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article imageReview: Bette Davis was larger than life – and the screen Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Nov 18, 2013 in Entertainment
TIFF Cinematheque – Hollywood classics features a comprehensive tribute to the notable work of one of the greatest actresses to emerge from the studio system: “The Hard Way: The Films of Bette Davis.”
In a four-decade career, Bette Davis was nominated for 10 Oscars; though she only won two, her powerhouse performances and personality would forever be remembered. Working within the confines of the studio system and the Hayes Code, she still brought strong female characters to the screen and proved to be a formidable force off-screen. She was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, though her tenure was short-lived due to her radical suggestions, and she was the first woman to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award.
If there's one general statement that can be said about Davis’ characters, it's that they wear their neuroses, good or bad, on their sleeves. What most women whisper quietly to their best friends and confidantes — too embarrassed to voice their jealousy, envy, paranoia or desire in anything above a hushed tone — Davis’ women express openly and publicly. Perhaps they are braver than most women. Or maybe the men that wrote them don't understand the inner workings of the female mind. Nonetheless, it may be for this boldness that Davis is one of the most memorable of Hollywood’s Golden Age screen actresses. She was never afraid to play the hard-to-like, unattractive protagonist, even as she competed with the girl next door in some pictures.
As Meryl Streep so succinctly said in a Bette Davis tribute, “She changed the requirement that actresses in the movies invariably be likeable or attractive, she lifted the veil of appropriate behavior in women, to expose what was scary, unexpected or ugly, in other words to do what was appropriate for the character.”
TIFF Cinematheque senior programmer James Quandt took on the difficult task of identifying 15 of Davis’ most influential, unforgettable and important films to screen in the Hollywood Classics programme, “The Hard Way: The Films of Bette Davis.” From November 15 to December 8, audiences will be given the opportunity to witness Davis’ evolution from glamour girl to grande dame to Gothic gargoyle.
Five stand-out selections include:
A scene from  Of Human Bondage
A scene from 'Of Human Bondage'
Of Human Bondage (1934) dir. John Cromwell
It took three years and nearly two dozen screen appearances for Davis to be launched into stardom, but this is the film that finally earned her the recognition she deserved. Davis plays Mildred, a blowsy, wicked Cockney waitress who manipulates and torments a sensitive artist-turned-doctor (Leslie Howard) who loves her by callously stringing him along. Though this picture features full sound dialogue, it still has the feel of a silent film. Howard’s mannerisms are somewhat antiquated, pushing Davis’ brassy (pre-Code) performance to the forefront.
Jezebel (1938) dir. William Wyler
Davis won her second of two Best Actress Oscars for her portrayal of a glamorous, tempestuous Southern belle who pushes the boundaries of societal norms only to push away her straight-laced fiancé (Henry Fonda). Overwhelmed by the costs of her behaviour, she conspires to regain his affections with even greater consequences. Davis is exceptional in this picture, challenging expectations while simultaneously adhering to the requirements of tradition. She is at her best when she’s being rebellious, either defiantly or regretfully.
Dark Victory (1939) dir. Edmund Goulding
This movie has been cited as Davis’ personal favourite. She plays Judith, a fast-living Long Island socialite whose declining ability to carry out her daily routines is attributed to a potentially fatal brain tumour. Faced with the possibility of a shorter life expectancy, she must decide how she wishes to live her remaining days. In spite of being listed as a “four-hankie weeper,” this film is not all tear-jerking melodrama. Judith is not a pitiable character; she’s a very competent and stubborn woman not willing to compromise. Davis never allows the sad elements of the film to become synonymous with pathetic or wretched; Judith is hard-nosed and nothing changes that.
A scene from  All About Eve
A scene from 'All About Eve'
All About Eve (1950) dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Jumping ahead a decade, Davis shows she is not afraid to age on screen — a concept many contemporary actresses face with trepidation. She portrays forty-something starlet Margo Channing, a stage actress whose name alone on a marquee could fill seats in a theatre. A kind gesture to a devoted fan, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), leads to a winding road of events recounted by various characters at an awards ceremony some time later. The bitchery in this picture is exquisite as Margo, Eve and Karen (Celeste Holm), a notable playwright’s wife, tussle for diplomacy and supremacy throughout the narrative. And Davis provides one of the earlier and more accurate definitions of “diva” with this role. But “Bette was letter perfect. She was syllable-perfect,” said Mankiewicz. “The director's dream: the prepared actress.”
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) dir. Robert Aldrich
In this special 50th (+1) anniversary digital restoration, Davis is joined by the equally remarkable Joan Crawford in this Grand Guignol cult classic. After independently successful careers, ex-starlet sisters Baby Jane and Blanche Hudson (Davis and Crawford respectively) are bound together in a bitter (and lethal) rivalry in a decaying Hollywood villa. Resentment infects every room of the house with Blanche confined to a wheelchair after a suspicious accident years earlier. Davis is unparalleled in her dedication to and talent displayed in this role, unafraid to reveal a face made dreadful by hate and alcoholism, and a disposition that can only be reviled and possibly pitied. This surely would have resulted in Davis’ third Oscar win, but she was unluckily up against Anne Bancroft’s performance in The Miracle Worker, the biography of Helen Keller.
A scene from  Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
A scene from 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane'
Davis once said, "I was the Marlon Brando of my generation." Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity to see why. “The Hard Way: The Films of Bette Davis” runs at TIFF Bell Lightbox from November 15 to December 8, 2013.
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