By Brian Smith
Those eyes. Those magnificent signature eyes that could express unbridled joy, passionate anger and deep sadness with equal efficiency. Those eyes inspired a generation of movie-goers and a Top-10 80’s hit song. Quite possibly the most beautiful, and certainly the most recognizable eyes in the history of Hollywood belonged to Bette Davis.
But it wasn’t only the eyes of Bette Davis that made her such an important figure in the history of American cinema. She was, in many ways, an actress who was way ahead of her time. She played second fiddle to no one, especially to no man. When she was hit, she hit back twice as hard. She had an acerbic wit that could melt your heart while cutting you to ribbons.
You loved her and feared her at the same time. Inside that 5-foot, 3-inch frame lived a giant who commanded our respect. Bette Davis’ characters were as strong as they were independent. She was sophisticated without being pretentious. She was elegant and she was charming. Sure, she may have been overly melodramatic at times, but she commanded and controlled the audience’s experience, and made herself into one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s early years.
For nearly 30 years, Hollywood belonged to Bette Davis. She starred in some of the most iconic films of those decades, and she set a standard for strong women in cinema. Her shoulders may not have been far off the ground, but all of the actresses of today are standing on them. They’re broad and powerful shoulders, and it would take a woman as strong as Bette Davis to lift up all of the women who came after her, and lift them up she did.
Between 1931 and 1989, Bette Davis starred in 123 films and television shows. She starred in dramas, comedies, thrillers, family films, and westerns. She was everything from the girl next door to a conniving socialite to the most successful actress on Broadway. It would be next to impossible to pick 10 films that define her career. However, if you’re not entirely familiar with her work, the six films listed below are a great place to start.
6. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
Davis’ portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson earned the character the #44 place on AFI’s Top 50 Villains of all Time. Her famous feud with costar Joan Crawford helped add fuel to the tense nature of this film, and the film itself created an entire subgenre of psycho-biddy pictures. With both actresses well past their respective primes, Davis played an over-the-hill child actress who feels her sister Blanche (Crawford), stole the spotlight from her by becoming famous later in life. Blanche blames Baby Jane for the accident that made her paralyzed from the waist down, and has descended into alcoholism and mental illness. Baby Jane keeps Blanche captive in her Hollywood home, continuing to torture her as payback for stealing her spotlight. It’s a cult classic that is disturbing and sometimes difficult to watch, but most psychological thrillers are, and this one is worth your time.
5. Old Acquaintance (1943)
Kit Marlowe is not only one of the most sophisticated characters that Davis played, but she turns out in the end to be one of the classiest as well. Marlowe is a critically acclaimed writer who inspires her best friend Millie Drake to take up writing as well. Millie isn’t as good of a writer, however, but her pulp romance novels sell enough copies to make her insanely rich. Despite them being best friends, Kit is everything that Millie is not, and Millie’s husband who is miserable in his marriage to Milie, confesses his love for Kit. Watching Kit navigate the life of being a professional woman while pining for love and companionship is at once heartbreaking and humorous, and Davis pulls off this duality with graceful aplomb.
4. Now, Voyager (1942)
Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale delivers one of the most iconic lines in the history of American Cinema. “Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” She also has one of the great character arcs of all time, starting out the film as an awkward spinster and transforming into an elegant woman. Living under the thumb of her mother, Charlotte starts to receive therapy from Dr. Jaquith (Claude Raines), and slowly but surely gains a measure of independence. She ultimately falls in love with the sophisticated and debonair Jerry Durance (Paul Henreid) and cares for his daughter, who had much of her same awkwardness. This is an emotionally powerful film, and Davis carries it from start to finish.
3. Jezebel (1938)
Starring opposite Henry Fonda in this wonderful film directed by the great William Wyler, this film was nominated for Best Picture. Bette Davis won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role playing Julie Marsden, a spoiled, conniving and manipulative woman who will stop at nothing to gain the affections of Preston Dillard (Fonda). Taking place in New Orleans a few years before the start of the Civil War, this film examined Southern culture and its archaic nature to hold on to old traditions while the rest of the world was evolving. Indeed, although this film is nearly 80 years old, its message is as relevant today as it ever was, and Davis’ performance is haunting and riveting in a way that few actresses could match.
2. Dark Victory (1939)
Another film nominated for Best Picture that would garner Davis her second consecutive Best Actress nomination is Dark Victory. Unfortunately, it went up against a juggernaut called Gone With the Wind. In fact, 1939 was a seminal year for film, with other landmark Best Picture nominees including Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Stagecoach; and The Wizard of Oz. Dark Victory deserves to stand with any and all of those films with Davis playing a socialite living with a terminal brain tumor, not knowing when death will come, but knowing what the signs will be. Another haunting film, and another stunning character arc portrayed by Davis. Her character, Judith Traherne, goes from conceited socialite who secretly fears the unknown to grounded wife who is ready to greet death “as an old friend”. Bittersweet and touching, it’s impossible to watch the end of this film without getting at least a small lump in your throat.
1. All About Eve (1950)
What else could it be? Not only is this Bette Davis’ best film, it’s one of the top 20 films of all time. It won Best Picture, and was nominated for a whopping 14 Oscars, a number that has been matched twice, but never surpassed. Davis was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for playing Margo Channing, the First Lady of American Theatre. She was an aging actress who became the target of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) who not only wanted Margo’s career but also wanted her entire life, and sets about stealing it. If you’ve never seen this film, it needs to go right to the very top of your must see list. It’s dramatic, funny, suspenseful and hopeful, and it is the signature role of Bette Davis’ career.
Classic Film Correspondent
Brian has been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for companies such as Walden Media and Scott Free Films. Scripts and books that Brian has read and covered include Twilight,Touristas, Nim’s Island, Hotel for Dogs, and Inkheart. Brian has worked in the entertainment industry since 1999, and he has credits on 23 films and television series for Disney, Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation.
Brian is a life-long fan of good stories and he’s spent years studying the techniques and principles of good story telling. He believes that great cinema and great story telling go hand-in-hand. He studied animation and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, receiving an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1999. With that knowledge and his appreciation of good stories, Brian gets real satisfaction in helping writers get the most out of their stories through their screenplays.