Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1908, Bette Davis “made her film acting debut in 1931’s The Bad Sister,” according to one biographical sketch, penned by screenwriter and novelist Timothy Stelly Sr., “and usually played characters with tough exteriors, but who were vulnerable. Her characters usually were smart-mouthed and many of them smoked cigarettes, behavior which wasn’t considered very lady-like.” Her filmography features such classic pictures as Dangerous (1935), Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), All About Eve (1950), and of course What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). (She’d wanted to play the lead in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, but was passed over in favor of Vivien Leigh.) “In 1977, Davis became the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award,” Stelly notes, adding that
Three of her movie quotes are among the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest. They include (No. 7, from All About Eve), “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” (No. 60, from Beyond the Forest) “What a dump,” and (No. 45) “Oh, Jerry, don't let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars (from Now, Voyager).Oddly, Davis’ career began to wane after All About Eve, and she started turning to television for employment. She did an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1959, appeared several times in the series Wagon Train, did turns on The Virginian, Gunsmoke, and Robert Wagner’s It Takes a Thief, and during the sixth season of the 1957-1966 series Perry Mason, substituted for Raymond Burr on the show while he was hospitalized. (Three excerpts from that episode, “The Case of Constant Doyle,” can be seen here, here, and here.) In 1971, Davis starred with Doug McClure in The Judge and Jake Wyler, a somewhat clever NBC-TV movie, written by the team of William Link and Richard Levinson (Columbo, Mannix, etc.), that was to serve as the pilot for a weekly crime drama. In it, Davis portrayed a retired hypochondriac judge who, with the assistance of an ex-con she had once sent up the river, is now operating a private-detective agency. Unfortunately, the network muckety-mucks weren’t interested. (Two years later, however, Levinson and Link resurrected the basic concept in another series pilot called Partners in Crime, this time headlined by Lee Grant and Lou Antonio. But that one didn’t sell either.) She finished her remarkable career by starring in a couple of Agatha Christie films, doing a short stint on the TV soaper Hotel, and appearing with Lillian Gish in The Whales of August (1987).
Perhaps her most memorable line was from the movie that catapulted her to stardom. In Of Human Bondage (1934) she co-starred with Leslie Howard and delivered the line, “You cad! You dirty swine! I never cared for you--not once! I was always making up to love ya. Ya bored me stiff. I hated ya. It made me sick when I had to let ya kiss me. I only did it because you begged me--ya hounded me and drove me crazy! And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth. Wipe my mouth!” Along that same tenor, In The Cabin in the Cotton (1932) she uttered the line, “I’d like ta kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” Then again as Joyce Arden in It’s Love I’m After (1937), she quipped: “Dearest, I think you’re the lowest thing that ever crawled, but as long as I can reach out and get my hands on you, no other man will ever touch me.”
Davis died in 1989. On her tombstone is written, “She did it the hard way.” That may be true, but she made it look easy.
READ MORE: “Blonde Bette Davis: Marked Woman,” by Raquelle (Out of the Past); “ Bette Davis @ 100,” by David Hudson (GreenCine Daily); “ Bette With an E: Why I Should Be Best Friends With Bette Davis,” by Kim Morgan (Sunset Gun).