Bette Davis: classic Hollywood’s forgotten feminist?

‘I’ve always had the will to win. I felt it baking cookies. They had to be the best cookies anyone ever baked. But there was a price to pay. If a man is dedicated to his work, he’s more of a man. If a woman feels that way, she’s less of a woman.’

When you think about feminist star personas from Hollywood’s golden age, the first actress that usually comes to mind is the great Katharine Hepburn, whose legendary forthrightness and independence shines through every character she ever played. Yet Hepburn is not the silver screen’s only feminist role model – plenty of other women were trailblazers, on and off screen, breaking boundaries and challenging gender roles. It’s often observed that once film became a profession and a business it became a man’s game; that the early women of cinema got left behind. And whilst there is some truth in that observation, it doesn’t mean that the women who challenged convention in the 1930s and 1940s should be overlooked.

Bette davis All About Eve
Davis as Margot Channing in All About Eve (Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950)

 

One name often omitted from Hollywood’s feminist discourse? Bette Davis. Davis might never have self-identified as a feminist (indeed many of women I like to think of as feminist figure heads talked very little about gender equality or waged political campaigns) but her credentials are impeccable. To begin with, Davis played some of the most memorable female characters ever written. Many of those characters weren’t memorable for their charm. Indeed the more unlikeable they were, the better Davis played them. Consider the heartless Mildred Rogers in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage (1934). In the New York Times, film critic Mordaunt Hall described how the audience was so frustrated by Rogers conduct that ‘when Carey [Leslie Howard, playing a sensitive artist-turned-medical-student] finally expressed his contempt for Mildred’s behavior applause was heard from all sides’.

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Davis as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (Dir: John Cromwell, 1934)

Davis didn’t just want to be unlikeable or unsympathetic – she was self-confident enough to look bad on camera too. She reportedly argued with Archie Mayo on the set of Bordertown because the director wanted her to wake up in bed wearing a wig and full make-up. She preferred curlers and cold cream for authenticity. For Elizabeth and Essex she shaved her head. As Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? she relished the opportunity to be the dowdy counterpart to the glamorous Joan Crawford (her long-time rival).

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Davis as Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth and Essex (Dir: Michael Curtiz, 1939)

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Davis as Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Dir: Robert Aldrich, 1962)

Both on screen and off, Davis showed little desire to be liked. She wanted to get the job done to the highest standard, with little regard for personal vanity or popularity contests. Edmund Goulding, who directed Davis in 1939’s Dark Victory, warned Joseph L. Mankiewicz before he directed All About Eve (1950): “That woman will destroy you. She will grind you down to a fine powder and blow you away. She will come to the stage with a thick pad of long yellow paper. And pencils. She will write. And she, not you, will direct. Mark my words”.

Although many of Davis’ characters explored the accepted parameters of female behaviour, her influence was not solely limited to the screen. Throughout her tenure at Warner Bros. (which eventually lasted from 1931 to 1948), Davis was engaged in on-going battles with studio bosses. She was regularly suspended for refusing to play mediocre parts or holding out for more money. She threatened to move to England to find the roles she thought she deserved. In 1936, she filed a lawsuit against the studio claiming her contract was a ‘form of slavery’. She lost the suit but, remarkably, wasn’t blackballed. Instead she was rewarded for her tenacity with a lead role in William Wyler’s Jezebel and later, an independent corporation (B.D Incorporated) that meant she received 35% of the net profits from her movie.

jezebel bette davis
Davis as Julie in Jezebel (Dir: William Wyler, 1938)

Those acts of rebellion probably guaranteed her career. Jezebel – and the character of Julie Marsden – was the perfect showcase for Davis’ talent, but also allowed the actress to shape a screen persona that was provocative, fiercely independent feminine and – perhaps most importantly – totally her own. Marsden is one cinema’s great feminist heroines. She’s outspoken, free-spirited and bored of patriarchal conventions that dictate women’s behaviour (remind you of anyone?). In a memorable moment of defiance, she decides to wear a bright red dress to the Olympus ball – a formal occasion at which women are ‘supposed’ to don virginal white gowns. Both Davis and Marsden can be seen as rebelling against male authority – both the actress and the character were important counterpoints to the perceived ideals of femininity in the 1930s.

bette davis jezebel
Davis as Julie in Jezebel (Dir: William Wyler, 1938)

But in typical Davis style, the crusade didn’t stop there. Not content with being the highest-paid woman in America, Davis was also elected as the ninth president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She held the post for two short months, then resigned, complaining that the role was little more than a figurehead and actually came with very little influence.

So why – in the light of these achievements – is Davis not the poster girl for feminism in classic Hollywood? That moniker is most often reserved for the great Katharine Hepburn – although Hepburn was far from the only woman to challenge convention and re-shape notions around femininity in her professional and personal life, the accolade belongs to her. Perhaps of all the ‘feminist’ Hollywood icons (as well as Hepburn and Davis, I’d also add Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West to the list), Hepburn remains the most visible because her politics were deeply embedded into her psyche. In short, she was a feminist first, an actress second. Hepburn attended Bryn Mawr College, where her mother, her aunt Edith and several of her mother’s friends had also studied. The college’s president, M. Carey Thomas, had instilled feminist ideals into Hepburn’s mother; it’s likely that the young Katharine grew up in a household where female equality was the norm, not a choice.

bette davis young

Davis was raised by her mother after her father Harlow Morrell Davis, a Harvard Law School graduate, filed for divorce. In Charlotte Chandler’s biography The Girl who Walked Home Alone, Davis describes her mother Ruthie as her ‘best friend’, someone who held down multiple jobs whilst studying photography to put Davis and her younger sister through school. Acting came in her teens, when she read for Eva Le Gallienne, whose Civic Repertory Theater was then one of the most popular touring companies – although her ‘break’ didn’t come until 1929, at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, in Virgil Geddes’s The Earth Between. A contract with Universal Pictures followed, although it wasn’t until Davis met the English actor George Arliss (who remained her mentor until her death) that she was noticed by Warner Bros.

If ever there was a scenario that culminated in success, a mother prepared to make any sacrifice and an estranged father who would barely acknowledge her existence, was almost made to produce an actress. As Davis recounted to Chandler: “I never really wanted to fit in. I wanted to fit out. Little did I understand that I didn’t have to try. My desire to be special and to be different already showed that I was”. Rule-breaking was embedded into her psyche and that – combined with her determination to impress her absent father – meant she challenged the status quo not to make a point, but to construct the career and find the roles that she believed she ha the talent to play. Unlike Hepburn, she was an actress that just happened to be a feminist (even if she never labelled herself with the term).

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Davis as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter (Dir: William Wyler, 1940)

But her aggressive pursuit of success and her natural honesty were qualities society often (and still does) punished women for. Despite the supposed progression of women’s rights since the 1930s and 40s, women who are aware of their power and are willing to wield it are still contentious and warily regarded. Davis can’t be the feminist icon because we’re still not completely comfortable with women who take exactly what they need and forge their own path. Hepburn’s ‘safer’ legacy is bound up with a fight to be allowed to wear trousers, of being blunt and outspoken but never rude. In contrast, Davis revelled in her notoriety – “I was a legendary terror… I was insufferably rude and ill-mannered in the cultivation of my career. I had no time for pleasantries. I said what was on my mind, and it wasn’t always printable. I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile, and ofttimes disagreeable. I suppose I’m larger than life.”

Instead of a feminist pioneer, Davis is most often remembered as a prolific and talented actress who was willing to trade-in her beauty for a challenging role. She was all those things – but she was also so much more. In fact, the last words probably belongs to her:

This post is part of the Bette Davis blogathon celebrating the actresses’ 108th birthday. Hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood – check out all the entries here.

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24 thoughts on “Bette Davis: classic Hollywood’s forgotten feminist?

  1. Hear hear! I agree that Bette Davis is a forgotten feminist. This blogathon has really emphasized how hard she fought for good roles, proper characterization, etc. Her films would have suffered, I think, without her advocacy.

    Thanks for including that PBS interview – Bette had a lot of interesting things to say.

  2. Great focus on who is remembered for what. That Davis and Hepburn are often remembered for being “difficult” says much about the sexism of golden age Hollywood. You and I don’t see Hepburn the same way, but we definitely agree on Davis!

    1. To be honest, I’m a big KH fan. I just think other actresses (like Davis) had as much impact as her, she’s just the one popular consciousness has chosen to remember. You’re spot on with the comment about being ‘difficult’ – assertive men were certainly treated very differently! 😉

  3. “…she was rewarded for her tenacity with a lead role in William Wyler’s Jezebel …”
    Now, that’s a very different narrative to the familiar one. As I’ve always heard it “Jezebel” was a door prize for not being picked to play Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” despite popular demand. I suppose it’s a measure of her tenacity that David O. Selznick felt any need to compensate her for not getting the part at all!

    1. That was poorly worded on my part – I guess I meant more that other actresses might have given up after those kind of set-backs, but Davis wasn’t the sort to take rejection or anything she saw as ‘unfair’ lying down. A formidable presence indeed!

  4. This is a fantastic post! It’s funny because I too have always thought of her as a feminist. Even if she never considered herself to be one, I’ve always considered her to be quite a role model for us girls! I really enjoyed the PBS video too. I had never seen it before.

  5. Fantastic post. I see your point perfectly, although over the years, I have heard people talk about Bette Davis as a feminist icon. But I understand what you meant 🙂

  6. I enjoyed your article very much. And thanks so much for the interview clips. Davis was a priceless jewel. Have you seen the interview she did with Dick Cavett? I love the part when she answers the question about how she lost her virginity!

  7. Wonderful, wonderful! I’m glad there are people like YOU to spread Bette’s unseen legacy. I was afraid of her when I first saw her old self in a documentary, but after reading this post I admire her more and more. You left a lot of thoughts boiling in my head about Jezebel as a feminist icon…
    Kisses!
    Le

  8. Oh, I Love love love this piece! What a fantastic tribute to such a great lady!!

    It’s posts like this that remind me how important our work can be when we write about classic cinema, and Bette Davis as a feminist icon should not be forgotten.

    Bravo my dear!

  9. Great review. From what I’ve read of her bio, I think the fact that she was so often the breadwinner of her family played a part too (and not just for a husband, but for her sister & mom). Her fierce fights for financial fairness mean so much more to me in terms of leadership than any mere words other woman said about equal rights. Great review.

  10. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I think I’ve told you before but I love your writing style. Great post.

    I would also like to let you know that I’ve been asked to co-host a blogathon dedicated to Olivia in celebration of her centenary in July, and I would love to invite you to join in. The link is below with more details.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/announcing-the-olivia-de-havilland-centenary-blogathon-2/

  11. Bette Davis is one of the most famous women in history, a wild success and very strong. She fought tyeh studio system very early on all by herself. She can’t be forgotten. Women love her.

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