Feud: Bette and Joan is the latest offering from the people who brought you American Horror Story. Depicting the legendary struggle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the critically acclaimed drama has already aired in the States and is coming to BBC Two in December.
But who exactly were the two acting legends depicted in the drama? Here’s what you need to know about Bette Davis.
Who was Bette Davis?
Davis, portrayed by Susan Sarandon in Feud, was immortalised in the 1981 Kim Carnes song Bette Davis Eyes. She was also one of the most iconic actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond.
Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1908, she was originally known as Betty. She grew up in New York with her mother and sister and it was here that she changed the spelling of her name to Bette.
After some early dramatic training and a start on the Broadway stage, a 22-year-old Bette made her way to Hollywood in 1930. Despite a less-than-successful screen test, she still found herself with a contract at Universal Studios. She foundered in a series of small parts until her breakthrough in Of Human Bondage for RKO in 1934.
Despite much critical acclaim for her performance, when the Oscars swung around, Bette was not nominated and the snub led to a change in the way the Oscars were voted for. When the official nominations were announced and Davis’s name was not among them, there was public outcry.
Academy president Howard Estabrook, in a bid to quash the scandal, announced that anyone eligible to vote could write their personal choice on the ballot – whether an official nominee or not. As a result this was the only time in Oscars history that a so-called 'write-in' candidate was included among the nominees.
However, Bette didn’t win and to add insult to injury, the winner was Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night, a role Davis had wanted but which her contracted studio, Warner Brothers, would not release her for.
Nonetheless, Davis won the Oscar the following year for her performance in Dangerous. However, 1935 also saw a change in the way the Oscar nominations were decided – a switch was made from a small committee to a ballot of all eligible members. The practice continues today.
Following her Oscar win, Davis was unhappy with the standard of parts being offered to her by Warner and she wanted to go to the UK to make a couple of different films but this would have meant breaking her contract. Davis mounted a legal battle in the UK High Court to be able to do this – but was ultimately unsuccessful.
She rebounded on her return to the US and, in 1938, earned a second Oscar for her work in Jezebel – today one of her best remembered roles. Her success continued in the 1940s, and from near-pariah she had become one of Warner Brothers’ and Hollywood’s most profitable stars.
In 1941, Davis was even elected to be head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that adminsters the Oscars. But after unsuccessfully attempting to introduce reforms, she soon resigned.
During the Second World War, Davis was instrumental in the creation of the Hollywood Canteen – which saw some of Hollywood’s biggest names entertain servicemen in a serviceman’s club.
After the war, however, Davis’ career waned. She still worked regularly, but her career would be in the relative doldrums until the iconic 1950s movie All About Eve.
The rest of the 1950s would see Davis in semi-retirement until What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? paired her with fellow acting legend Joan Crawford in 1962. The story of the filming and aftermath is the subject of a fictionalised retelling in Feud: Bette and Joan, which is coming to BBC Two later this year.
Her pivotal performance as the titular Baby Jane would see Davis nominated for an Oscar once more. Although she didn’t win – and saw rival Crawford physically collect the statuette for winner Anne Bancroft – Davis’s career was revived. She continued to work steadily in films and TV until her death in 1989.
Like her nemesis Joan Crawford, Davis was married four times – to Harmon Nelson, a musician; Arthur Farnsworth, a pilot; William Grant Sherry, an artist and Garry Merrill, an actor. She had three children: a daughter B.D. with husband Sherry (who was later adopted by Merrill) and two adopted children, Margot and Michael (with Merrill).
In 1985, Bette’s daughter B.D. published a book My Mother’s Keeper – much in the same vein as Joan's daughter Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest. This led to an estrangement between mother and daughter from 1985 until Davis’s death.
Bette Davis died in the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, in 1989 at the age of 81. Despite suffering ill health including cancer and strokes since the early 80s, Davis had continued working. In the run-up to her death she had travelled to Spain to attend a cinema festival but had been taken ill.
During a career spanning six decades, Davis was the first actor of either gender to received 10 Oscar nominations.
“Bette Davis seemed willing, she even had an appetite, for parts that were conventionally unappealing. She changed the requirement that actresses in the movies invariably be likable or attractive,” Meryl Streep, who has herself received 20 Oscar nominations, said of Davis in a tribute on the channel TCM.
“She lifted the veil of appropriate behaviour in women to expose what was scary, unexpected, or ugly - in other words, to do what was appropriate for the character.”
Feud: Bette and Joan begins at 9pm on Saturday December 16 on BBC Two.
Photo credits: Granger/REX/Shutterstock, Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, SNAP/REX/Shutterstock, PA