Bette: Red-Hot Spark of Originality
NEW YORK — BETTE DAVIS didn't fit any of the molds. As countless imitators, impressionists, and impersonators have proved by paying her the sincerest form of flattery, you could re-create her mannerisms but never her essence - never the red-hot spark of originality that made her unique among American actresses. It was an unquenchable spark, and it glowed in nearly 100 movies from the early '30s until the mid-'80s, when she crowned her film career with a memorable performance in ``The Whales of August'' opposite Lillian Gish. Davis died Oct. 6 on her way home from the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, where she had received yet another tribute to add to her long list of honors. She was never shy about accepting accolades from her audience, and she never stinted on hard work - in terms of energy, creativity, and sheer quantity - to earn those accolades.
Although her large, sensitive eyes might have been made for silent movies, Davis came to Hollywood in the early days of talkies. She signed a contract with Universal and slogged through a few forgettable roles before scoring a hit in ``The Man Who Played God,'' the first of many Warner Bros. pictures she graced in the early '30s.
The next upturn in her career came in 1934, when Warners loaned her to RKO for ``Of Human Bondage,'' where she played one of the aggressively unsympathetic roles that many stars shunned but Davis turned into jewels of offbeat authenticity. The picture earned her one of 10 Academy Award nominations that came her way - a record number - and established her as one of Hollywood's boldest actresses as well as one of the most talented.
Davis made an indelible mark during the '30s and '40s, appearing in pictures by many of Hollywood's less distinguished filmmakers as well as occasional auteur directors such as as King Vidor and especially William Wyler, for whom she starred in ``Jezebel'' and ``The Little Foxes.''
Although her luster dimmed in the 1950s, she renewed her appeal in the early '60s with an eccentric yet appealing performance in Frank Capra's comedy ``Pocketful of Miracles'' and Robert Aldrich's bizarre ``What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?'' The latter film started a whole cycle of Grand-Guignol shockers featuring Hollywood veterans (including Joan Crawford, the ``Baby Jane'' costar) in roles and stories that were the opposite of glamorous or, in some cases, dignified. Davis, always willing to risk her image in an unlikely part, clearly enjoyed not only her outrageous portrayal but the opportunity it gave her to challenge yet another set of unwritten Hollywood rules about movie-star correctness and propriety.
Davis's personal life was often stormy, but her professionalism never flagged - on the screen, where she scored her most memorable successes, or on stage and television, where she also enjoyed working. Her vitality and enthusiasm were undiminished to the end, and her last major appearance (in ``The Whales of August'' two years ago) found her as feisty, energetic, and expressive as ever.
A legendary aura grew up around Bette Davis, perhaps epitomized in Edward Albee's play ``Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' which made a quote from a Davis film (``What a dump!'' was the line; ``Beyond the Forest'' was the movie) into a catch phrase for a whole new generation. But the forcefulness of Davis's talent always eclipsed the embellishments of her legend. Her renewed popularity in the late 1980s, on video-cassette releases of her classic films, reaffirms the obvious fact that she was - and is - a star for the ages.