Essays · Movies

How Bette Davis Made a Career Out of Playing the Misunderstood

No one knew how to humanize even the worst characters than the First Lady of the American Screen.
Bette Davis In Three On A Match Trailer
By  · Published on March 26th, 2018

No one knew how to humanize even the worst characters than the First Lady of the American Screen.

As her many memorable films continue to have their anniversaries, Bette Davis remains one the most celebrated actresses of all time. Her career spanned 90 films, but the roles she played weren’t simply glamorous like her peers. Davis made her name playing the outcast, the misunderstood, and the downright hated. Her distinctive look and real-life persona made it possible to play the not-so-pretty roles while still making us identify with her.

When you hear Bette Davis, a definitive role comes to mind. Perhaps you love her as the aging stage actress Margo in All About Eve.  Maybe you remember her campy performance as the demented Jane in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Whichever Davis films you love, they likely have her portraying a woman in turmoil. While she played a variety of women, one thing connects them throughout her career. Each character is flawed, some more than others, but somehow Davis makes us sympathize with them unlike any other actress ever could.

One aspect of Bette’s extraordinary performances comes from her appearance. Davis wasn’t the conventionally beautiful Hollywood actress of her time. She held an allure that couldn’t fit the roles of typically gorgeous actresses like Ava Gardner or Joan Fontaine. There was something different about Bette and it was only fair that her characters contained that same off-beat personality as her looks. Her huge eyes dominated most of her face, making it easy for her to convey plenty of emotion with just a glance. It’s that separation from typically beautiful that also made Bette Davis unforgettable. She created a presence on screen that drew you in and away from any other actor in the scene with her. Even as she starred alongside legendary actors like Henry Fonda and Humphrey Bogart, Davis commanded every scene she was in.

Despite her expressive face, Bette Davis found a way to convey her characters’ emotions with subtly when needed. In the opening scene of The Letter, Davis shoots a man dead on the steps of her house. Her face is rigidly still as the camera zooms up close, focusing on her emotion. She drops the gun, either terrified or unamused we don’t know which yet. She stares down the man she has murdered without a tear down her face or any words. Davis’s character has done the worst, killed a man, within the first scene of the film, but thanks to her mesmerizing performance all the audience cares about his finding out more about her. Her subtlety in expression helps create the mystery needed in this thriller, where her character’s motivation is unclear throughout.

Her stoic performances helped humanize even the vilest of characters. She could easily overact many of the roles she had, but Bette always knew when less was more, creating a reputation for sophisticated performances of even unlikable people. One of her worst characters was Stanley Timberlake, the conniving sister to sweetheart Roy, played by Olivia de Havilland in John Huston’s In This Our Life. Stanley steals her sister’s husband on the day of their marriage and attempts to break up Roy’s newfound love. After she is involved in a hit and run accident, she pins it on a young black man to escape the blame. In a car chase scene, Stanley recklessly drives with the cops on her tail. Bette is able to convey a woman who is trying to be cold, but at her heart is terrified of what will come. She is silent as she glances at the cops in her rearview mirror. When she sees herself in the mirror, specifically her wide eyes, Bette shows us a woman who is ashamed of herself. Tears flow down her face as she wrecks and somehow Davis has made even the worst woman someone we are sad to see die.

Even as Bette Davis can humanize even the worst characters, she also loved to play women who were deemed horrible by the world they lived in but ultimately stood for something no one chose to understand. In William Wyler’s Jezebel, Bette Davis plays a rich Southern belle determined to shake up the traditions of her community. The decision to wear a red dress instead of the traditional and virginal white may not seem like a huge protest, but Davis is able to convey the dramatic and damning decision’s importance through her performance. Julie is damned for her actions, losing the one man she loves and she shuts herself out from society. Julie is just one of the many hardheaded female characters Bette played throughout her career that went against society’s expectations.

“Without things to overcome, you don’t become much of a person, do you?” – Bette Davis

No matter how small their defiant actions were, each of Davis’s characters was interesting in some way. Every one Bette’s roles gave a layered look at female characters. As Margo in All About Eve, she shined a light on a role for an older woman unlike any actress had done before her. She refused to play any boring character, passing up many opportunities because they weren’t the kind of women she wanted to play. Part of her ability to play tragic characters so well was because of Davis’s own life. She was tough in real life, only making her strong characters feel like a part of her, Bette Davis, and not just a character she was playing. Notoriously outspoken, Bette never held back when it came to voicing her opinions and the truth about Hollywood.

Perhaps, it was more than just her immaculate performances that made us adore the different characters she played. It was everything about Davis that made these characters memorable to us. For years to come, she’ll be known for her ability to play unlikable, but the most interesting characters with grace no one will ever be able to top.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_