretary. As the film progresses, we come to find out that Eve is using Margo as her way to make it in the theatre world. Although Eve is the focal point of the film, it is Bette Davis’s performance that is a quintessential example of life imitating art that completely propels this film into pop culture status. There are so many iconic lines spoken by Margo in this film and Bette Davis makes them come alive like she has never done before. In one particular scene, Bette Davis delivers a monologue, explaining what it means to be a woman. I get the feeling that as Bette Davis neared the end of her life, she began to relate to every word Margo said in that monologue.
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