Five foot two, eyes of blue, but, oh, what those five feet could do - the old song was about a very different kind of gal but its opening line sums up the power Bette Davis had in a small package. In the latter half of the Depression and during the war, Davis was the most popular film actress in America, an extraordinary feat considering that her big blue eyes were less likely to be dewy with adoration of her man than popping with rage at him. Men in the audience weren't all that keen on her, but women, especially educated ones, loved her anger and frustration at the men who mistreated her or let her down.
In the 98 years since she was born (her centennial is being commemorated early by a retrospective at the National Film Theatre and a biography by Charlotte Chandler), no one has duplicated Davis' combination of mesmerising unpredictability and sinuous intelligence. The movies of her time had other strong women, but Barbara Stanwyck was more detached; Joan Crawford leaden and humourless. They were also better looking. Davis could be attractive, even sexy, but only with hard work. Davis' appeal was also more insidious: her clipped, majestic speech was accompanied by gestures that intensified the emotion it projected, or betrayed it with an emotion it endeavoured to conceal. She acted with her whole body.
Davis' informal training began at home. Her father left home when she was seven and, thereafter, was indifferent or discouraging; beginning her lifelong quest for a replacement. (Near the end of her life, she said that the early abandonment had compelled her to test every man over and over, until he failed. Her marriages paralleled her screen pairings - three to weak, ineffectual men, the fourth to a drunken, belligerent one, the actor Gary Merrill.)
Davis' career can be encapsulated in four roles. When Of Human Bondage was announced, Davis camped on Jack Warner's doorstep for six months to get the role of Mildred, the viperous slut who tormented that nice Leslie Howard. Finally, Warner, who feared that playing Mildred would make it impossible for audiences to accept her in sympathetic parts, said, exasperated: "All right, go ruin yourself." Her blistering performance so ruined her that critics wrote they had never seen such powerful acting on the screen, and, though she was not among the Oscar nominations for 1934 , she got so many write-ins that she was guaranteed a victory the following year (for a lesser film, Dangerous).
The next triumph for Davis was the role that made her not just an admired actress but a bankable star. When MGM had begun the long search for Scarlett O'Hara that would delay production of Gone With the Wind, Warners saw a chance to beat it into the theatres with a similar property,Jezebel. As Julie, the antebellum spitfire whose craving for attention first annoys others, then ruins her life, Davis was never more bewitching, as an actress and a woman. She collected her second Oscar for the 1938 film (she was nominated eight times more), and her name went above the title and stayed there until she died.
In the next 12 years, Davis made several mediocre films and some good ones; one of them, The Letter (1940) containing perhaps her best performance. By 1950, Warners let Davis go, deciding that she was too old and no longer of interest to audiences. That was when she made her third landmark feature, All About Eve, in which she gave a pull-out-the-stops exhibition of old-fashioned star power as Margo Channing, the Broadway prima donna whose career and boyfriend the title character tries to steal. An affair with Merrill, cast as her lover, who was then married, gave even more of a charge to the resemblance between fiction and fact.
One comeback is more than most stars can manage; Davis made two. In 1962, she teamed up with another becalmed diva, the actress she loathed so much she always called her "Miss Crawford", for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a low-budget shocker about two sisters; one bad, one mad. The lurid film, in which Davis' performance was made even more chilling by her own ghoulish make-up, was a kind of tabloid Sunset Boulevard; at the time, it was almost as shocking as seeing a former Hollywood star in a porn movie. The surprise success of the movie led only to more cheap horror films, then to television work, but Davis was happy to keep working, as she did until 1988, the year before she died. Her tombstone bears a legend - "She did it the hard way" - that makes her look a sore winner but an explanation goes with it. Wyler said the line should be her epitaph, and she was flattered, thinking he meant to compliment her industry and honesty. Later, she said, she decided he meant that, if there was a hard way to do something, she would find it.
In any case, Davis stood by it and expected others to do the same. On the set of her penultimate movie, The Whales of August (1987), Lindsay Anderson got fed up with Davis' constant belittling of Crawford. "Bette," he said. "The woman's been dead for 10 years."
"Just because she's dead," she said, "doesn't mean she's changed."
The Bette Davis season at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 runs from 2-31 August (020-7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk). 'Bette Davis: The Girl Who Walked Home Alone', by Charlotte Chandler, is published by Simon & Schuster
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies