Remember that line in Madonna’s Vogue, which, totally coincidentally, just happened to be released 31 years ago today —“Bette Davis, we love you.”
If you hadn’t heard of the iron lady of Hollywood before then, chances are you do now. During her incredible 100-film career, Bette Davis gained a reputation as a feisty and formidable actress who never backed down from a good fight. A workaholic that cared little for personal popularity, she was in effect the Margaret Thatcher of the silver screen, more concerned with being memorable than likeable.
Paying tribute to one of the greatest acting legends of all time, our New York correspondent Eileen Dover tells us why she loves her. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Few artists make an impact that is so substantial, it can be felt decades after they’re gone. Throughout March we celebrate women, especially women who have changed societal norms. Women whose bravery against blatant misogyny and oppression sent a ripple through generations. One of the most formidable females of the 20th century, it’s safe to say Bette Davis made a few enemies along the way. In fact, she was, as Boy George put it, “the original punk rocker”.
Kim Carnes didn’t sing that song for nothing, you know.
Punk is all about saying fuck what people insist is right or normal or acceptable. Punk is anti establishment. Punk is in your face and forces one to take notice of it. Punk is a state of mind rather than a fashion or musical movement. It is most obvious in those forms but punk in its raw form has no dress code or specific sound. By all definitions, Bette Davis is about as punk as one gets.
With a simple look, Davis could say more than ten pages of dialogue. She defied convention and to this day few people have the grit or strength of Ms. Davis. She is definitely from New England, just outside of my home town of Boston. Being a creative person in New England is like being an atheist in church, it feels like no one else understands you.
So many great artists come from New England. I think its puritanical culture with a liberal bent gives we New Englanders enough room to breathe and enough to rebel against. One has to be strong and Bette grew up in a time where women had no say, no matter how gritty or rebellious they may have been. She took the “roll up your sleeves and get dirty” mentality and merged it with the sensibility of a true artist.
Bette was a seasoned stage actress who went to Hollywood to pursue a career on the silver screen. She wasn’t welcomed nor was she treated with much respect upon arrival. Studio executives often made fun of her looks saying that with those saucer-like eyes she was no beauty, but Davis had an undeniable talent that could not be ignored.
In Davis’ day it could be difficult (as it remains now) to distinguish real animosity from publicity stunts dreamt up by studio marketing executives, but the public was so willing to believe Bette Davis a monster in part because, unlike many actresses, she didn’t shy away from unsympathetic roles. Indeed, her big break came in playing the vicious, illiterate waitress Mildred Rogers who torments club-footed obsessive Phillip Carey in Of Human Bondage. She received her first of a record ten Academy Award nominations but was beaten by Claudette Colbert in what many rank among the worst Oscar snubs of all time. The controversy resulted in the accounting firm Price Waterhouse being hired to tally the votes the following year, a practice that continues to this day.
Her legacy has stood the test of time. Bette Davis came up in the late 1920s, became an icon in the thirties and forties, and was still working right to the end of the eighties in her eighties. Within months of her death, Madonna summed it up best in the lyrics to Vogue: Bette Davis, we love you.
Bette allegedly said many things that could be considered trailblazing in her time on earth. She has hundreds of quotable quotes and thousands of alleged quotes. Let’s explore some of them.
Some of these quotes and situations are alleged and not confirmed, some are true and findable however many of the allegations ones come from reliable sources. The quotes don’t change much when someone repeats them so I’m gonna say that I’d bet she said at least 75% of them. Even if not my queer mind is more at ease believing that they’re true, they reside in my personal “bible”.
“I knew I’d made it as a star when the drag queens impersonated me.”
This gem or a version of it was written into the script in Feud: Bette & Joan, Ryan Murphy’s hit series about the infamous animosity between her and Joan Crawford, which became the stuff of legend during the production and aftermath of their seminal movie Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? To say this before the 1970s would have been revolutionary. To say it prior to the 21st century could have disrupted a famous acting career.
“Joan Crawford hates me because she made a pass at me and I declined. Joan was accustomed to getting her way in the bedroom.”
This is obviously a paraphrased quote. She is said to have disclosed this privately. Despite Davis’s oft-quoted line “Miss Crawford is a movie star, and I am an actress,” it had become clear that the industry saw more common ground between them than either would like to admit, and producers were keen to get Davis and Crawford on screen together. The women-in-prison drama Caged was intended by Warner Bros. as a joint Davis/Crawford vehicle, but Bette supposedly refused to sign on opposite Joan, calling the film “a dyke movie.” Which leads into another intriguing wrinkle of this feud.
Crawford, who had relationships with both men and women throughout her life, was suspected by some to have harbored a sexual curiosity about Davis. “[My husband] Franchot isn’t interested in Bette, but I wouldn’t mind giving her a poke if I was in the right mood,” Crawford is quoted as saying by her friend Jerry Asher. Asher adds that he was never sure whether Crawford was serious, but felt that she was “attracted to Bette’s vitality and energy… Bette was always convinced, due to her ego, that Joan had the hots for her and that’s one reason why she was always so antagonistic and called her a phony.”
According to Kathryn Sermak, the author of the Miss D And Me: Life With The Invincible Bette Davis wrote that “Joan did have a crush on Miss Davis, but Miss Davis is a man’s woman.” Either way, Bette had other zingers directed at Crawford (like calling her Crawfish) that were captured on film.
You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
This one has traction as it is notorious and may have been caught on film or recording. I haven’t heard it from her lips directly but if anyone has an idea of where to find it please, message me! Can you hear this in her legendary tone and manner of speaking!!! A confetti explosion couldn’t top that if heard by a queen!
“Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why Miss Crawford always plays ladies.”
The implication and tact could only be matched by a drag queen! She masters the art of shade here and by the way, this one is in an interview but I can’t recall what show. Look it up!
“I believe that people must have sex before getting married. It’s one of the great gifts God gave human beings, and there can be no marriage unless that is right”
Another famous quote, I believe she said it in the ‘70s on the Dick Cavett show. This is a battle cry for women to empower themselves and to say that premarital sex is not only ok but necessary! For anyone to say that back then was a shock. For a woman to demand ownership of her body and her desires was totally taboo. No wonder Madonna name checked her — Bette Davis paved the way for the Sex book!
“Her tits are sticking straight up and every times she gets dressed they get bigger and hard as a rock.”
This was allegedly said on the set of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, during the filming of the final scene on the beach. Apparently Crawford refused to look aged or to have her chest droop to the sides. Meanwhile Bette is dressed like a crazy hybrid of a clown and a debutante. Davis believed in looking the part if one is going to play the part. She let the dragon roar right through her career and wasn’t afraid to play unsympathetic characters… or unattractive ones. She was a pro!
Anyway, imagine being on that set and hearing that. Holy gay shit storm! It wasn’t considered “ladylike” to speak about someone’s body or sex but Bette was not interested in “ladylike”. She was authentic. Well mostly — she told a lot of tall tales……allegedly. I feel like Kathy Griffin saying allegedly repeatedly. I’m in no mood to get slayed for telling tales myself.
It wasn’t just ladies Bette Davis tangled with. She clashed with director William Wyler, with Errol Flynn, with Robert Montgomery, with Warner Brothers, and even with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences while serving as its first female president. She seemed to revel in the notoriety and enjoyed being bluntly dismissive, swearing and chain-smoking through talk shows where she became a frequent and popular guest. Audiences enjoyed her candour and she was a fascinating link to the bygone days of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Unlike Joan, Bette wasn’t going to be glamorous or sexy for a man. She couldn’t acquiesce if she tried. she did was on her own terms, with a noticeable antagonistic quality to her stardom. She was in control (when she wasn’t drinking) and outspoken. The sacred monster sipping the curdled cocktail.
She often said “I did it the hard way”. It’s true, she did, but at the time women who wanted to have opinions were called bitches, while men were admired for speaking their minds. I believe one of the studio heads called her a cunt, which was in the Feud series but I don’t know if it’s true. Who cares, because Bette Davis was a pioneer, as amply illustrated when she played veteran movie bitch Margo Channing in All About Eve.
Bette lived her life out loud and broke no end of gender norms and expectations. Without Bette Davis and fearless women like her, including Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, life would have been extremely dull without these legendary women or the characters they created.
Who knows if women would have been inspired to seek equality. I’m sure someone would have done it but Bette did it with style. She was truly fearless. Asked how she managed to enjoy such a long, tumultuous career, she responded matter-of-factly, “I survived because I was tougher than everybody else.”
As we come to the end of Women’s History Month, I look at the women in my life. They are all different, they are all strong. The women in my life seem to balance compassion and strength in a way that amazes me. Many women are responsible for paving the way, but Bette Davis is among the toppermost of my favourites.
Not surprisingly, I have a super feminine side. As a young queer boy there weren’t any openly gay male role models in the media or anywhere I looked. Of course there were the punchlines, and the occasional gay character whose fate was dire. LGBT people were depicted as mentally ill or psychotic. I looked up to strong women. I’m so grateful to have strong women and celebrate them and all my loved ones all year round, but there’s a very special place in my heart for the strong women who gave me the courage to be me at a time and place where being queer was illegal and not acceptable.
I have gay male role models now, men who came out when middle America loosened up and gay men became somewhat tolerable, but no one will ever take the place of the women I idolise. I encourage you all to celebrate women and open your lives up to diversity and embrace marginalised people. We don’t have equality yet, not by a long shot, but we have the inspiration of people who blaze trails and maybe someday…. until then, fasten your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a bumpy night!
Eileen Dover is a writer, performer and artist residing in New York City. For more information about her go to www.eileendover.net or on social media @theeileendover
For Eileen Dover fine art and art fashion go to https://depop.app.link/qn5ns70VWeb
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