The elder daughter of Harlow Morrell, a lawyer, and Ruth (Favor) Davis, she was christened Ruth Elizabeth, but was called Bette as a child and kept the name throughout her career. Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on April 5, 1908. After her parents divorced in 1916, she and her sister Barbara moved frequently throughout New England while their mother pursued a photography career.
Both girls attended boarding school in the Berkshires and high school in Newton, Massachusetts. Davis graduated from a finishing school, Cushing Academy, in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, with an idea that she might try acting. Not the so-called conventional beauty of the day, she received little encouragement, but in what would become typical Davis style, she made up her own mind and headed for New York City.
Her experience in New York City was not encouraging either. In fact, Davis was rejected when she tried to enroll in the famed acting school of Eva Le Gallienne, noted actress, director, and producer. Le Gallienne told her to study some other field. Undaunted, Davis was admitted to the John Murray Anderson’s drama school instead. She got a role with George Cukor’s stock company in Rochester, New York.
For the next four years, she hung around New York City and the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, where she worked as an usherette in between playing bit parts. Her first major role was in an off-Broadway production of The Earth Between (1928). After a brief tour in The Wild Duck, Davis reached Broadway. The comedy Broken Dishes opened in November of 1929 and ran for six months. That led to a 1930 production of Solid South, which led to a screen test in Hollywood. She failed the screen test.
Critics who viewed Davis’s 1930 screen test at Goldwyn studios said she had no audience appeal. So, she tested at Universal and was hired, even though it was said that studio boss Carl Laemmle also didn’t think she had appeal. However, she was cast in two films in 1931, Bad Sister and Seed. The critics ignored her in both.
With her strong resolve about to cave in and force her to leave Hollywood, Davis got a break when George Arliss offered her the part opposite him in The Man Who Played God from Warner Brothers. She won good reviews and a long-term contract. Thus began a succession of films with Warner, most mediocre and unmemorable. But poor as the films were, the talent and unique quality of Davis began to emerge so that critics started to praise her while panning her movies.
Fighting the studio for better roles became a way of life for Davis as she clawed her way to the top of the film world. She fought for and won the right to be loaned out to RKO in 1934 to play Mildred, the selfish waitress who manipulates an infatuated medical student, in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage. Suddenly, the world was introduced to a brilliant new actress.
One might have thought that Davis’s career was on the upswing, but Warner continued to cast her in poor quality films. There were two exceptions. In Dangerous, Davis played a failed actress who tries to murder her husband. For this role, she won her first Best Actress Academy Award in 1935. She also appeared with Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard (her co-star in Of Human Bondage) in The Petrified Forest in 1936. Growing disgusted with the studio’s offerings, Davis refused any more roles and was suspended without pay. She sued. Warner Brothers and the movie world were astounded; this was not expected behavior of the time. Although Davis lost her battle in court, Warner Brothers apparently got the message for they paid her legal fees and began offering her more suitable roles.
The stature of Davis, the actress, continued to grow. Ty Burr of Entertainment Weekly noted that “Davis was a top box office draw throughout the ’30s and ’40s, and in 1948 she was the highest paid star in Hollywood.” Among her memorable roles in the 1930s and 1940s were: Jezebel, 1938, for which she won her second Academy Award for her portrayal of “a witchy Southern belle” according to Burr; Dark Victory, 1939, which she once told Harry Bowman of the Dallas News was her favorite film; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Juarez, also 1939; All This and Heaven Too and The Letter, both 1940; The Little Foxes, 1941; Now Voyager, 1942; Watch on the Rhine, 1943; The Corn Is Green, 1945; Deception and A Stolen Life, both 1946; and the delightful June Bride, (1948) which showed her comic touch.
Despite the praise and awards, by the end of the 1940s, Davis’s career seemed to be slowing down, mainly for lack of good material. But in true Davis style, she came through with perhaps the greatest performance of her career as the troubled, aging star, Margo Channing, whose life and career are being taken over by a cunning newcomer, Eve, played by Anne Baxter in All About Eve (1950). It was a biting satire on the world of the theater. Davis won the New York Film Critics best actress of the year award.
After a number of films in the 1950s, Davis’s career seemed to slow down again. But she was back on top in the early 1960s, with two shockers. In 1962, Davis appeared in the smash Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, playing opposite Joan Crawford. Crawford played the physically handicapped sister at the mercy of her demented sister, Baby Jane Hudson (Davis), a former child star. It was ghoulish and audiences loved it. This was followed by Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, (1965) with Davis (co-starring Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotton) playing a recluse who is haunted by the unsolved murder of her lover many years earlier.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Davis continued to appear in films, mainly on television. As she marched cantankerously into old age, she appeared on many talk shows, delighting her audiences with her feisty, undaunted in the face-of-aging spirit. She was the fifth recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1977, the first woman to be so honored. In 1979, she won an Emmy Award for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter. One her best features became the inspiration for a number one pop song, “Bette Davis Eyes,” in 1982.
Davis wrote two autobiographies, The Lonely Life (1962) and This ‘N That (1987), the latter to refute her daughter’s (Barbara Davis [B.D.] Hyman) 1985 tell-all book My Mother’s Keeper, which portrayed Davis as an abusive alcoholic. She was also married four times. In 1932, she married Harmon Oscar Nelson, Jr.; they divorced in 1938. Her second marriage was to Arthur Farnsworth, a businessman from Boston who died in 1943. She married and divorced artist William Grant Sherry in 1945; they had a daughter named Barbara. In 1950, she married actor Gary Merrill, whom she met while making All About Eve. They adopted two children, Michael and Margot, and were divorced in 1960.
In the last five years of her life, Davis had a mastectomy, suffered with cancer and had several strokes. She probably was not kidding when she, according to an on-line biography commented, “Old age is not for sissies.” Davis died on October 6, 1989, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, outside of Paris. She had just attended the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain where she had been honored for a lifetime of film achievement. In the late 1990s, her son Michael created the Bette Davis Foundation and awarded American actress Meryl Streep the first ever Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award.