1. She was talented.
2. Who needs glamour when you can have realism?
When Bette Davis first signed with Warner Brothers, the executives at Warner’s had no idea what to do with her. Bette said of her early days at Warner’s, “I was known as the little brown wren. Who’d want to get me at the end of the picture?” They bleached her hair and tried forcing her into the mold of a glamour girl, which Bette absolutely despised. She wanted to act, not just look pretty and she fought against the studio to be able to do that.
But in 1934, Bette finally found her niche when she gladly took on a role few other actresses would dare to touch — the completely unsympathetic Mildred in Of Human Bondage. The total lack of vanity Bette showed in Of Human Bondage was a revelation and marked the first of many times Bette would choose realism over glamour. For 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Bette removed her eyebrows and shaved her hairline back two inches. While making Marked Woman in 1937, Bette stormed off the set when the studio make-up department gave her a few measly bandages to wear after her character was severely beaten. She went to her own doctor to be bandaged more realistically and refused to shoot the scene any other way. And then there was Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, a role that only could have been played by someone willing to put aside every last shred of vanity.
3. She knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to fight for it.
Bette Davis was notoriously difficult to work with. But did Bette care? Nope! When someone said Bette was once known for being difficult, Bette declared, “At one time?! I’ve been known as difficult for fifty years practically! What do you mean ‘at one time?!’ No, I’ve been difficult for fifty years. And it’s always to make it the best film I can make it!”
In 1936, Bette was fed up with being given sub-par scripts and so-so directors at Warner Brothers and decided to go to court over it. She intentionally broke her contract and went to England, where a trial was held over stipulations of her contract Bette felt were unfair. Of the trial, Bette said, “I knew that if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.” Bette lost the trial, but she still made her point — the quality of her movies improved after that. Olivia de Havilland later went to court over some of the same things Bette did and won her case.
4. I respect her work ethic and ambition.
During her life, Bette commented that she when she died, they were going to write “She did it the hard way” on her gravestone. That phrase is, indeed, written on her gravestone and it is the most accurate thing that could be written on it. Bette absolutely thrived on working hard. She lived by the words, “Attempt the impossible to improve your work.” On the subject of working, Bette also said…
- “It has been my experience that one cannot, in any shape or form, depend on human relations for lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.”
- “My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”
- “I will not retire while I’ve still got my legs and my make-up box.”
5. She always had something witty to say.
Interviews with Bette Davis are often just as entertaining as her films because she was such a witty woman. I can’t help but love anyone who says, “That’s me, an old kazoo with some sparklers.”