Film Studies: Pride is a sin - just ask Bette

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The Independent Culture

In 1937, Bette Davis made a picture called Marked Woman. Humphrey Bogart plays a New York district attorney (modelled on Thomas E Dewey, who ran against Truman in the 1948 election) who is trying to break the mob control of prostitution. He hopes to persuade several girls to testify against their cruel boss, Eduardo Ciannelli. To frighten her, the gangster gives Bette's character a merciless beating. The director told her to play her next scene so bandaged up she could have been anyone.

So, in her lunch break, Bette went to see her own doctor. "I've been beaten up," she said. "My face carved. How would I look?" The doctor indicated the bruising and a wound. Bette - from the theatre - did her own make-up. She drove back to the studio and, before she was on stage, the horrified gateman had telephoned ahead with news of her "terrible accident". She laughed it off, and she played Marked Woman like a hooker who has just lost her looks.

There's something else you need to know to understand this story. Bette Davis, born in 1908 in New England, was determined to act. She tried the theatre first, yet it was the movies that won her. Not that she was ever beautiful or glamorous. So it was a battle for her, because she kept insisting that Warners was a studio that favoured its male stars (true) and a place that gave her junk to do (equally true).

So she protested year after year, from 1931 onwards. By the end of 1936, she had made 31 pictures - five a year, every year. And of those, the one she was proudest of was Mildred, the vicious waitress, in Of Human Bondage, and that was on loan to RKO. At her home studio, she had hardly a thing worth doing, not even Dangerous, in which she won her first Oscar, while knowing that it was trash.

And then she cracked. She left for Britain and said she would not honour her seven-year contract in which she was supposed to do whatever the studio required of her. So the studio was compelled to sue and, since Davis would not leave England, the case was fought in London. She had been confident of winning but, in the end, she lost. She was humiliated, and if you know Davis the actress, then you know how much she is fuelled by anger. Then the veteran English actor, George Arliss, came to her, the man who had first picked her for the movies, and said, "Go back. Swallow your pride. It will get better. They will believe in you more now." She did as he suggested and in the years that followed she did Marked Woman, Jezebel, The Sisters, Dark Victory, Juarez, The Old Maid, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, All This and Heaven Too, The Letter, The Little Foxes, Now Voyager. At 32, she had made 40 pictures and she was the great actress on the American screen, still working at a studio that favoured men, but persuading them to find material for her.

The National Film Theatre is running a season of her work, concentrating on the films from the 1930s, and it's dazzling to see her again. I said she was not beautiful, but she held her own when it came to being sexy, from Cabin in the Cotton where her Southern belle had the line, "I'd love to kiss you, but I just washed my hair", to The Letter, where the film opens with her emptying a revolver into her faithless lover. In one of her earliest films, William Wellman's So Big, she has only a small part near the end. It's a Barbara Stanwyck picture in which Stanwyck plays a Dutch girl who marries a farmer, survives him and carries on the business. I love Stanwyck, and she works hard with grey in her hair, being stalwart and eternal. Then Davis appears, as a designer after her son, and you don't want to look at Stanwyck any more. Because Davis is 1932, the new thing, fresh as paint and sticky to the touch.

I know that Bette Davis grew old, eccentric and witch-like in her looks. She is remembered today for that very cruel film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, an insolent trashing of herself and her great rival, Joan Crawford. So it's exciting and valuable to be reminded of how pretty Bette Davis was, and how well she acted precisely because she wasn't quite beautiful. Time and again, she did her best work in a spirit of resentment and revenge. And so, being denied the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, she flourished as a woman very close to Scarlett in Jezebel.

She hated the studio and the studio system, and she had reason. But even if four of the five films a year were junk, there is an enormous virtue in working so hard. She did this year's assignments because she was waiting for next year, and yet she learned along the way. And, while she was part of a studio that preferred its men, that meant that she was working with Bogart, Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Leslie Howard, Herbert Marshall, Claude Rains.

But she was fearless, too, and that was just her. In 1944, at 36, she made Mr Skeffington, playing a bitch. She let herself look older and wretched. She knew all the sympathy would go to Claude Rains.

And she revelled in the challenge just as she regularly played women with lousy character and few morals. She did not need to be liked.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

Bette Davis season, National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) to 31 August

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