“I’d marry again if I found a man who had fifteen million dollars, would sign over half to me and guarantee that he’d be dead within a year.” — Bette Davis


“I was thought to be ‘stuck up’. I wasn’t. I was just sure of myself. This is and always has been an unforgivable quality to the unsure.”

It’s her birthday today.

First up: For Film Comment, I wrote a piece about “back-ting” – acting with your back to the camera and/or audience. Bette Davis HEAVILY figures in it. Because she was a Back-tress of the highest order.

From James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, an indispensable work of not only film criticism but cultural commentary and observation.

Here is Baldwin on the effect that seeing Bette Davis on the screen for the first time had on him as a small boy. A white schoolteacher (female, although everyone called her “Bill”) befriended young James and introduced him to cinema, theatre, and literature. She took him to see a Bette Davis movie.

My father said, during all the years I lived with him, that I was the ugliest boy he had ever seen, and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him. But it was not my father’s hatred of my frog-eyes which hurt me, this hatred proving, in time, to be rather more resounding than real: I have my mother’s eyes. When my father called me ugly, he was not attacking me so much as he was attacking my mother. (No doubt, he was also attacking my real, and unknown, father.) And I loved my mother. I knew that she loved me, and I sensed that she was paying an enormous price for me. I was a boy, and so I didn’t really too much care that my father thought me hideous. (So I said to myself – this judgment, nevertheless, was to have a decidedly terrifying effect on my life.) But I thought that he must have been stricken blind (or was as mysteriously wicked as white people, a paralyzing thought) if he was unable to see that my mother was absolutely beyond any question the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, here, now, was Bette Davis, on that Saturday afternoon, in close-up, over a champagne glass, pop-eyes popping. I was astounded. I had caught my father, not in a lie, but in an infirmity. For, here, before me, after all, was a movie star: white: and if she was white and a movie star, she was rich: and she was ugly…Out of bewilderment, out of loyalty to my mother, probably, and also because I sensed something menacing and unhealthy (for me, certainly) in the face on the screen, I gave Davis’s skin the dead-white greenish cast of something crawling from under a rock, but I was held, just the same, by the tense intelligence of the forehead…Eventually, from a hospital bed, she murders someone, and [Spencer] Tracy takes the weight, to Sing Sing. In his arms, Davis cries and cries, and the movie ends. “What’s going to happen to her now?” I asked Bill Miller. “We don’t know,” said Bill, conveying to me, nevertheless, that she would probably never get over it, that people pay for what they do.

I had not yet heard Bessie Smith’s “why they call this place the Sing Sing?/Come stand here by this rock pile, and listen to these hammers ring,” and it would be seven years before I would begin working on the railroad. It was to take a longer time than that before I would cry; a longer time than that before I would cry in anyone’s arms; and a long long long long time before I would begin to realize what I myself was doing with my enormous eyes – or vice versa. This had nothing to do with Davis, the actress, or with all those hang-ups I didn’t yet know I had: I had discovered that my infirmity might not be my doom; my infirmity, or infirmities, might be forged into weapons.

That’s one of my favorite things ever written about Davis.


And speaking of the “ugly” thing, which gets a lot of traction still: I do want to point you to my friend Farran Nehme’s gorgeous essay on Bette Davis’ face. The Face of Bette Davis.

There are so many unforgettable roles of such astonishing diversity she makes Meryl Streep look like a slacker: Of Human Bondage, Petrified Forest, All About Eve, The Letter, Now, Voyager, Jezebel, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Marked Woman, The Star, Dark Victory, Strangers (the TV movie she did with Gena Rowlands in the 70s – the whole thing is on Youtube, people) … more, more, more. I love her in her early pre-Code cheese-cake phase too, before she became a star (Three on a Match where she is golden and pale and adorable).

She paved the way for other serious actresses who wanted to do quality films, and wanted to guide their own careers. Her fights with studios are still legendary.

She didn’t break the mould. She created it. It’s still hers.

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37 Responses to “I’d marry again if I found a man who had fifteen million dollars, would sign over half to me and guarantee that he’d be dead within a year.” — Bette Davis

  1. Carolyn clarke says:

    I love this woman. I respect Meryl Streep but Ms. Davis was an original. You never caught her acting. The wife in the “The Letter” is not the wife in “The Little Foxes” or the tramp in “Of Human Bondage”. The sad little caterpillar that turns into a Monarch Butterfly in “Now Voyager”. I love her. And I love the Baldwin piece though I think it says more about Baldwin than Davis.

    • sheila says:

      She is the ultimate. Mr. Skeffington – I should have listed Mr. Skeffington – although there are so many great roles in this astonishing career!

      Sad little caterpillar to Monarch Butterfly – I love how you say that!

      Someone linked to a Facebook post today from Paul Henreid’s daughter – who said that her dad sent Bette Davis a bouquet of camellias on her birthday every year until she died. That just cracked my heart!!

      I agree in re: Baldwin, but I would also say that that is true of most great writers, even critics. Or maybe even especially critics! And the Greats – like Davis – bring out personal responses – they created such a ferocious sense of identification and communication that is somewhat lost now – I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that the celebrity/media culture means we know way too much about actors now – and there’s a mystique that’s lost. Something. He talks about a memory of Joan Crawford in a movie, and he didn’t even know what movie it was, and it was just her back, walking away from the camera – and it was a memory of beauty that stayed with him till the end of his days. He’s one of my favorite film critics. I know he did so much more but his film writing is superb.

  2. sheila says:

    and it’s funny – I watched Of Human Bondage again just this past month – or maybe the month before – and her performance never fails to blow me away. It’s all well and good to “not care about being liked” – a lot of actors SAY they don’t care – but Miss Bette REALLY doesn’t care. That character, my God. And her final scene! Just extraordinary – actresses just didn’t DO stuff like that back then, at least not to that extreme level.

  3. sheila says:

    Carolyn – think you’ll get a kick out of this: my friend Mitchell linked to an interview with Bette Davis on Facebook – it’s from 1963, and it’s pretty rare. There seems to be audio clips – but there’s a transcript too. Some gems:


    • carolyn clarke says:

      Loved the interview. Way too short. Her comments about men and women are almost prescient it seems to me. Is she talking about transgender issues when she says that men need to be more like women and vice versa. It doesn’t surprise me at all that she was a feminist but she doesn’t seem to be angry about as so many are. She seems sad but funny at the same time.

      • sheila says:

        I know, during that interview she seems to have a world-weary “what are ya gonna do?” vibe about the situation as opposed to being all mad about it.

        She had to have the career she wanted. She got what she wanted. She was a total pioneer. I hear a lot of whining now – sorry, that’s what it sounds like to me – from women who were lied to, who were told they could “have it all.” That would be quite a feat since never in human history could ANYONE ever “have it all.” Suddenly you late-20th-century ladies are going to change that dynamic? Even medieval Kings and Queens knew they couldn’t have it all.

        Bette Davis was way tougher than that. And yes, I agree, her comments about men and women sound very prescient!

  4. carolyn clarke says:

    Thank you for the link. I am giddy with anticipation.

    //they created such a ferocious sense of identification and communication that is somewhat lost now …// I think a major part of the problem is the extreme fragmentation of the market. Ebert (one of my favorites btw – I could also count on him to make sense) commanded a relatively huge audience at his peak. Pauline Kael and James Baldwin had people who listened/read. But now, reviews almost don’t matter because movies don’t have stories. They have scenes and set-ups and stunts. Batman v Superman got mixed reviews to put it kindly and still make a ridiculous amount of money. I mean, do 18-24 males actually read reviews any more?

    //actresses just didn’t DO stuff like that back then// Hell, very few actresses go to extremes now. Or if they do, they are like Charlize Theron who ‘uglyed’ herself up for “Monster”. Bette Davis didn’t have to do that.

    • sheila says:

      // I think a major part of the problem is the extreme fragmentation of the market. //

      Totally true, plus the Internet age, as opposed to the print age, and all the rest.

      As a critic – I hope my job matters. One of the best parts about it is when I review some small film, some indie film, and people seek it out because I told them it was good. It’s so gratifying! Writing about the block-busters feels almost … like, why do we even need to review these things?
      1. Everyone will go see them anyway.
      2. If you love the movie, you sound like an arm of the studio’s press machine OR a “fanboy” and it’s unseemly.
      3. If you don’t like the movie, you get death threats and (if you’re a woman) rape threats.

      You cannot win.

      But a small independent movie like Krisha? With no stars in it? I think it’s one of the best movies of the year so far, and I am so happy to have been assigned that one. Some people who read me will check something out if I say “This is worth it.” They’ve come to trust me. It’s not a power trip – and, of course, the number of people who read me is very small – but it actually just makes me feel really good to be able to point at something and say “See this. See it soon before it leaves theatres.” People get so cynical about blockbusters/comic-book movies – but seriously, they need to branch out then and see more, because there is so much more going on, outside the tentpole-summer blockbusters.

      // mean, do 18-24 males actually read reviews any more? //

      Sometimes I think they’re the ONLY ones who read reviews!! Because they love Rotten Tomatoes so much (if you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?), and they track down the critics who “ruin” the Rotten Tomato ratings of their precious super-hero movie, and send us emails telling us they want to rape us in the ass, kill us, calling us swank/twat/etc . The 18-24 males are the WORST.

      • Carolyn clarke says:

        I don’t know what to say. Rape threats?! That’s just sick.

        • sheila says:

          It’s insane. It’s at the point where I’ve cringed when I’m assigned a super-hero movie. It’s just not worth it.

          • Carolyn clarke says:

            But you still do your job amazingly well. I would be so effen furious that I couldn’t speak let alone write intelligently. Kudos.

          • sheila says:

            Ha. Well, in general, I never ever read comments sections – except here on my own site and a couple of other places. I NEVER read comments on my reviews – especially at Roger’s place – because (sorry to say) the commenters over there are atrocious, for the most part.

            I know there are people who read us and like us and link to us – they are out there – the silent majority – but it seems that they are not the same ones who comment. Nobody ever focuses on the content of what we said – it’s all whether or not Roger would have liked it/not liked it – which seems completely irrelevant. The man is dead.

            Last week, I reviewed a very bad Christian movie called God’s Not Dead 2. The only people who have sought me out to the degree that they find my personal email and send vicious emails that make me want to contact their mothers and say, “Do you see the horrible person you have raised? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself” are the Christians pissed off when I don’t like one of “their” movies. They conveniently ignore all of the times I have PRAISED a movie with Christian themes. These Christians are terrible terrible people who say vicious terrible things (setting a lovely example for their religion).

            the Christians are worse than the comic-book fanboys. Or, maybe those two demographics are neck and neck as the worst.

            So up the review goes, and I move on with my life, and I’m sure I’m being called horrible names over there, but why do I need to pollute my brain with any of that? I said what I needed to say – and in my opinion – I was respectful, and not dismissive of faith itself – my beef is with the bad movie-making.

            But one can’t expect stupid Christians to pick up on nuance like that.

  5. Sheila
    Noticing it was Bette Davis’s birthday I watched Of Human Bondage (for the millionth time) And Yes, I’m too always blown away! She’s the meanest working class waitress ever, so great! She just runs away with this movie. I loved Kim Morgan’s hilarious and reverent piece! And what she says about that last scene, BD looking like a wasted, drugged out punk/riot girl, that’s true! But with such ethereal beauty at the same time.

    • sheila says:

      // She’s the meanest working class waitress ever, //

      She really is!!

      // BD looking like a wasted, drugged out punk/riot girl //

      I know, right? Totally Courtney Love in her “Hole” days. It’s weirdly MODERN, what BD is doing there. And also … she goes for it. This is not “pretend” somehow – would you agree? Like, she risked how audiences might react to her in such a mean-spirited role. Audiences may have rejected her, or not “liked” her – but she knew it was a hell of a part and she played the hell out of it.

      It still amazes me.

  6. Sheila And reading Kim Morgan who said she had to fight the director tooth and nails for that look at the end. And it’s hilarious how Morgan puts it. something like – Yeah, go ahead, even in this state I’m still more alive then you, Go on with your next boring girlfriend and dull life. Davis’s character still wins in the end.
    I read too that L. Howard and cast were not too happy with her playing a Brit. They cold-shouldered her the first few days. BD herself said “rightly so”. She didn’t have the Cockney down at first. But. Pretty soon, they all knew she was running away with this picture and started to respect her.

    • sheila says:

      God, she just knew the score, didn’t she. She always cared about the right things – the work itself, the part, the character, the make-believe of it, how to make sense of it – she didn’t get distracted.

      // BD herself said “rightly so”. She didn’t have the Cockney down at first. //

      I love stories like that. Her success was not a fluke. She worked.

      // Go on with your next boring girlfriend and dull life. //

      hahahahahahaha I know!!

  7. Rachel says:

    I’ve always loved Bette Davis’ face and I could never understand people who called her ugly, she was striking. She had a face that you couldn’t look away from. Anyway, merely pretty faces are overrated. Contemporaries of Cleopatra didn’t think she was all that in the looks department yet she managed to charm and seduce Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. And people at court couldn’t understand why Henry VIII was so taken with Anne Boleyn. And the best fictional women aren’t the prettiest girls in the room, either. Scarlett O’Hara wasn’t beautiful (although Vivien Leigh was), it was the pure power of her personality that attracted Rhett Butler and those unfortunate early husbands. And Darcy didn’t fall for Lizzie Bennett because of her looks, her sister Jane was the great beauty, but because of her character.

    • sheila says:

      // I could never understand people who called her ugly //

      Me neither. Farran was so annoyed by that common opinion that she wrote her whole essay in response to it. She’s sick of it!

      I remember my first boyfriend said something in our first couple of months of dating about how he liked what I looked like “even though you’re not classically beautiful.” I should have broken up with him then and there. Because his measuring-rods were off, and he still had some vision in his mind of what his girlfriend should look like – and it wasn’t me.

      There were plenty of men afterwards who thought I was the bomb and never would have said anything like that. But I never forgot that comment from first boyfriend – and realized that he was measuring me against some ideal in his head – and while what he said to me was meant as a compliment, I still felt it as a red flag.

      It’s like people who think they’re being supportive when they say “Real women have curves.”

      So my skinny friends aren’t “real women”? Women who don’t need to wear a bra aren’t “real women”? Women who have slim straight bodies aren’t “real”? Eff you and the self-righteous horse you came in on. And I’m ALL curves. Too MUCH curves, in fact, the word “zaftig” applies, and I’m trying to get those curves under control as we speak. So “real women have curves” is meant to make me feel better about myself but instead it pisses me off.

      I find “real women have curves” to be pretty sinister actually. It’s meant to combat the “skinny is beautiful” ideal in our culture and make plump/fat/curvy girls feel good about themselves – but it’s equally as bad. Maybe even worse because it de-humanizes women who aren’t curvy. “Real women”?? That’s like saying “Real women have babies”, which means you completely shut out women who don’t have children from being “counted” as women. Or elderly women. Or anyone who doesn’t line up with some preconceived notion of what being a woman means.

      Bette Davis was everything. She was tough, she was mean, she was soft, she was vulnerable, she could be vain, she could be strident, she was funny as hell, she was bold. Every aspect of her was at her fingertips as an actress. I know she struggled to find good parts after she reached a certain age – but she fared better than Crawford did, who only was asked to play “grotesques”. But Crawford was a more classic Leading Lady than Bette was – and despite the fact that I think Bette Davis was beautiful, Crawford was more of the typical “glamorous leading lady” than Bette was. (And I love Crawford). So in a way Hollywood is much meaner to women like Crawford. Getting old is seen as a disappointment, or a betrayal – it kills the “fantasy” of what she once was. It’s horribly unfair.

      Bette Davis, whose career had never been about her looks, was free of that. I love her crotchety old-lady parts.

      • Rachel says:

        //I remember my first boyfriend said something in our first couple of months of dating about how he liked what I looked like “even though you’re not classically beautiful.” I should have broken up with him then and there. Because his measuring-rods were off, and he still had some vision in his mind of what his girlfriend should look like – and it wasn’t me. //

        Fuck that guy! I had a boyfriend like that too, or at least he became that way as the relationship started falling apart. We were once all dressed up and on our way to a fancy party and I said something about how nice he looked and when he didn’t respond in kind I called him on it. So he said something about my boobs, which did look spectacular, but so did the rest of me. I remember thinking that was it. I didn’t need to put myself through that shit anymore.

        • sheila says:

          // Fuck that guy! //

          Thank you!! I knew there was something “off” about it even though it sounded like a compliment.

          A couple years later, I hooked up with the guy who would take up my time in my late 20s, early 30s, and during our very first conversation – yes, we were drunk, whatever – he said, “You’re so pretty.” Nothing else, no qualifier. He had no idea that that was the first time anyone had called me that – and I didn’t tell him, but it certainly got my attention, because he meant it. It was sweet and seemed to be a response to me, who I was, not some OTHER thing.

          // So he said something about my boobs, which did look spectacular, but so did the rest of me. I remember thinking that was it. I didn’t need to put myself through that shit anymore. //

          Oh man. Not good. Glad you kicked him to the curb.

  8. Sheila
    “Bette Davis was everything.”
    Interesting, Bette Davis interviewed saying she really wasn’t a woman like Margo Channing, in the way that Margo was so obsessed about aging.
    BD really didn’t give a shit about that.
    And yet to think BD was so vulnerable in that part! (and of course, gorgeous anyway)
    mixed with that constant sneer.
    And BD says how harder it is for woman who are noticed for their beauty, use their beauty only, have a harder time when that goes.
    “I love her crotchety old-lady parts.” Yes! Haha!
    I’ve been watching all BD’s interviews, her great strength, humor, directness, sense of truth so inspiring!

    • sheila says:

      I absolutely love her performance in The Star. That has to be one of the most honest movies about growing old in Hollywood I’ve ever seen – even more honest than All About Eve, because All About Eve was so arch and funny and about “theatre” as opposed to “the business”.

      Bette Davis drunk driving clutching her Oscar? It sounds so campy, but it’s hard-hitting and brutal in the moment. It took real guts for her to acknowledge what was happening to her career in the very moment that it was happening. Not that the film was autobiographical, but that her entire life’s work was fighting AGAINST what The Star showed. Let’s toss women aside when they get older. Nobody wants to see women in their 50s. Who cares. They had their day in the sun. Buh-bye.

      I need to re-watch all those Dick Cavett interviews with her again. She’s just on FIRE, and so inappopriate and so hilarious and smart.

    • Rachel says:

      //And BD says how harder it is for woman who are noticed for their beauty, use their beauty only, have a harder time when that goes.//

      It is. And it’s sad. And people are all too ready to pounce on them when they don’t look like their 20-year-old selves anymore. Look at how many people pounced on Kim Novak at the Academy Awards a couple years ago. It was shocking how vituperative people were. I got in a huge FB fight with someone who posted video of her accompanied by nasty, crude comments. Guess what, Buddy? You’re gonna get old, too. And you never had an eighth of Kim Novak’s looks and charm.

      • sheila says:

        Oh do not even get me started on that Kim Novak thing. Even worse were the concern-trolls “Tut tut how much plastic surgery she’s had” – when she was very open about the fact that she regretted the plastic surgery she had and that they hadn’t done a good job. Disgusting to me.

        The reactions to Brigitte Bardot/Jeanne Moreau too – who literally do not give a shit about “aging gracefully” which I think is fabulous. Like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

        You might have already read this – but Farran Nehme (self-styled siren) wrote a brilliant piece on Kim Novak at the Oscars – and boy, did it bring out the angry trolls. Because she called them on their bullshit – especially those who consider themselves to be lovely sensitive people.


  9. Rachel says:

    I did read it, thank you. People are so damned cruel. Is it any wonder Blanche DuBois preferred to be seen only by candlelight!

    • sheila says:

      I know. It’s just ridiculous. It seems compulsive to in people. Many of my friends who even identify as feminist fall into it, and fall into the “Too bad she had so much plastic surgery” commentary – which is just as reductive as “Wow, she didn’t age gracefully” bullshit.

      The fact that Dolly Parton has had plastic surgery is 1. totally not surprising. I mean, come on, she’s Dolly. and 2. the LEAST interesting thing about her.

      It should not be the first thing one says when her name comes up. people need to resist that impulse. People were pissed off that Farran called them out on it. But really, they were probably just ashamed of themselves (as well they should be) and that was how it came out.

      • Rachel says:

        //The fact that Dolly Parton has had plastic surgery is 1. totally not surprising. I mean, come on, she’s Dolly. and 2. the LEAST interesting thing about her.//

        YES! But Dolly Parton OWNS her choices. She doesn’t give a shit what you think about her hair, her clothes, her makeup, her surgery. She likes it. That’s it. Shut up!

  10. Sheila
    Yeah, don’t get me started either about the great Kim Novak! “And the next day you wake up to a bunch of cheap goddamn shots about your face.”
    Kim Novak has such a sensitive, deep soul and it shined through all her roles and combined with, yes, that great beauty, she was something else. For Vertigo alone, I mean, really, that kind of beauty is other-wordly and few have it. And she’s the perfect Hitchcock blonde, gorgeous, but distant and strange, you can’t figure her out. I just laugh at the part as soon as James Stewart sees her, and, next day, he is on the job, he’s not missing following that one around!
    But I loved her in so many films, Pal Joey, Bell, Book and Candle to name a few…

    • sheila says:

      She’s perfection in Vertigo.

      And when you know her background, and how shy and insecure she was, her persona onscreen is even more of a miracle.

      It was just disgusting how she was treated post-awards-appearance. It made me so angry.

      • Rachel says:

        They were like vultures, cockroaches. It pisses me off just thinking about it and yes, of course, they completely write off her whole career. She’s not an actress with a great body of work over many years. Work that will survive long after these fuckers are dead. Instead, she becomes just a freak, someone these bozos can feel superior about.

        • sheila says:

          There was definitely a sense of glee amongst all the pearl-clutching “how sad she’s done this to herself.”

          I wonder if part of it was that people have a hostile reaction to great beauty – even as they are drawn to it – and then are somewhat happy when it is (as they see it) destroyed.

          Either way, it was totally gross.

    • mutecypher says:

      Bell, Book and Candle…

      Oh man.

      Perfection again.

  11. Sheila
    Yes! And on top of it knowing her soft heart how all that probably hurt her deeply. I also meant to say in my mentioning these few movies how outrageous it was too that no respect was given for this legend who made all these great movies!

    • sheila says:

      I mean, how much of Vertigo – now voted the Greatest Film of All Time, booting Citizen Kane out of #1 – is because of HER? Everyone gives all credit to Hitchcock. Fine. Yes. But Hitchcock knew that most of movie-making is about casting well.

      She was perfect – so cool, so mysterious, so confused – a perfect projector screen for fantasy and dreams. Who else could pull that off?

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