Fandor’s Scott Smith biographies Bette Davis – Her career made her a true role model for women in the film industry, and her incomparable screen performances left the sharpest images of forthrightness ever presented on screen.
Unsuspecting director George Cukor had no idea what tenacity he instilled in a young actress in 1928. As head of a theater company in Rochester, New York, he dismissed a girlish Bette Davis and sent her home after an awkward audition. Davis’s mother, furious that Cukor would overlook such genius, marched Bette straight to Broadway, where good reviews in Virgil Geddes’s The Earth Between in 1929 led to her first hit, Broken Dishes, in 1930. Her first Hollywood film, Bad Sister(1931), failed at the ticket office despite a smoldering performance by costar Humphrey Bogart, and her next five films flopped as well. It looked as though Bette Davis would be sent home again. But a Warner Bros. executive felt encouraged by her apparent determination and cast her in the breakthrough The Man Who Played God (1932). She was hailed as a rare screen talent with magnetic eyes and a deep understanding of acting. Warners immediately drafted a long-term contract that made her a lifetime featured player.
After small roles throughout the 1930s, Davis felt Warners was not honoring their agreement; she wasn’t given opportunities in films that showcased her unique gifts. She went to court to break her contract, but in a series of hard-fought, precedent-setting cases, Warners maintained control of the temperamental star. By then, however, much of the damage was already done. Davis was furious with the court’s decision and became unmanageable during filming, her moods on the set turning bitter and despondent. Quite uncharacteristically, the bosses at Warners relented and allowed her to make a picture that had been offered to her by RKO: Of Human Bondage (1934), based on the popular novel by. W. Somerset Maugham. Starring opposite leading man Leslie Howard, Davis delivered a riveting performance that again established her prominence as an actress. It also formed her reputation as a woman who could steal attention from popular male leads.
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