Bette Davis is characterised for her strength and conviction. She said herself that she was liked best when she played ‘bitch’ roles. Like other women in film, it was her power that made her most disliked and untrusted. Kim Carne’s 80s hit “Bette Davis Eyes” is about a woman’s beauty being untrustworthy because of her eyes, which were Davis’ distinguishing feature. Bette took the song as a compliment. Whilst Davis’ legacy lives on, her story is still often told by men, and her popularity is fuelled by her ruthless image.
In the 1960s, after various controversies over her dissatisfaction with the roles she was getting and contracts, Bette’s career found renewed success from horror film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? starring alongside Joan Crawford. The alleged hatred between Crawford and Davis is a prime example of how successful women are pitted against each other.
In 2017, Ryan Murphy (creator of Glee and American Horror Story) produced Feud. It details the relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. In Murphy’s style, the show is catty and vicious and recreates all the rumoured squabbles between Davis and Crawford. This includes a scene where Davis puts heavy weights in her pockets so Crawford struggles to drag her along the floor in a scene in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
After the premiere, the pair became known for a genre of movie labelled ‘hagsploitation’. These movies did remarkably well by placing once young and envied actresses as undesirable characters and degrading them. So Bette Davis, who Meryl Streep credits for making her feel significant as a young girl, was reduced to a declining and feared old woman in Hollywood at only 54.
But Bette was unflappable, and shortly before the release of the film she released tongue-in-cheek ad seeking steady employment. She was therefore hyper-aware of her image and her limitations as a woman in Hollywood. However, this awareness wasn’t enough, as her career continued to be defined by the men of Hollywood.
So much of what we know about Bette Davis has been shaped by the men who gave her roles, who wrote her stories and the people who feared her conviction. But despite this, in recent years she has been rewritten with more kindness and fairness.
In Christine St John’s one-woman play, ‘Bette Davis On The Edge’, Bette reflects on her career whilst she waits to hear whether Whatever Happened to Baby Jane will revive her career or end it. The play reveals the continued fascination with Bette’s life and the anguish of being a woman in the spotlight. It also shows what can happen when woman craft their own narratives. This show reveals the rich complexity of Bette’s character instead of reducing her to her caricatured stereotypes.
Although Bette is known for being unsympathetic and sardonic, these were mostly characters she played. As one of the best actors of her time, we should continue to question why her onscreen presence has affected her real-life image so much. This is why work like ‘Bette Davis on the Edge’ is so important. It creates a voice for a woman who was often made voiceless and one-dimensional. It also allows an audience to see that the urgency and firmness of Bette Davis was not a flaw, but a mechanism created by powerlessness of women in film.
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