Birth Date: April 5, 1908
Birth Place: Lowell, Massachusetts, USA
Also Credited as: Miss Bette Davis
Date of Death: October 6, 1989 / Age: 81
Location of Death: American Hospital in Neuilly, France
Cause of Death: metastasized breast cancer
Biography: Ruth Elizabeth Davis (April 5, 1908 – October 6, 1989), better known as Bette Davis, was an American superstar and actress of stage, screen and television who was renowned for her intense, forceful persona and her artistic versitility during career that spanned six decades and over one hundred films. Founder of the Hollywood Canteen and one of the most beloved divas of cinema's Golden Age, Davis is most remembered as a symbol of feminist strength, stemming from her portrayals of ruthless, hysterical or unsympathetic women and her equally turbulent offscreen life that included several stormy marriages and legendary battles with male studio heads. Alternately referred to as the "Queen of Hollywood" or the "Fist Lady of the Screen," Davis for a time held the record most Oscar nominations (11) for Best Actress, since broken by Katharine Hepburn (12) and Meryl Streep (13). To this day, Davis remains one of the most lauded and idolized stars in film history, having been the subject of a one of the most successful #1 songs of pop history, "Bette Davis Eyes," as well as becoming first woman to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was the first actress to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award (1979) from the American Film Institute, which in 1999 voted her the second greatest female film legend of all-time. In 2004, Davis became the most represented actress on AFI's ballot of 100 Greatest Film Roles and in 2005 joined three others as the most represented actress on their ballot of 100 Greatest Film Quotes. Offscreen, Davis was the source of several now-famous quips about womanhood, acting, and Hollywood, often offered with biting wit. Villified by her critics as a histrionic, mannered overactor, she also suffered a reputation for being somewhat combative and difficult to work with. Despite this, according to respected film historian and critic Leonard Maltin "by the time she died Davis had won a status enjoyed by no other Hollywood actress" and many fans and film professionals still consider her the best screen actress of all time.
Davis's early years
Davis, who was of Welsh and Scottish descent, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts to Harlow and Ruthie Davis. In 1918, Davis father left ran off leaving Bette and her sister to be raised in genteel poverty by their mother, who had aspired to be an actress. As a child, she aspired to be a dancer, until she decided that actors led a more glamorous life. Upon graduation from Cushing Academy, a prep school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, Davis was denied admission to Eva LeGallienne's Manhattan Civic Repertory because she was considered insincere. Undeterred, she enrolled in John Murray Anderson's dramatic school (where classmate Lucille Ball was sent home because she was "too shy"), and became a star pupil.
Davis the ingenue
Her first professional stage performance was The Earth Between, Off-Broadway in 1923. Her first Broadway performance was in 1929, in Broken Dishes and later in Solid South. The next year, she was hired by Universal Studios, but they felt she was not star material, and in 1932, they let her sign with Warner Brothers. Her first starring role was in The Man Who Played God, and she became a star in Of Human Bondage. The Motion Picture Academy failed to nominate Davis for this tour de force, and such was the outrage that she received many write-in votes from disgruntled Academy members.
A much-publicised legal battle with Warners to stop them from putting her in inferior movies led to a dramatic improvement in the quality of her films (although she lost the case). She went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for Dangerous (1936) and Jezebel (1938), and was able to name her own roles, with the exception of Gone With the Wind in 1939. Davis was elected the ninth president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose award she claimed to have named the "Oscar", but only served from October to December 1941, when she resigned. Her career began to stagnate through the 1940s, but her performance in All About Eve (1950), for which she received another Oscar nomination, put her back on top.
When her career began to fade again, in 1961, she placed a notorious ad for "job wanted" in the trade papers. Her role in 1962's over-the-top What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which she played a parody of herself opposite her long-time rival Joan Crawford, earned her another Oscar nomination. The film, which was the only time that Davis and Crawford ever worked together onscreen in either of their careers, was a smash hit and a top-grosser that year.
Sensing renewed box-office potential in his former contract player, Jack Warner signed Davis for another venture into the macabre in 1964's Dead Ringer , opposite gigalo Peter Lawford and detective Karl Malden. In this updated homage to A Stolen Life (1946), Davis and her Now, Voyager (1942) co-star, Paul Henreid, were reunited not as on-screen lovers, but rather with Henreid directing Davis in the campy dual role as a murdering twin and her sibling victim.
In 1977, Davis became the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1979 she won a Best Actress Emmy. She wrote a biography, The Lonely Life, in the 1960s, and Mother Goddam in 1975.
Davis's only natural-born daughter was by her third husband, William Grant Sherry, and is named B.D. Hyman (born Barbara Davis Sherry, and named after Davis's sister). In 1985, Hyman wrote a tell-all book entitled My Mother's Keeper, in which she savaged her famous mother and Gary Merrill, her adoptive father. Davis admitted that her career always came first, and, although she married four times and had several affairs, including ones with George Brent and William Wyler, it should be pointed out that many who knew both her and her daughter claimed that this book was largely fiction and that Davis, although in some ways difficult, was really a loving mother and grandmother. Davis adopted two other children with Merrill, Margot, who was confined to special education schools for most of her life due to a brain injury, and Michael, with whom both Davis and Merrill maintained close relationships throughout their lives. Michael never confirmed nor denied the claims that his "sister," Hyman, made in the bestselling biography.
Davis wrote another book, This 'N' That, in the late 1980s, and Bette Davis, The Lonely Life, which appeared the year after her death, updating what had happened since her first biography had been published.
On July 19, 2001, Steven Spielberg purchased Davis' Oscar statuette for Jezebel at a Christie's auction and returned it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This was to protect an Oscar from commercial exploitation.
Bette Davis died, aged 81, on October 6, 1989 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, following a long battle with breast cancer, and after having suffered at least one serious stroke. She is interred in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. On her tombstone is written, "She did it the hard way."
She walked out of her last film, "Wicked Stepmother," which was released posthumously in 1989 with her still included. She is also credited with many famous quotes about acting often about Hollywood and rivals like Crawford and Hepburn.
After the song "Bette Davis Eyes" became a hit single, Davis wrote letters to songwriters Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon, and singer Kim Carnes to ask them how they knew so much about her. One of the reasons Davis loved the song is that her granddaughter thought her grandmother was "cool" because she had a hit song written about her.