Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bette Davis. While her movies may seem dated to modern eyes, the issues her characters confronted, and the spitfire dames she played are in many ways superior to the weak minded-scripts and paper thin characters in so many current films. Those of us who grew up in the 50's and 60's, remember a time when strong female role models were few and far between. Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbar Stanwick, and the other independent minded women who came of age in their careers at the height of The Woman's Picture during the 1930 and 40's were a welcome change from the dolls and victims we so often saw on the screen and the fluffy, chesty actresses of our own day who so clearly would do anything for love. A Bette Davis character would do quite a lot for love, including committing murder, but she would never, ever give herself away. The woman herself was a no pushover, either. She was, among other things, a pioneer, and served as the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a role she held in 1941. She left her studio when it would not give her the quality scripts she wanted, a thing unheard of in her day. She was also the first woman to secure ten nominations for the Best Actress Oscar. Since then only Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep have surpassed this figure. Johann Hari writes this about Betty Davis in her essay titled Where Have All the Strong Women Gone?
She was not only a woman; she was an electrical storm with skin. With nothing but raw talent and raw determination, she became the most famous woman in the world, taking on the Hollywood studio system, the FBI and the Catholic Church.Tara Barabaso writes about Davis' classic film Now, Voyager in her essay titled The Spectre of the Spinster
For a while, this not-especially-beautiful woman in her forties ruled Hollywood, playing tough women who chose their careers and their own desires over sacrificing for men or children or a picket fence. She never pretended to be dumb, or a little girl. She didn't do soft, or simpering. She had a voice like sour cream, and eyes like a raven. Humphrey Bogart said about her: "Unless you're very big she can knock you down." And she was one of the great events of her time.
She was popular with the mostly-female movie audience - women like my grandmother, who gave me my first glimpse of Bette Davis movies from her lap - in part because her characters will not accept 'their place.' They want more, more, more. It was not easy to be a strong woman then; she said, "When a man gives his opinion he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion she's a bitch." But she fought, and women responded to it. She was only the most shimmering example of a generation of tough Hollywood women whose characters saw the world as a place not to cower from or simper at, but to conquer: Mae West (who made her first film at 40), Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Barbra Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Marlene Dietrich, and more.
It is not surprising, in a desperate search for women operating outside of marriage and motherhood, that there is a retraction to classic cinema. By transforming "the fat lady with the heavy brows and all the hair," (66) into an articulate woman able to make choices, Now, Voyager is justifiably a classic of cinema. As Stanley Cavell has realised,
Here is this woman retracing the reigning concepts of her life - what a mother is, what a child, a home, a husband are, what happiness is - and yet this man stupefyingly asks her whether she will be happy. (67)
What questions would the contemporary women's movement ask of Charlotte Vale? Re-evaluating texts such as this serve to inscribe, rewrite and interpret a feminist history. We need to return to Bette Davis, and her films. A new theory of femininity can emerge when we look at - and through - those eyes.At the conclusion of Now Voyager, Charlotte Vale does not ask for the moon, but remains satisfied with the stars. Contemporary feminism needs a Bette Davis, firebrand women who are tough, resolute and passionate. She worked hard, thought deeply, and spoke out while post-war masculinity congealed around her. Shadows of men were cast in relief through her light. Leaming has missed the point of both Bette Davis's life, and post-war feminism, when she asserts that "whereas [Orson] Welles was always fighting for something, Davis only knew how to fight against - and therein lay all the difference." (70) Feminism, at its best, fights against patriarchy, against colonialism, against ageism, against economic rationalism. Only by waging the good fight against the powerful, can feminism and contemporary resistive politics combat for social justice.
Turner Classic Films will showcase her work in honor of this occasion. Go watch Now, Voyager, Jezebel and All About Eve.
Happy Birthday Bette
A Liberated Soul
IMDB (Internet Movie Database)
For those using a Reader, I have posted this video tribute to Betty Davis by Meryl Streep at the blog.