The “Femme Fatale” segment on NoirWhale.com is designed to highlight the life and merits of exceptional film noir actresses. These women are the embodiment of the femme fatale archetype, and propel possibly the most recognizable and integral theme in the noir genre.
“I’m the nicest goddamn dame that ever lived.”
Ruth Elizabeth Davis, simply ‘Bette’ to those of us who recognize her, was born on April 5th, 1908. As potentially the greatest American actress of all time, books are filled with her film exploits (she appeared in more than 100) and other professional accomplishments– culminating in her tragic battle with breast cancer which ended her life at age 81.
She was the first actor/actress to ever reach ten Academy Award Nominations, and she won the award for Best Actress twice. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked her as the 2nd greatest female star of all time (she was second only to Katharine Hepburn). She was also the first woman ever to receive the Lifetime Achievement award from the same organization.
Stylistically, she’s known for intensity and perfectionism– characterized by a penchant for confrontation. Costars, studio executives, and film directors frequently ‘locked horns’ with the starlet, who was unflinching in sharing her opinions and issuing demands. Her candid approach, curt tone, and signature cigarette became recognizable trademarks, neatly folded into the femme fatale archetype by the hard-boiled authors of the era.
“My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”
Bette didn’t arrive in Hollywood until 1930, and was greeted by a surprising amount of failure. She was told she didn’t “look like an actress,” and failed her first screen test. Hilariously, she relates in a 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, “I was the most Yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth. They laid me on a couch, and I tested fifteen men … They all had to lie on top of me and give me a passionate kiss. Oh, I thought I would die. Just thought I would die.” Her break arrived in the mercy of George Arliss, who gave her the lead in The Man Who Played God (1932) after her disappointing flops in many unsuccessful films. The success of the picture earned her respect, and more importantly a contract with Warner Brothers Studios.
She had to fight the unforgiving press, who teased her first husband Harmon “Ham” Nelson for earning only a tenth of her income (he took home $100.00 per week, she $1000.00). Ham refused to allow her to purchase a house until he could afford it himself. (During this period, Bette had several abortions).
Famously, Bette took Warner Brothers Studios to court in order to free herself of her contract. She felt that they had consigned her to mediocre films and were ultimately halting her career. She lost, but the trial was important to the development of Hollywood as we know it today.
She was cast in several memorable films, Marked Woman (1937) and Jezebel (1938) particularly, and it was during this period that she began to cheat on her husband (with Directors William Wyler and Howard Hughes). They were soon divorced. She collected 4 husbands before her death, though each marriage didn’t last; three ended in divorce and one made Bette a widow. Sadly, as she declined in her late years her reputation as a ‘bitch’ became the popular refrain. ‘Bitch’ or not, she was one helluva talent.
Her feud with Joan Crawford is legendary, and whether the hate was sincere or exaggerated its certainly entertaining. I’ve appended a wonderful anecdote about the inception of their catfight:
A little investigation shows that these two cinematic giants were reduced to duking it out over, what else, a man. Namely, the slightly less legendary, Franchot Tone. Bette starred alongside Franchot in the 1935 film Dangerous, a part for which she won her first Academy Award. Tone played a handsome architect to Bette’s alcoholic actress and she was soon smitten.
Said Bette “I fell in love with Franchot, professionally and privately. Everything about him reflected his elegance, from his name to his manners.” It’s a pity this debonair actor inspired decades of tit-for-tat cat fighting.
Joan Crawford, at that time, was MGM’s reigning sex symbol. Newly divorced and on the prowl, she invited Tone over for dinner, only to greet him naked, in her solarium. Whether it was the nudity or the possibility of free tanning sessions, Franchot was hooked and Joan made sure Bette knew about it.
(visit : http://www.queensofvintage.com/bette-davis-vs-joan-crawford/ to read more)
Bette Davis is inseparably attached to the femme fatale archetype, and is possibly the most recognizable film noir starlet of them all. Her success is hardly measurable, the reach of her films universal. There is nothing I can say about her that hasn’t already been said, so I won’t try. Thanks for the memories Bette.
“In this business, until you’re known as a monster you’re not a star.”
*ALL biographical details were obtained from:
*ALL quotes were obtained from: