Flashback: When Bette Davis Became the Academy's First Female President — and Resigned in Disgust

Bette_Davis_Academy_President - H 2016
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Bette_Davis_Academy_President - H 2016

A version of this story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

In late 1941, Hollywood was rocked by two big headlines that appeared less than two months apart on the front page of The Hollywood Reporter: Nov. 7’s “Davis First Femme to Prexy Academy,” followed by Dec. 26’s “Davis Resigns as Academy Prexy.”

The Davis in question? Bette, a 33-year-old, hugely popular star who was already a two-time winner of the best actress Academy Award. (She claimed to have given the statue its nickname: “When I saw the award’s rear end, it reminded me of my husband’s [Harmon Oscar Nelson].”) How did she come to lead the then-500-member Academy, founded by the studio chiefs only 14 years earlier, and why was her time at the top so short? That seems a question worth answering 75 years later, as people focus on the relationship of today’s Academy — again led by a woman — to diversity.

The Academy usually chooses its president from its board of governors, but Davis had never served the organization in any official capacity when she was tapped for the job, which came with a one-year term. She had been touted to succeed two-term incumbent Walter Wanger by Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, and her election was a popular one — columnist Hedda Hopper cheered, “If any woman here deserves that job, it’s Bette.” Davis later wrote, “I never imagined that I would hold its most exalted post. As the only woman so honored, I was frankly proud. But it was just this pride that shortened the tenure of my office.”

Davis hadn’t made it in Hollywood on her looks. She was smart, talented and suffered no fools, earning her the reputation of being “difficult” — and numerous contract suspensions — at Warners, and it wasn’t long before the Academy’s board discovered her no-nonsense side. “At the first meeting I presided at as president,” she later recalled, “I arrived with full knowledge of my rights of office. I had studied the by-laws. It became clear to me that this was a surprise. I was not supposed to preside intelligently.”

She had two big initiatives she immediately pushed to enact. First, she wanted to reformat the annual Academy Awards banquet. Since her election, Pearl Harbor had been attacked, thrusting America into World War II and prompting calls for the cancellation of the Oscars, which had theretofore centered around dinner and dancing. She argued that it would be more appropriate to scrap the dinner and dancing and present the awards in a large theater, charging at least $25 a seat and donating the proceeds to war relief efforts. “The members of the board were horrified,” she later said. “Such an evening would rob the Academy of all dignity.”

Her other idea was to revoke the right of Hollywood’s thousands of extras to vote for the Oscars. She argued that many of them lacked taste, culture and “didn’t even speak English” — and besides, there were indications that their votes could be swung behind whichever studio hired them around the time of balloting. Davis later said the board regarded this as “the wildest thing they’d ever heard” and Wanger, now the first vice president, spoke up and “wanted to know what I had against the Academy.”

Davis quickly realized she was getting nowhere. “It was obvious that I had been put in as president merely as a figurehead,” she later wrote. “I sent in my resignation a few days later.” The Academy tried to keep the news from leaking while Zanuck, her sponsor, tried to run damage control. “He informed me that if I resigned, I would never work in Hollywood again,” Davis recalled. “I took a chance and resigned anyway.” Her resignation was “regretfully accepted” by the board at its Jan. 7 meeting.

The real reasons for her exit were kept largely under wraps at the time. THR reported that it “was predicated upon her feeling that the presidency of the Academy is a ‘full-time job’ which she did not feel she could fulfill in addition to her picture contract with Warners. Additionally, Miss Davis is not in robust health, and the performance of the titular Academy office would require an endurance which her doctors felt she did not possess.”

Wanger reassumed the presidency, and two months later the 14th Oscars took place, still as a dinner, but minus dancing and formal attire, and with attendees asked to support the war effort. Extras retained the right to vote, which almost certainly tipped the scale in the best picture race against Citizen Kane, to the Academy’s eternal embarrassment. Within just a few years, though, the Academy had implemented both of Davis’ big ideas: the 16th Oscars were held in a theater, as has been every installment since, and extras lost the right to vote ahead of the 19th Oscars.

Davis, meanwhile, far from faded away. She was nominated for three more best actress Oscars before the end of the war, and spent most of her spare time supporting the war effort — she sold millions of dollars in war bonds and started the Hollywood Canteen to entertain servicemen on leave. She and Zanuck didn’t speak again until nine years had passed — “Because he had strongly recommended me, I’d embarrassed him,” she acknowledged — but they reconciled after he cast her in the greatest film of her career, the best picture Oscar winner All About Eve.

Late in life she confessed that she regretted abandoning the presidency of the Academy rather than staying and fighting for her ideas. “I resigned the position in order to show them, but then nobody cared,” she sighed. “It’s usually a mistake doing something just to show someone.” But, she said she had reasoned at the time, “If I couldn’t function, if my suggestions were disregarded, why should I bother?” She added, “They wanted a mere figurehead, someone famous to publicize the Academy. I didn’t know that. I wanted to rule.”