To the present generation Bette Davis was a female legend of American cinema. Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on 5 April 1908, she lived on to make a name that will stand out from the rest living her life for 81 years with more than 100 films, TV and theatre roles to her credit. Her legacy brought a cult following which inspired a song which became the basis of the famous 7-up commercial. “Bette Davis Eyes” was originally a song written back in 1974 by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon but it was not until 1981 when Kim Carnes revived the song that her version became a commercial success. Just what about this woman that merited her to be portrayed in a song and be remembered as an enduring female icon of American films compared to the rest of women that became a part of the history of American movie industry?
1. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts to a Protestant family of English, Welsh and French descent, Ruth Elizabeth Davis’ parents separated when she was 7.
2. “Betty” as she was known from early childhood was inspired by Rudolph Valentino’s role in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse(1921)” and Mary Pickford’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy(1921)” creating in her the aspiration to become an actress.
3. Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel “La Cousine Bette (Cousin Bette)” had driven her to change her name’s spelling to “Bette”.
4. She auditioned for a famous actress, producer and director of the time, Eva LeGalienne who runs Manhattan Civic Repertory but was rejected by the latter for her attitude.
5. Her first paid role was a one week part playing a chorus girl on the play “Broadway”.
6. She had her first appearance at Broadway Theatre in 1929 playing in “Broken Dishes” and “Solid South” where she was seen by a talent scout for Universal Studios who invited her to Hollywood for a screen test.
7. Bette Davis arrived at Hollywood by train on 13 December 1930 accompanied by her mother but realized nobody was around to meet her considering the studio employee tasked to wait for her left on the reason that he saw nobody was around which has the looks of an actress.
8. She failed her first screen test but was eventually taken in place of screen tests for other roles. Her second screen test would have been another failure considering she was dressed in an ill fated costume that embarrassed the director to fully consider her employment but a cinematographer told the latter that she had “lovely eyes” that would be suitable for the upcoming film “The Bad Sister(1931)”. She thus made to stay and made her film debut on the said film.
The Famous Song "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes
9. Bette had her lead role in “The Man Who Played God” in 1932 after being chosen by film maker George Arliss. The film ushered her to be given a 5 year contract by Warner Brothers.
10. Her role in “Of Human Bondage (1934)”staged controversy when she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award by which the press and other film personalities campaigned for her post nomination which ultimately changed the voting procedures for the award the following year.
11. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in her role in “Dangerous (1935)”which she considered a consolation prize having taken into consideration her efforts in “Of Human Bondage”.
12. Her role in the opening of a serviceman’s club in Hollywood which was called “Hollywood Canteen” earned her further credit apart from her film roles during the outbreak of World War II. In 1980 she received the “Distinguished Civilian Service Medal” for such role, the US Department of Defense’s highest civilian award.
13. Married four times, her first marriage to Harmon Nelson in 1935 was scrutinized by the press for her husband’s $100 a week income compared to her $1,000 a week earnings.
14. In 1962, Bette became the first actress to earn 10 Academy Award nominations and two wins until 4 other film artists came close or bested her record namely Katharine Hepburn (12 nominations, 4 wins), Laurence Olivier (10 nominations, 1 win), Meryl Streep (16 nominations , 2 wins) and Jack Nicholson (12 nominations, 3 wins).
Pres. Reagan with Davis in Kennedy Center in 1987 recalling the 1939 film "Dark Victory" where they appeared together
"The Whales of August (1987)", Bette Davis last film appearance
15. In the American Film Institute’s (AFI) top 50 list of actors and actresses, 25 male and 25 female, unveiled in 16 June 1999, Bette Davis ranks no.2 after Katharine Hepburn among those defined by the AFI as “American Screen Legend”.
16. Bette Davis died at 81 years old on 6 October 1989 after a long battle with breast cancer and after having undergone a mastectomy back in 1983. She was interred in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los, Angeles.