Bette Davis Biography

Noted for her willingness to play unsympathetic characters, she was highly regarded for her performances in a range of film genres, from contemporary crime melodramas to historical and period films to the occasional comedy, though her greatest successes were romantic dramas.

Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known from early childhood as “Betty,” was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Harlow Morrell Davis and Ruth (“Ruthie”) Augusta Favor. She had one younger sister. The family was of English, French, and Welsh ancestry. In 1915, Davis’s parents separated and, in 1921, Ruth Davis moved to New York City with her daughters, where she worked as a photographer. Betty was inspired to become an actress after seeing Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921). She changed the spelling of her name to “Bette” after Honoré de Balzac’s La Cousine Bette.

She attended Cushing Academy, a finishing school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts where she met her future husband, Harmon O. Nelson. In 1926, she saw a production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck with Blanche Yurka and Peg Entwistle. Davis later recalled that it inspired her full commitment to her chosen career, and said, “Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended, I had to be an actress. exactly like Peg Entwistle.” She auditioned for admission to Eva LeGallienne’s Manhattan Civic Repertory, but was rejected by LeGallienne who described her attitude as “insincere” and “frivolous.” She was accepted by the John Murray Anderson School of Theatre, where she also studied dance with Martha Graham.

She auditioned for George Cukor’s stock theater company, and although he was not impressed, he gave Davis her first paid acting assignment and a one week stint playing the part of a chorus girl in the play Broadway. She was later chosen to play Hedwig, the character she had seen Peg Entwistle play in The Wild Duck. After performing in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston, she made her Broadway debut in 1929 in Broken Dishes, and followed it with Solid South. She was seen by a Universal Studios talent scout, who invited her to Hollywood for a screen test.

Early Life and Acting Career

Bette Davis was born on April 5, 1908. She lived her earliest years in Lowell, Massachusetts and New York City, and attended boarding school at the prestigious Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. She was inspired to become an actress after seeing Peg Entwistle in a New York production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in 1926. Davis began acting on the stage in the late 1920s and made her Broadway debut in 1929 with the play Broken Dishes.

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The illuminating, comprehensive biography of Bette Davis, one of the most electrifying Hollywood stars ever to grace the silver screen. With a career spanning six decades and more than eighty films, Bette Davis is synonymous with Hollywood legend. From her incandescent performance as Margo Channing in All About Eve, to her terrifying, psychopathic Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis generated electricity wherever she appeared, whatever she did—and not just on the silver screen. Her personal life was as passionate as her career and was so fiery that it eventually consumed her. In this landmark biography, Lawrence J. Quirk takes us behind the scenes of all of Davis’s movies, from her early unpromising roles, to her commanding presence at the pinnacle of stardom, to her degrading exploitation in horror films at the end of her career. Quirk delves into Davis’s four unhappy marriages, as well as her frosty, manipulative relationships with her three children. Also revealed are her many affairs through the years with leading men, bit players, servicemen during World War II, and, very late in her life, much younger men, who repaid her by using her and deserting her. Intense, volatile, ruled often by her emotions, Bette Davis was described by one critic as “a force of nature that could find no ordinary outlet.” Fasten Your Seat Belts brilliantly explores the life and career of Bette Davis to show us the fascinating original she was.

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