April 5, 1908– Ruth Elizabeth Davis:
“Everybody has a heart. Except some people.“Bette Davis as Margo Channing
All About Eve (1950), is a devastating debunking of theatrical tropes and types. This flawlessly acted film is driven by Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s witty, cynical and bitchy screenplay, told through the character of Addison DeWitt, played by the perfectly arch George Sanders. He provides insightful diatribes against crafty, aspiring female actors who seek success at any cost without regard to scruples or other people’s feelings. All About Eve is also a riff on the fear of aging and the loss of power and fame.
It was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, more than any other picture in Oscar History, until it was tied by Titanic (1997) and La La Land (2016). It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Sanders, Best Director and Best Screenplay for Mankiewicz, and Best Costume Design for Edith Head and Charles LeMaire. Four female actors in the film were nominated, and all lost. It holds the record for the film with the most female acting nominees: Best Actress for Davis and Anne Baxter, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter.
Davis’s leading (but not title) role of Margo Channing is her greatest career performance, in my humble opinion. Yet, she wasn’t the first choice for the role; it was turned down by a series of actors, including talented Claudette Colbert, Gertrude Lawrence and Marlene Dietrich. 1950 was quite the year for stories with aging female star plot lines; Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard and its star Gloria Swanson were also Oscar nominated that year.
All About Eve has been accused by some of being a spirited defense of heterosexuality. The nurturing straight relationships of the two main couples are a marked contrast with the loveless, predatory gay characters, Eve Harrington and Addison DeWitt. Harrington uses her feminine wiles as a weapon to try to break up the marriages of both couples, and DeWitt’s cynicism serves as the model for her future. The pressure to assume “traditional” female roles is shown in the contrast between Channing’s mockery of her friend Karen Richards (Holm) for being a “happy little housewife” and she has a long monologue later, about the virtuousness of marriage, including how a woman is not truly a woman without having a man beside her. Yet, All About Eve remains a favorite film among gay audiences, with its campy vibe, the casting of Gay Icon Davis, and its sly sense of sophistication.
Davis was a movie star, but she was also the most fearless and the least vain actor of the Hollywood Golden Age. I am a great big fan of all her six (1939)decades of work on stage and on film, including what we now consider the classics we love: Of Human Bondage (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936) Jezebel (1938), The Old Maid (1939), The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (1939), Dark Victory (1939), All This And Heaven Too (1940), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Now Voyager (1942), Old Acquaintance (1943), Pocket Full Of Miracles (1961), and, of course, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962). These are all just terrific, but there is so much more.
I recently caught a little film that impressed me mightily: A Catered Affair (1956), a lovely, sad little tale with a decidedly unglamorous Davis as a disillusioned housewife married to Bronx cabdriver played by Ernest Borgnine, and featuring Debbie Reynolds. It was directed by Richard Brooks from a screenplay by Gore Vidal. I was struck while watching Davis’s range and her ability to impress while being less than sympathetic.
Aside from Margo Channing, my favorite Davis performance would have to be her late career work in The Whales Of August (1987), featuring an understated Vincent Price, and a rare and delicate late career performance by the great Lillian Gish, whose career stretched back to the films of D.W. Griffith, plus Ann Sothern in her only Academy Award nominated performance. The true enjoyment of this film came from seeing Davis do again what Davis always could do: Creating an indelible, complex character and commanding every scene in which she appears. Amazing that her first film was in 1931 and Davis was still getting up and going to work until the end of the 1980s.
When she was filming Whales Of August, the cast and crew were having dinner when Davis started complaining about her old rival, Joan Crawford. Cast member Harry Carey Jr., became unhappy with this and told Davis that Crawford had been his friend and that he didn’t want to hear anything negative about her. Davis, without missing a beat, responded:
“Just because a person’s dead doesn’t mean they changed.“
Intense as her rivalries were, her real friendships were deep and long lasting. She was especially close to fellow actors Claude Rains, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Paul Henreid, Olivia de Havilland, and Geraldine Fitzgerald.
Ironically, like her nemesis, Crawford, Davis had a daughter who famously wrote a tell-all about her mother. In My Mother’s Keeper (1985) the unfortunately named B. D. Hyman portrayed Davis as an abusive, domineering, hateful, alcoholic mother who was largely responsible for her mistreatment by her own husbands. Davis penned her own bestseller, This ‘N’ That (1987) where she defended herself as the victim of a lying and ungrateful child. She also confessed that her estrangement from her daughter pained her greatly.
Davis bickered with her directors over the smallest details, and she had a reputation for being difficult to work with. Still, she is one of the few actors in history who worked until the very end of her life, making well over 100 films. Her 10 nominations for Academy Awards were the most any female actor had received until Katharine Hepburn received her 11th nomination in 1969 and that overrated Meryl Streep received her 21st in 2018 and bested all the records. Davis received many other honors, including a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and the Cesar Award from the French film industry. In 1987, she received the Kennedy Center Honor.
Warner Bros. treated Davis badly for many years, and they paid her far less than other stars. She sued the studio and lost, but the court case gave her much valuable publicity. She created a new persona for herself on her own terms, the strong-willed independent thinker, as strong as any male.
A certain catalyst in her career was the downfall of Warner Bros. top star Kay Francis.
Francis campaigned for a role in a light sophisticated comedy that the studio had cast with Claudette Colbert. Francis took Warner Bros. to court. She was their Number One star and the highest paid female in Hollywood. The studio decided to punish her. She was up for three roles: Dark Victory (1939), The Sisters (1938), and Juarez (1939), and all three roles went to Davis as payback. Once marked by the tabloids as “Box-Office Poison”, Davis had success in her own campaign against Warner Bros. and still got those high-profile roles. This helped her redefine her career once more. Davis:
“My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.“
Davis is most definitely an icon for gay men of a certain age. Many a brunch in the 1970s was not complete without imitations and anecdotes of Davis. She helped us learn about how to get through life by using wit, style and a sense of camp. Because of Davis, we understood that it is possible to transcend the hard, unhappy, hateful and often humiliating world that was handed to us. Here is what Davis had to say about her gay men:
“Let me say, a more artistic, appreciative group of people for the arts does not exist. They are more knowledgeable, more loving of the arts. They make the average male look stupid.“
Davis was much loved by drag queen divas in my era also. They always found her distinct mannerisms and clipped speech irresistible material for their acts.
“Oh Petah, Petah, Petah” and “What a dump!” were always available to us to use as a quip. Davis quotes were a kind of signal of our same gayness. Even amateurs could do the exaggeratedly widened eyes while puffing away on a cigarette. The memorable line that Margo Channing utters as she walks drunkenly up the stairs at her party: “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night” has become part of our gay vernacular.
“You know, I’ve learned from the imitators. I really have. I was never conscious I moved my elbow like that until I saw someone doing me.“
Her fearless performances dared us to hate her, and we often did, which is why we loved her. Davis:
“Indestructible, that’s the word that’s often used to describe me. I suppose it means that I just overcame everything. But without things to overcome, you don’t become much of a person, do you?“
“I know what I want as my epitaph: Here lies Ruth Elizabeth Davis… she did it the hard way.“
“Old age is no place for sissies.“
Davis, who cut a swath through Hollywood trailing cigarette smoke and delivering drop-dead bon-mots, was taken by breast cancer at a hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France in 1989. She was 81 years old when those final credits rolled.