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Bette Davis was one of the Leading Ladies of cinema during the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood. Despite early difficulties in her career Bette Davis grew to be a star by taking on roles she wanted and by letting nothing stand in her way.
Early Life The actress we know as Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1908 to parents Ruth Augusta Favor and Harlow Morrell Davis. Her parents separated in 1915 and she and her sister Barbara ('Bobby') were sent off to boarding school. In 1921 her mother decided to move herself and her girls to New York City to peruse a career in photography. It was in the city where Bette first got bitten by the acting bug. It is reported that she changed the spelling of her nickname from 'Betty' to 'Bette' after Balzac's la Cousin Bette (A story about a middle aged spinster who engineers the destruction of her extended family). Her mother, who was similarly bitten by the acting bug as a girl but never got the chance to try her hand at it, became her chief supporter in this endeavor.
She was rejected from her acting school of choice (Eva LeGallienne's Manhattan Civil Repertory) because the head master saw her as insincere and frivolous; later she was accepted by the John Murray Anderson School of Theater. Her early roles sent her to Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and eventually back home to Broadway. She was offered a screen test by a Universal Talent Scout in 1930. She failed her first screen test.
Early Career Her film debut was in 1931's the Bad Sister; the film attained little success and Davis was shunted around from mediocre film to mediocre film for 6 months when the studio decided not to renew her contract. Bette received her 'big break in 1932 when she was cast in the Man Who Played God, which lead to a 5 year contract with Warner Bros Studios. During the same year she married her first husband, Harmon 'Ham' O. Nelson, a sweetheart she met in boarding school. Bette would have to act in 20 more films before receiving her first real critical acclaim.
The First Lady of Film Several actresses had refused the role of Mildred Rogers in the film adaption of W. Somerset Maugham's of Human Bondage. They saw the role as unsympathetic and refused to play it, Bette, however saw it as an opportunity and poured herself into the role, gaining the respect of co-star Leslie Howard in the process. Despite her prowess and the reception of the role she was not nominated for the Academy Award until 1935 (for the film Dangerous). She insisted that she was the one who coined the nickname 'Oscar' for the statuettes as they reminded her of her husband, whose middle name was Oscar. Here Bette begins once again to slip into the background, while other co-stars got more recognition than she.
Tired of being cast in roles that she saw as silly and pointless; Bette breached her contract with Warner Bros in 1936. She fled to England (where she had accepted the roles that constituted breach of contract) where she found the media most unsympathetic to her. She continued to fight, however because, as she saw it, if she continued under her contract taking bland roles in minor films she'd soon have no career left to fight for. She lost the case and was forced to return, tail between her legs and in debt. After she returned, however, her career took a turn for the better. 1938's Jezebel marked the beginning of the highest point in her career. Her 1st husband divorced her in this year due to her infidelity and 'cruel and inhumane manner'.
Davis had many successful films over the following years, wining more prized roles in Dark Victory (1939) the Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) All this and Heaven Too (1940) and the Little Foxes (1941) to name a few. She married her second husband Arthur Farnsworth in 1940.
Bette threw herself into the war effort following the attack on Pearl Harbor. She sold bonds, entertained soldiers and helped to open a serviceman's club, the Hollywood Canteen. In 1980 she was given the highest civilian honor the armed forces can bestow, the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal for her work on with the Hollywood Canteen. Several of her film choices during this period were influenced by the war including Now, Voyager (1942) and Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943). Davis suffered a personal tragedy in August of 1943 when her husband unexpectedly died due to a skull fracture that had occurred some time earlier. She attempted to get out of her role in Mrs. Skeffington (1944) and was notoriously difficult on set, acting in an erratic and uncharacteristic fashion.
In 1945 Davis married for the third time to an artist, William Grant Sherry. They would later have a daughter, Barbara 'B.D.' Davis Sherry in 1947. After the birth of B.D. Davis considered leaving the industry but eventually she returned. Her career, however, had lost a good deal of steam and she refused several roles that had won other actresses Academy Award Nominations. She proved that she still had a few successes in her with films such as 1950's All About Eve and the chilling What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. For the most part, however her star was fading.
She divorced William Sherry in 1950 and married All About Eve costar Gary Merrill. The couple adopted a baby girl named Margot an moved to England where the couple stared in Another Man's Poison (1951). The following year, Davis and Merill returned to the United States and adopted a baby boy named Michael. Bette grudgingly attempted to return to Broadway but met with lukewarm reception. She had limited experience to begin with and was out of practice due to 20 years in film. She suffered severe and chronic jaw pain which eventually required surgery. Margot was discovered to have severe brain damage due to an injury received shortly after birth, she was later institutionalized. The marriage rapidly started to fall apart, daughter B.D. later reported frequent alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Davis continued to work until 1983 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She then suffered 4 strokes post surgery. Somehow, she survived and was able to work again, making public appearances and continuing to work occasionally in television. Her relationship with B.D. became strained and she and son Michael eventually severed all ties with her. During a trip abroad in 1989 she discovered that the cancer had returned and her health rapidly deteriorated. She passed away on October 6, 1989. Reportedly her tombstone reads "She did it the hard way", a truly accurate statement.