Bette Davis: That Certain Woman

The AFS Essential Cinema Series Bette & Joan, spotlighting two of the greatest film actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, starts today, August 3. The series culminates in a Movie Madness party and screening of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? on August 25.

Though they shared a profession and were contemporaries, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were notorious enemies. Both were fine actresses, and both had long careers that went through many seasons, from their years of radiant youth, through to their critically acclaimed peak years, and, much later, as stars of horror and thriller films in the PSYCHO mold. For this Essential Cinema series we lightly scratch the surface of these remarkable careers. Naturally we conclude it with the film that brought their rivalry to a screaming climax, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

See the trailer here:

Bette Davis was already an experienced stage actress before she came to Hollywood at age 21 in 1930. Signed to an exclusive contract by Universal Pictures, who could never quite figure out how to use her talents, he made a number of low-budget films for Universal and was loaned out to other studios for B-pictures.

In 1932, Warner Brothers picked up her contract and, while the directors were better, the scripts were often still poor, with EX-LADY a pretty fair example of the kind of rote story that was redeemed only by Bette's remarkable personality and presence. When she starred, on a loan-out arrangement, in RKO's IN HUMAN BONDAGE, she was finally able to fully display her volcanic talent. The parts soon got better and her reputation as one of the finest actresses of the screen spread. She won an Academy Award in 1935 for DANGEROUS but the scripts got worse again so in 1936 the headstrong Davis defaulted on her contract with Warner Brothers and went to England to make films there. Warner Brothers soon came to their senses and an agreement was reached to give Davis more prestige pictures.

JEZEBEL (1938) was a kind of gift from Warner Brothers to Davis for her trouble. Though she was considered for the part of Scarlet O'Hara in David O. Selznick's long gestating GONE WITH THE WIND project, she was never a serious candidate. The role she plays in JEZEBEL is much like O'Hara and, under the extraordinarily detailed and careful direction of William Wyler, and with Henry Fonda in support, it is one of her best vehicles and she won the Academy Award for it.

A string of excellent films followed, and Davis' reputation as a premier performer was well established. This was the period of DARK VICTORY, THE LITTLE FOXES and NOW VOYAGER, among other prestige projects. Unfortunately a losing streak at the box office followed and Davis was dropped by Warner's in 1949 only to emerge with a vengeance in 1950 with ALL ABOUT EVE, giving an iconic performance that only she could pull off. The great parts stopped coming, though and it was the sick humor and stunt casting of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, in which she starred alongside her old rival and bitter enemy Joan Crawford, that brought her back to box office prominence. The film is bitter and razor-edged, and was a major critical and commercial success. Davis was again nominated for an Oscar.

After BABY JANE, Davis found a new audience, and was cast in a number of thrillers, with greatly varying degrees of quality. Her reputation as a 'difficult' actress preceded her and may have restricted her access to the kinds of roles that an eminence of her stature might reasonably have expected. Her final film, for Larry Cohen, was 1989's THE WICKED STEPMOTHER, during the filming of which, true to form, she walked away due to disagreements with the director.

Here are all the titles in the Bette & Joan series:

EX-LADY 8/3 & 5
Robert Florey, USA, 1933, 35mm, 67 min.

Bette Davis shines in this pre-code urban comedy about a couple, played by Davis and Gene Raymond, who have an open marriage, quite a daring idea for the time. Davis, as always, brings new dimensions and a modern flair to the film.

GRAND HOTEL 8/10 & 12
Edmund Goulding, USA, 1934, 35mm, 112 min

At the center of this soapy, star-studded MGM spectacular is their versatile young romantic actress Joan Crawford, third-billed after superstars Greta Garbo and John Barrymore. Amid the parade of glamour and decadence, Crawford's beauty stands out as the film’s symbol of life and hope.

JEZEBEL 8/17 & 19
William Wyler, USA, 1938, 35mm, 104 min.

Bette Davis, passed over for the part of Scarlett O'Hara, goes after the role of a spoiled southern belle with astonishing ferocity in William Wyler's still-surprising costume drama. Henry Fonda ably holds his own as her betrothed.

Michael Curtiz, USA 1945, 35mm, 111 min.

Joan Crawford's career seemed to be at an end in 1945. But her will to survive was mirrored in her next part, the title role in this film, one of her career mileposts. She plays a devoted mother who stands by her daughter through everything, including murder.

Robert Aldrich, USA, 1961, DCP, 134 min.

One of the strangest films ever made in Hollywood, Robert Aldrich (KISS ME DEADLY) directs Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in a show business-centered thriller that allows these two great actresses and forces of nature (who genuinely hated one another) to truly vent.