By Raquel Stecher, classic film blogger
Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Bette Davis, one of the finest actresses ever to grace the silver screen. Davis could play any part with distinction and attention to detail. She wasn’t concerned with being a glamorous movie star and would transform her appearance when it made sense for the role. She relished new parts especially if it presented her with a new challenge.
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1908, it wasn’t long until Davis caught the acting bug. By her early twenties she was on Broadway and soon Hollywood came calling. But she had a rocky start. Davis began her film career as a blonde ingenue for Universal Studios and Warner Bros. While her supporting roles soon became leading roles, she was incredibly unhappy with her parts and in later years often poked fun at some of her early movies.
It wasn’t until she delivered a knock-out performance as the complicated and unsympathetic Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934) that things started to turn around for her. That performance earned Davis her first Academy Award nomination. And ten more nominations were to come over her long career in the business. She won twice for her lead roles in Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938).
But Davis had to fight for better roles. She breached her contract with Warner Bros. and they sued her. Although she lost her legal case, she earned respect and ultimately won better roles as a result. During WWII, Davis used her star power for good when she and fellow actor John Garfield co-founded the Hollywood Canteen, a club that offered dining and entertainment for servicemen.
When I say that Davis could play any role, I mean it. She was convincing as the small town waitress with big dreams in The Petrified Forest (1936), the dying socialite in Dark Victory (1939), the ugly duckling turned swan in Now, Voyager (1942), the headstrong Southern belle in Jezebel (1939), the once celebrated and now aging beauty in Mrs. Skeffinton (1944), the disturbed former child star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and the blind and cranky old widow in The Whales of August (1987). When her career began to decline in the late 1940s, Davis staged the ultimate comeback with an unforgettable performance in All About Eve (1950) where she delivered the now famous line “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
As a strong and independent woman, Bette Davis forged her own path. She has inspired generations of actresses, including living legend Meryl Streep. Feisty right up until the end, Davis wasn’t afraid to back down from anything. Her life sometimes courted controversy, but no one can deny her talents for delivering performances that would keep audiences coming back for more. If you haven’t seen many of her films or want to revisit her work, here are twenty excellent Bette Davis movies to rent on DVD Netflix.
Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's sharp script anchors this story about New York City theater life, with Bette Davis playing an aging Broadway diva who employs a starstruck fan (Anne Baxter) as her assistant, only to learn the woman is a conniving upstart. The now-classic All About Eve won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Mankiewicz), Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (George Sanders).
A star-studded cast unites for this adaptation of Agatha Christie's mystery novel of the same name. A rich but reviled heiress is murdered on a cruise down the Nile. Luckily, brilliant detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is on board, and takes on the case. Can he find the culprit before they reach port, possibly losing him or her forever? Maggie Smith, David Niven, Bette Davis and Mia Farrow co-star in this Oscar winner for Best Costume Design.
Bridled by an autocratic mother, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) borders on a nervous breakdown. But when a psychiatrist (Claude Rains) persuades Charlotte to drastically change her life, she blossoms into a confident, self-possessed woman. Charlotte then takes a voyage, where she falls in love with the unhappily married Jerry (Paul Henreid). Though their romance is doomed, Charlotte finds solace in helping Jerry's emotionally unhinged daughter.
No sooner does an all-American family take possession of a baronial English manor when all manner of peculiar things occur, including signs that point to the disappearance of a young girl during a solar eclipse decades before. Bette Davis stars as the woman who spends all her days searching the dense woods for her missing daughter. Lynn-Holly Johnson co-stars in Disney's suspenseful take on haunted houses.
Fast living comes easy for Long Island socialite Judith Traherne (Bette Davis), who counts throwing lavish soirees, enjoying free-flowing booze and raising thoroughbreds among the many pleasures in her hedonistic existence. But a horse-jumping accident forces her to come to terms with her lifestyle -- and mortality -- when a handsome doctor (George Brent) discovers that Judith suffers from a potentially fatal brain tumor. Humphrey Bogart co-stars.
Based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel and directed by William Wyler, this drama stars Bette Davis in one of her nastiest film roles. After shooting Geoffrey (David Newell), Leslie (Davis) tells husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) and their lawyer (James Stephenson) that it was self-defense. But Leslie's case begins to fall apart when a letter reveals that she may have planned the murder, and Geoffrey's widow (Gale Sondergaard) attempts blackmail.
After her betrothed died from multiple ax wounds 40 years ago, everyone in town thought Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) was guilty. But with no evidence to convict her, she walked. Since that time, holed up in a crumbling Southern mansion with her devoted servant (Agnes Moorehead), Charlotte's been a recluse. But when an ambitious cousin (Olivia de Havilland) comes along to get her hands on the plantation, Charlotte has to defend herself.
In this sequel to Escape to Witch Mountain, Tony is kidnapped by a cold-hearted businesswoman and her evil scientist partner, and his sister Tina must use her supernatural powers to save him.
Conniving, turn-of-the-century, Southern aristocrat Regina Giddens values nothing more than wealth and social position. When she and her two brothers scheme mercilessly to make a fortune on a new cotton mill, Regina lets nothing stand in her way.
Twins Edith and Margaret (Bette Davis in a dual role) both desire a wealthy Spaniard, but Margaret marries him under false pretense in this dark tale from director Paul Henreid about a vengeful sister who assumes her twin's identity. Years later, widowed Margaret lives the high life, while Edith can't afford lunch. Edith kills Margaret and takes her place, but arouses the suspicion of a detective (Karl Malden) and Margaret's lover (Peter Lawford).
Headstrong coquette Julie Marsden loves to kindle competition among men in the antebellum South, which eventually drives her fiancé away. She vows to win back her man, but her scheming goes awry, resulting in another suitor's demise.
A week before her wedding to lawyer Craig Fleming (George Brent), Stanley Timberlake (Bette Davis) seduces her sister's husband and the two run off together, setting off a melodramatic chain of events that forever changes all involved. Davis sinks her teeth into the showy role of a hellacious home wrecker, only to be matched by Olivia de Havilland's understated turn as the good sister in this juicy drama directed by the great John Huston.
To keep her embezzling brother out of jail, Fanny Trellis (Bette Davis) weds the very rich Job Skeffington (Claude Rains), but she seeks a divorce when her sibling, angry about Fanny's one-sided union, runs off to war and gets killed.Coquettish Fanny takes up with a host of men until diphtheria spoils her trademark beauty. Davis earned an Oscar nod for her portrayal of a narcissistic socialite who gets her comeuppance in this bittersweet tale.
In Frank Capra's final directing effort, bag lady Apple Annie (Bette Davis) convinces her long-absent daughter (Ann-Margret) that she's a wealthy socialite. The daughter, who grew up in Europe, plans a trip with her aristocratic fiancée and his family to visit Annie. Into the middle of this crisis steps small-time gangster Dave the Dude (Glenn Ford), his girlfriend (Hope Lange) and his henchmen, all of whom transform Annie into Lady Manville.
Bette Davis stars as Charlotte, an unwed mother who, out of financial need, gives her illegitimate child, Tina, to her scheming cousin (Miriam Hopkins). Posing as Tina's aunt, Charlotte is ignored by her own daughter but maintains a constant presence in the girl's life. Embittered by her old maid status, her daughter's constant dismissals and her cousin Delia's toxic meddling, Charlotte takes action when Tina comes of age. George Brent co-stars.
Arrogant lecturer Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) overstays his welcome in an Ohio family's home in this rollicking adaptation of the hit Broadway play. Whiteside slips on the ice on the way to dinner and finds himself on bed rest in his host's home. He takes advantage of his vantage point and sets himself on fixing the family's problems. The stellar supporting cast includes Bette Davis, Billie Burke, Richard Travis and Reginald Gardiner.
In director Edmund Goulding's engrossing melodrama, rivals Maggie Patterson (Bette Davis), a refined Southern socialite, and Sandra Kovack (Mary Astor), a vitriolic concert pianist, vie for the affections of reckless flyboy Pete Van Allen (George Brent). When tragedy intervenes, circumstances propel the women into each other's company. Astor chalked up a richly deserved Academy Award for her sensational supporting performance.
French governess Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (Bette Davis) is the prime suspect when the wife (Barbara O'Neil, in an Oscar-nominated performance) of the handsome Duc de Praslin (Charles Boyer) is found dead. Henriette was in love with the duke -- but would she actually kill to be with him? Based on the novel by Rachel Field, which documents a real-life scandal, this classic drama also earned Oscar nods for Best Picture and Best Cinematography.
Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) thought her lover, cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), was killed in the war. But when he unexpectedly strolls back into her life, she's forced to hide the fact that she's been having an affair with prominent composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains). Christine's efforts to conceal her actions are hampered by Hollenius's insistence on sabotaging Novak's career, which prompts her to take drastic measures.
As World War II looms, undercover anti-fascism organizer Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas, in an Oscar-winning turn) moves his wife, Sara (Bette Davis), and family from Europe to America, where Kurt is blackmailed by a Nazi sympathizer and driven to take drastic measures. Based on Lillian Hellman's play and adapted for the screen by her lover, author Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), this classic spy drama earned multiple Oscar nominations.
Raquel Stecher has been writing about classic films for the past decade on her blog Out of the Past. She attends the TCM Classic Film Festival as well as other events where old movie fanatics get together to geek out. Raquel has been a devoted DVD Netflix member since 2002! Follow her on her blog Out of the Past, or find her on Twitter @RaquelStecher and @ClassicFilmRead, Facebook, and Instagram.