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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 3, 2006

TV special chronicles Davis' colorful life

By Luaine Lee
Knight Ridder News Service

Bette Davis always fought for better movie roles, even though she realized that Hollywood was more concerned with beauty than talent.

Associated Press library photo

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She came to be known as the First Lady of the Cinema, but famed actress Bette Davis was fired from her first job, flunked her first screen test and was rejected when she applied to a prestigious acting school.

It might have discouraged others, but Davis was unflappable. She once said, "My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose."

She had purpose, all right, from the time she was a freshman in high school until her death in 1989 at 81.

Davis was a liberated woman before there was such a term. Independent and scrappy, she always fought for better roles, even though she realized that Hollywood was more concerned with looks than ability.

Her private life was as colorful as her professional life, and Turner Classic Movies will chronicle both when it airs "Stardust: The Bette Davis Story" tonight, book-ended by a series of her famous movies.

Not a classic beauty, when she first arrived in L.A. by train, the person who'd been sent to pick her up never found her. Later he was to say, "No one faintly like an actress got off the train."

She did finally land a contract with Universal but the studio boss, Carl Laemmle, was not impressed. "She has as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville," he huffed.

Davis knew she was no beauty. In fact, when she saw her first screen test, she ran from the room. "What a fool I was to come to Hollywood," she said, "where they only understand platinum blondes and where legs are more important than talent."

In her early days in Hollywood, she essayed a series of forgettable parts, until her role opposite George Arliss in "The Man Who Played God" (1932) stirred some interest. The movie was her first with Warner Bros., which was to serve as her resident studio for much of her career and where she snagged seven Academy Award nominations. But it was as a loan-out to RKO that she devoured the juicy role of Mildred, the scheming waitress in "Of Human Bondage" (1934), a role she acquitted with stunning brilliance.

It was just a year later that she won her first Oscar for the tearjerker "Dangerous." But most of the roles offered after "Dangerous" proved lackluster melodramas, and Davis rebelled. She left the studio and accepted a couple of assignments in England.

Because she was still under contract to Warner's, the studio slammed an injunction on her, whereby she promptly sued. Though she lost the case, Warner's had a change of heart and not only paid her legal expenses but began to nurture her personal idiosyncrasies with more suitable roles.

She went on to make such classics as "Now, Voyager," "Watch on the Rhine," "Jezebel," "The Letter" and "Phone Call From a Stranger," pushing constantly for quality and realism in her parts. She eventually established herself as the alpha female of the motion picture.