'Feud': 7 Ways Bette Davis Defied and Defined Hollywood

THR takes a look back at the Academy Award winner’s tumultuous career.
Warner Bros/Photofest
Bette Davis

When it comes to Hollywood icons, Bette Davis is among the most notable. She was the first actor to ever break double digits in Academy Award nominations, making nearly 100 films over the course of her career. She became known for throwing herself into roles and was willing to be painted in an unflattering light for the sake of a better picture, making her an early trailblazer, to say the least.

Offscreen, her brilliance had a more sullied reputation, as she was someone who was reportedly difficult to work with and prone to walking off the set when things didn’t go her way. However, right up until her death in 1989, Davis maintained she was only ever fighting for professionalism — something women of her stature didn’t necessarily receive back in the day from the male-dominated studios.

Ahead of Sunday’s premiere of the FX anthology series Feud: Bette and Joan, The Hollywood Reporter looks back at some of the moments Davis defied and defined Hollywood.

1. The Academy Awards

Not only did the actress break double digits in terms of Oscar noms, but she won twice for her roles in Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938). Her history with the awards goes much deeper than that, however. Davis claimed to have coined the term “Oscar,” as it was the middle name of one of her husbands, Harmon Oscar Nelson, Jr.

“The Academy has fought stoically to claim that they named the Oscar. But of course I did,” she once said. “I named it after the rear of my husband. Why? Because that’s what it looked like.”

Interestingly, Davis also was the first female to ever serve as the president of the Academy in 1941. Her reign lasted eight short weeks before she resigned, claiming they wanted her to be a “figurehead” only.

2. Her Lawsuit for Better Roles

Davis’ sordid history with Jack Warner of Warner Bros. is touched upon briefly in Feud, when the latter character (played by Stanley Tucci) mentions a lawsuit with Davis that made his life hell. In real life, the suit was a drawn-out affair that would serve as modern-day fodder for any gossip rag.

In 1936, when the actress had had enough of lesser roles and ridiculous pay, she defied her contract with the studio and flew to England to make movies across the pond. As a result, Davis unknowingly turned down the role of a lifetime as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, figuring Warner’s promise of a better role was a “pip” and walked out of his office.

“I knew that if I continued to appear in anymore mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for,” she said later.

At first her move didn’t seem to pay off, as Davis was sued and blocked from working for any other studio. But when she eventually returned to Warner Bros., it was for higher pay and better roles. Her suit also paved the way for other actors, like Olivia de Havilland (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in Feud), whose suit against the studio led to the law informally known as the De Havilland Law.

3. The First Real Villain

Before Davis’ unique style hit screens, actresses of the era were known to always paint themselves in the best light. That included physical roles as well as moralistic ones. It wasn’t until Davis convinced Warner Bros. to lend her out to rival studio RKO for the role of Mildred W. Somerset in Of Human Bondage (1934) that a female had really considered embracing the role of a villain.

“It was such a role for me,” the actress later said of the role, for which she netted her first Academy Award nomination. “She was the first leading lady villainess ever played on a screen for real.”

4. Going Bald

When Davis took on the role of Queen Elizabeth in the 1939 feature The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, she gave one of the most notable performances of the monarch to date. That’s why when 20th Century Fox was eyeing The Virgin Queen years later, Davis’ name came to mind again. Production was reportedly delayed for years until Davis was free to do it, but when she did, she really committed. For one scene in which Elizabeth shows off her near baldness, Davis partially shaved her head. That year, at the 1955 Oscars, she showed up with a jeweled skullcap on.

5. The Tell-All Book

Many may remember Mommie Dearest, the tell-all written by Joan Crawford’s daughter Christina after her mother’s death, as being one of the most scandalous memoirs to be released during the Joan and Bette era. But the publication of My Mother's Keeper, a novel penned by Davis’ daughter B.D. Hyman, might have been worse (Davis was still alive when it was released and had recently suffered a stroke, a mastectomy and a broken hip).

The unflattering novel not only led to Davis' estrangement from her daughter (played in Feud by Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka), but inspired the screen legend to strike back with a book of her own, This ‘N That, two years later. She responded to her daughter’s allegations of emotional abuse and alcoholism by painting herself as the victim of a spoiled and ungrateful child. Hyman followed up with a sequel, Narrow Is the Way.

6. Bette Davis Eyes

Sure, “Bette Davis Eyes” was a Grammy-winning hit song performed by Kim Carnes. When it was released in 1981, Davis even wrote Carnes and writers/composers Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon to thank them for making her a “part of modern times” and giving her some clout with her grandson. But those eyes may also be why Davis was able to launch her career in the first place.

Davis was never a “conventional” beauty the way Crawford was, but thanks to a weeks-long contract with Universal Pictures, she did land her first role alongside Humphrey Bogart in Bad Sister. No one really noticed her except the cinematographer, Karl Freund, who supposedly noted to the studio that Davis had “lovely eyes.” Davis’ contract was subsequently picked up for 13 more weeks.

7. Bette and Meryl

Back then, Davis was considered a Meryl Streep by today’s standards. Fittingly, the two leading ladies were also fans of each other’s work. Before Davis passed away, she wrote to Streep applauding her talents, and telling her not to “let those bastards get you down.”

It would seem those were Davis’ words to live by.

Feud: Bette and Joan debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FX.

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Twitter: @amber_dowling