Bette Davis: Bring the Bitch Back!

On the 6th of October 1989, actress Bette Davies died of breast cancer at the age of 81 in the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. On her Hollywood tombstone, the inscription reads: She did it the hard way, summing up a woman’s lifetime of struggle for perfection but also survival. Most of this struggle was by all accounts fought quite ungraciously. In an article in The Guardian (12 January 2012), Anne Billson expressed her disdain at the fact that,

Great Women of History watered down in the cockamamie belief it’ll turn them into feminist role models (…) Some commentators think that unless female characters are irreproachable icons of empowerment, they’re sexist stereotypes, but they’re wrong – it’s our flaws that make us real.”

Billson gave examples from films such as Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady (2011) portraying Margaret Thatcher, Madonna’s W.E. (2011) about Wallis Simpson or Juraj Jakubisko’s Bathory (2008) about the 16th century Hungarian serial killer Báthory Erzsébet. In all these movies, the heroines’ vices are glanced over and their strong traits enhanced in order to retrospectively turn them into feminist role models. This should not happen with the memory of Bette Davis, be it her stage, or private persona.

The actress’ feistiness was visible early on in her career. Upon her arrival in Hollywood, the studio wanted to change her name to Bettina Dawes, which she promptly refused saying that she will not go through life with a name that sounded like between the drawers. The actress claimed: “Hollywood always wanted me to be pretty, but I fought for realism.” Her realism shone through as she was cast in a host of unsympathetic roles: a murderess as Leslie in The Letter (1940), a terrifying drunk as Joyce in Dangerous (1935) or a cold-hearted floozy as Mildred in On Human Bondage (1934), to name a few of many characters which were as broken and flawed as the woman who played them. Davis’ willingness to explore these recesses of human nature is what turned her into a cinematic icon. In her everyday life, Bette became a true diva, demanding, idiosyncratic and outrageous. The negatives of her character clearly drove the pathos in her acting.  

“My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose. when I was most unhappy I lashed out rather than whined.”

James Spada noted in Bette Davies: More Than A Woman (1993), that some reviewers of the time condemned the actress for her over-the-top performances; for instance, James Agee wrote that she “demonstrates the horrors of egocentricity on a marathonic scale.” Her career was very much up and down, and she made it clear to all of her husbands that work always came first. As an indirect cosequence of that, she ended up being physically abused by all four of them and brought up her three children as a single parent. The last years of her life were spent in illness and isolation.

The impressionist Charles Pierce is said to have delivered Davis’ favourite joke about herself. Dressed and acting as her, he ordered to the audience, “Someone give me a cigarette!” Upon being given said cigarette, he threw it on the floor, barking “LIT!”  Whilst life for Bette, as well as life with Bette can’t have been an easy affair, it takes a certain grade of villainous passion to create genial work. These days a good bitch is hard to come by. And that, for the cinema, is a definite loss.