Bette Davis is buried in the Hollywood Hills Cemetery. The inscription on her white marble sarcophagus reads: ‘She did it the hard way.’ The hard way was the only way available to this talented, idiosyncratic, independent minded actor in conservative, patriarchal Golden Age Hollywood. The hard way was the only way she knew.
Nowadays we celebrate short cuts, smart routes and safe options. We tend to like the easy way. So it’s worth pausing a while to consider why Davis was so proud to have done it the hard way.
‘I survived because I was tougher than anyone else.’
Bette Davis was born in 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. When she was 7 her parents separated and she subsequently moved with her mother to New York. She was drawn to acting at an early age and was playing Broadway when the talkie revolution lured her to Hollywood.
In 1930 Davis arrived with her mother at the railway station in LA, but the Universal executives that had arranged to meet her failed to show up. Afterwards they excused themselves:
‘We didn’t see anyone get off the train who looked like an actress.’
Davis didn’t have the flawless nose, teeth and hair that were then expected of Hollywood stars. She had unusually large, deep blue eyes and ash-blonde hair. She spoke with a distinct New England cadence. The studio labelled her the ‘Little Brown Wren.’
Universal were sceptical of Davis’ appeal (‘Who wants to get her at the end of the picture?’), but they signed her nonetheless. They set about moulding her to the tastes of the day: dyeing her hair platinum and changing her name to Bettina Dawes. But she would have none of it.
‘I refused to be called ‘Between the Drawers’ all my life.’
This was Hollywood’s first encounter with Davis’ legendary force of character.
‘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 in the unsure.’
By the end of 1932 Davis had made ten pictures with Universal, but none of them was successful and she was released from her contract.
‘What a fool I was to come to Hollywood where they only understand platinum blondes and where legs are more important than talent.’
Davis was on the point of going home, but she was picked up by Warner Brothers. Her performances began to receive some recognition, and in 1934 she won plaudits for her role in ‘Of Human Bondage.’ Unlike many stars of the day, she enjoyed playing unsympathetic characters, women who were brittle, flawed, emotional, outspoken.
‘No one’s as good as Bette when she’s bad.’
Headline from a Bette Davis movie poster
As her box office success grew, Davis increasingly clashed with studio executives and directors, criticising scripts and walking off sets.
‘I knew that if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.’
Eventually in 1936 she was suspended without pay for turning down a role she thought inappropriate.
‘I was complaining constantly about my bosses, the men who paid me, and I got sick of complaining.’
The following year she took Warners to court in an attempt to free herself from her restrictive contract.
‘Either fire me or let me be what I personally am. You cannot be somebody else - a copy.’
She lost the case. But Warners recognised that their single-minded star had a point and gradually the roles improved.
‘I lost the battle, but I won the war.’
Soon Davis was turning in extraordinary performances in certified classics like ‘Jezebel’, ‘The Letter’, ‘Now, Voyager’ and ‘All About Eve.’
‘Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.’
Charlotte Vale, Now, Voyager
Davis was consistently intense in these movies, compulsively watchable, with her expressive eyes and flamboyant gestures; her clipped diction and melodramatic manner. She clearly enjoyed roles that stretched her.
‘The key to life is accepting challenges. Once someone stops doing this, he’s dead.’
Davis continued to fight her corner and argue her case. She revelled in her reputation for being forceful and forthright, combative and confrontational.
'I was a legendary terror. I was insufferably rude and ill-mannered in the cultivation of my career. I had no time for pleasantries. I said what was on my mind, and it wasn't always printable. I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile and oft-times disagreeable. I suppose I’m larger than life.’
At 54 Davis performed one of her most memorable roles as the ageing vaudeville actor ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ Joan Crawford played her unloved sister, and the film brought into focus a long-running feud between the two Hollywood legends.
‘Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why [Joan Crawford] always plays ladies.’
But gradually the roles were drying up as they so often do for mature women. Davis wouldn’t take it lying down. In 1962 she placed an ad in the Situations Wanted column in Variety:
‘Mother of three – 10, 11 & 15 – divorcee. American. Thirty years’ experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway.)’
Nonetheless there weren’t too many more great scripts left for Davis. She continued to work in film and TV and in the latter part of her career her sharp tongue and penetrating insight made her popular on the talk show circuit.
‘I want to die with my high heels on, still in action.’
Bette Davis passed away in 1989, aged 81. She left behind an extraordinary body of work. She was the first actor to be nominated for ten Oscars (she won two). She was the first female President of the Motion Picture Academy. For a time she was the best-paid woman in America.
‘I will never be below the title.’
So what can we learn from Davis?
Well, sometimes in your career you need to stand firm, stand up for what you believe is right. Sometimes you have to be prepared to be unpopular, to be pilloried, to be shunned by your peers.
‘If everyone likes you, you’re not doing it right.’
People who don’t conform, who don’t bend with the wind, are labelled stubborn, obstinate, difficult and demanding. But most of the time Davis was merely demonstrating grit, determination and resolve.
‘My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today. I knew it then as purpose.’
Importantly Davis insisted that she did not take a confrontational approach for vain, self-serving, egotistical reasons; but rather for the quality of the work.
‘This became a credo of mine: attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.’
Davis was certainly a tough cookie. She was uncompromising, persistent, provocative. But she was also intelligent, passionate, hugely gifted and committed to her art. And she opened a door through which many talented actors would follow.
‘It’s true we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. But we don’t know what we’ve been missing until it arrives.’
In today’s consumer culture we’re endlessly seeking seamless experiences and frictionless interactions. At work we celebrate agility, speed and pragmatism. We like to find the easy way. But we should remind ourselves occasionally to take the high road, not the low road. Sometimes - not all of the time - we need to dig our heels in, refuse to budge, in the name of quality and fairness; in the spirit of aspiration and excellence. Sometimes - just sometimes - we need to channel our inner Bette. And do it the hard way.
‘Fasten your seatbelts - it's going to be a bumpy night.’
Margo Channing, ‘All About Eve’
‘Do it the hard way and it’s easy sailing.
Do it the hard way and it’s hard to lose.
Only the soft way has a chance of failing.
You have to choose.
I tried the hard way when I tried to get you.
You took the soft way, when you said ‘We’ll see.’
Darling, now I let you do it the hard way,
Now that you want me.’