Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Star.

"She did it the hard way."
- Inscription on her tombstone.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary actress Bette Davis.
Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and from an early age demanded attention, which to some meant that she was destined to become a star.
After starting a career as a supporting player in some pictures very few remember she got her big break with "Of Human Bondage" which kickstarted a career that would account for two Oscars and ten Best Actress nominations, as well as awards from Cannes, the AFI and many other groups.
Her career included highs and lows, a bitchy delicious comeback and an eternal feud with Joan Crawford which has become the thing of legend.
At one point known as "The Fifth Warner Brother" she was one of the most influential actresses that ever lived and helped to form the craft as we know it today.
With this in mind, here are the best Bette Davis moments.

5. William Wyler
The famous director led her to three Academy Award nominations, including one win, and extracted some of her greatest performances. But the story behind it goes that he was the love of her life. Davis was married four different times and while she loved Wyler, he wouldn't bring himself to get a divorce.
Despite of this you can feel something watching the way she always looks her best in his films. In "Jezebel" she's luminous, in "The Letter" she has otherworldly qualities and in "The Little Foxes" she is irresistibly sexy. That she plays villainesses in all three can't be coincidence.

4. President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
In January 1941 she was elected as the first female president of AMPAS.
Her term didn't last long as her radical proposals and outspoken manners created controversy within conservative Academy members who threatened her with boycotting her ideas.
Going back in time you can only begin to wonder what Davis' could've done for the Academy. Perhaps she would've created better Foreign Language Film rules than the ones we have today or started the category in those years for starters.
As an actress she never hid her lust for Oscar. She claimed to have given the statuette its nickname and at one point was trying so hard to get a third Oscar that when Katharine Hepburn got it (in a tie) Davis was quoted as saying "I wanted to be the first to win three Oscars, but Miss Hepburn has done it. Actually it hasn't been done. Miss Hepburn only won half an Oscar. If they'd given me half an Oscar I would have thrown it back in their faces. You see, I'm an Aries. I never lose."
She resigned from the presidency and was preceded by Jean Hersholt.
He implemented the changes she'd suggested.

3. Bette vs. Joan
Not that you can justify feuds, which were highly popular between stars in those days, but hers with Joan Crawford led to some of her most inspired remarks.
"I wouldn't piss on her if she was on fire."
"She has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie."
"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."
"You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good . . . Joan Crawford is dead. Good!"

2. Her eyes.
There is no song about Clark Gable's moustache or about Grace Kelly's cheekbones.
Not that any should be made, but you get my point.

1. Her performances.
She once said "I have been uncompromising, peppery, infractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile and offtimes disagreeable. I suppose I'm larger than life."
Watching her act there's no way you can question it.

The Top Five.
5. Baby Jane Hudson in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane".
Despite the fact that she had the opportunity to destroy Joan Crawford onscreen she took camp and Grand Guignol and delivered a harrowing cautionary tale about the effects of showbiz in young people.
Nobody else could be so heartbreaking while wearing a child's costume and going insane.
4. Julie Marsden in "Jezebel"/Mildred Rogers in "Of Human Bondage"
Her two most famous villainous roles came in consecutive years and while Julie's ball scandal can be seen as saintly compared to Mildred's disdain for Philip, the truth is that Davis never allowed them to become just bad people.
In fact after Julie is compared to the biblical character (a woman who did evil wherever she went) you realize this is nothing like her. The sparkle that shuts down in her eyes after hearing this squeezes your heart and takes your breath away.
Oh and she makes us see the red in that dress!
3. Charlotte Vale in "Now, Voyager"
She practically invented "Ugly Betty" but did it so in a restrained, absolutely elegant way.
At the beginning of this film she is forced to wear an awful wig, spectacles and hideous eyebrows, but Davis knew better than to let the quirks speak for her character and once she transforms into a glamorous lady she leaves us no doubt that this is what she was from the start.
2. Leslie Crosbie in "The Letter"
This was one of the first Davis films I saw and to date it's perhaps my favorite of her performances. I was completely mesmerized by her screen presence. I trusted her character and when she pulls the rug from under our feet I couldn't do anything else than to understand her motivations. Playing a murderess in a South Pacific plantation you see as the guilt eats her up and just when she thinks she's had her atonement the film takes another twist.
"With all my heart, I still love the man I killed." she utters and you don't stop believing her for a second.
1. Margo Channing in "All About Eve"
Davis said "Margo Channing was not a bitch. She was an actress who was getting older and was not too happy about it. And why should she? Anyone who says that life begins at 40 is full of it. As people get older their bodies begin to decay. They get sick. They forget things. What's good about that?".
There's little one can add to what is regarded as one of the finest performances in film history.
Davis was known to have issues with aging and Margo (who at one point call herself a junkyard) goes through the same during the film, but you can't say she's playing herself.
What she does with Channing goes beyond magic, the film's title talks about someone else, yet she is the one person you can't stop thinking about.
The greatest screenplay ever written wouldn't have been the same without someone like Davis to bring it to life.
When lines like "Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke." can make you giggle out of the blue, you know for sure that you witnessed something out of this world.
And if you don't know what I'm talking about, don't just sit there...

"Don't get up. And please stop acting as if I were the queen mother. "
- Bette Davis as Margo Channing in "All About Eve"

Yet in a way, she was just that.

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