Go-getter knew the strength of her gifts

April 18, 2008|By Michael Sragow

Bette Davis, the subject of a centennial celebration at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring (she was born on April 5, 1908), always downplayed her sex appeal. She liked to say she became a star because of brains and talent. But at her peak, she was galvanizingly sensual - a knockout who made intelligence and nerviness sexy.

Throughout her career, she battled her bosses for the chance to display her gifts fully. And even when she lost wars, she tended to win battles. She remains a key inspiration for female stars who seize control of their careers so that they can make more daring and individualistic choices.

In 1936, Davis was sick of the weak roles she was getting at Warner Bros. She demanded that studio chief Jack Warner allow her to work at other studios if a part was "peculiarly suited" to her.

"I like working with new directors, new casts, etc.," she wrote to him. "I also am ambitious to become known as a great actress - I might, who can tell."

Understandably, Davis was anxious to have a brilliant career - something she couldn't see happening with Warner Bros. products such as 1937's God's Country and the Woman (which she refused to make).

But she already was a great actress; she was even known as a great actress. When she starred as the cockney waitress Mildred in RKO's 1934 Of Human Bondage (playing at 1 p.m. tomorrow and 7 p.m. Wednesday), Life magazine called her performance "probably the best ever recorded on screen by a U.S. actress."

Her Mildred is unlike any other anti-heroine. This user and emotional bruiser has a vindictiveness that shrivels men into husks. Yet there's nothing traditionally vampish or femme fatale-ish about her. She's shrewd and ignorant, but she knows how to use her limited arsenal of weapons - a vain, arrogant allure and a jeering instinct for the verbal jugular - to conquer the opposite sex. No one who sees the film can forget the crazy violence in her voice when she tells the gentle, clubfooted intellectual played by Leslie Howard, "After you kissed me, I always wiped my mouth!"

Graham Greene, a film critic in the 1930s, fell under the spell of "that precise nervy voice, the pale ash-blond hair, the popping neurotic eyes, a kind of corrupt and phosphorescent prettiness."

So did the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who gave her the best-actress prize for Dangerous (1935), largely to apologize for not awarding her Bondage portrayal the year before.

Two years later, she met her best director, William Wyler, who led her to a second Academy Award, this time for her petulant Southern belle in Jezebel (1938) - a consolation prize for not winning the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. (Jezebel screens at 1 p.m. Sunday and 6:45 p.m. Tuesday.) Wyler knew how to modulate her locomotive energy. When Davis' Jezebel flouts conventions by wearing a red dress to a ball - upsetting her proper beau (Henry Fonda) - you see through her roguishness to the thwarted individuality and poetry at her core.

In her next film with Wyler, The Letter (1940), Davis lights up the dark end of the sexual spectrum. There are few more telling images of passionate violence in movies than the sight of her stiff-armed shooting of a man she says tried to rape her; her eyes flash like whirling warning beacons even after she's done. (The Letter screens at 6 p.m. April 26, 12:30 p.m. April 27 and 7 p.m. April 29.)

In her third and last movie for Wyler, a flawed but dynamic version of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1941), Davis plays the unofficial head of a clan of cotton growers in the Deep New South: carnivores of materialism who trample on old Southern chivalry. Davis is emotionally muted - but even when restrained, this star can be shocking in her intelligence. Here, Davis turns herself into a human vector: You can almost see her calculations diagrammed on her imposing forehead. (The Little Foxes screens at 9:20 p.m. April 30 and 9:20 p.m. May 3 and 4.)

After a string of late-1940s duds, Joseph L. Mankiewicz both revived and capped her career with the role of Margo Channing, the Broadway diva supreme in All About Eve (1950), which 20th Century Fox has just given the deluxe two-disc DVD treatment (the disc came out April 8). Everything she had done prepared Davis for the role - she took Mankiewicz's stylish witticisms and made them sound spontaneous and inspired. She created a charismatic fictional star who was also an intuitive, hard-boiled woman; she could simultaneously revel in artifice and see through it.

Nothing Davis did after would match All About Eve. Davis' prime - 1934 to 1950 - meshed with Hollywood's. For most of her last four decades (she died in 1989), this tenacious star served as a rebuke to a Hollywood that no longer provided roles strong enough to contain her talent. She left behind a legacy few have matched.

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