Bette Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1908, an interesting time for women in America. When she was seven, her parents separated and her mother went to work to support Bette and her sister. She saw her mother making her own way, as hard as it was, and she would have seen suffragettes marching in the streets, and flappers driving around them. It was a time when women were taking charge of their own lives, and Bette would do the same with hers.
Her childhood couldn’t have been easy. After her parents separated, they moved constantly from one small apartment to another, and often slipped quietly out of town during the middle of the night because there was no money to pay the rent. But Mrs. Davis must have seen something in her daughter because, when Bette announced she wanted to become an actress, her mother whisked her off to the best acting school in New York. There was no money for acting lessons, but her mother begged and pleaded and got Bette in with the promise to pay for the lessons in the future.
Bette was 19 when she entered acting school, and she took her lessons seriously. Aside from acting, she learned to memorize lines, how to walk, and talk, and even fall without hurting herself. When she managed to get a small part in a play in Rochester, NY, her mother saw her off at the train station with four words of advice--learn the lead part. Bette didn’t understand why, but her mother always gave her good advice, so she did as she was told. Two days after the play opened, the lead actress fell down a flight of stairs. She was supposed to. It was part of the play. But she wasn’t supposed to sprain her ankle. When she couldn’t go on, a new lead had to be found. Bette knew the lines and got the part.
At 22, a talent scout noticed her. He asked her to come to Hollywood and take a screen test for Universal Studios. Bette signed the contract and went but, in the end, they decided she didn’t look right for the part. To recoup their money, Universal loaned her out to other studios, but when her contract expired a year later, she still had not landed a major role.
As she packed to go home, the telephone rang. It was George Arliss of Warner Brothers. He had seen her work and thought she’d be perfect for a part in a movie he was making. Did she want the role? Bette said ‘of course’ and her long association with Warner Brothers began.
In those days, actors were owned by the studios, much like sports players today. They were given weekly pay, just like any factory worker, and had to do what they were told. They would work, or not work, at the studio’s discretion, and take any roles the studio decided to give them. The studio even interfered in their private lives, telling them who they should and shouldn’t date.
Warner Brothers gave Bette a lot of parts to play, but they weren’t the kind of roles she wanted. The parts Warner Brothers gave her just weren’t meaty enough and she believed she could do more. Bette fought with executives constantly for better roles and after three years, she finally received a part she could sink her teeth into. She played Joyce Heath, a drunk and penniless former stage star in Dangerous and won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
The movie and the award made Bette famous, but she still wasn’t allowed to choose her own roles. She refused to make any more movies for Warner Brothers. They suspended her without pay, and Bette turned around and sued them. It was almost unheard of at the time. Complaining actors were something studios dealt with all the time, but to be sued? By a woman?
Bette went to England to make two movies there with another studio, but Warner Brothers served her with an injuction that said she couldn’t make any movies until her situation with them was resolved. Eventually, the case came to trial and Bette lost. While her contract with Warner Brothers was unfair, it was a legally binding contract and she had signed it willingly.
But the outcome was not a total failure. Warner Brothers gained a new respect for her. She was not someone to be taken lightly. They paid her court costs, gave her a raise, and began giving her better parts. Bette’s law suit also paved the way for another actress, Olivia DeHavilland (Melanie in Gone With the Wind) who sued Warner Brothers a few years later and won.
Two years after the law suit, Bette won another Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Jezebel. She continued to make movies and in 1941, was elected President of the Motion Picture Academy, the first woman to ever hold the title. During the war years, she sold War Bonds and opened the Hollywood Canteen with actor John Garfield. It was a place for servicemen to come and relax while on leave, and be served and entertained by Hollywood actors.
By the time the war ended, she was marrying her third husband and having her first child. Her private life wasn’t as successful as her public life, and she would go on to marry a fourth time, while her relationship with her daughter would always remain strained.
In 1948, she demanded Warner Brothers release her from her contract, and they finally let her go. She was 40, after all. Way past her prime. Her star power was fading, and there were lots of pretty young actresses coming up. They didn’t think they could make much more money off Bette.
But Betty wasn’t one to be kept down. Whether people liked her or not, they respected her acting skills and knew she could be counted on. She continued making movies until 1957 when she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her back. After several years of recuperation, she made
her comeback in 1962 with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
She was 54 at the time, ancient for an actress in those days, and roles became scarce. At 69, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, but Bette wasn’t ready to stop living or achieving. If Hollywood wouldn’t give her a role, TV would. In 1980, she did Strangers for television and won an Emmy. She battled breast cancer at 75 and won, then brought herself back from a stroke and a broken hip. At 79, she did The Whales of August, and played her last role. She died two years later in France.
Bette believed in being prepared for opportunities and doing the work. She said, “Even the opportunity to fail is worth something, especially if you get another opportunity to succeed. . . . One thing I’m proud of, I can tell you, is that I always gave my best.”