With her famously big eyes and her infamously “unlikable” characters, Davis poured everything she had into her craft. After all, you don't get 10 Oscar nominations just for being pretty. But Bette Davis's road to success was far from idyllic. She got married four times (!), stood up to major studio executives, and of course, sharpened her claws in a legendary feud with Joan Crawford. Pull back the scarlet curtain as we explore the dramatic life of a Hollywood juggernaut.
Bette Davis Facts
1. Her Name Has A Secret Meaning
Bette Davis was actually born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908. She would be known as “Betty” (note: not yet Bette) to her friends…presumably for her middle name, not her first. She dropped the “y” for an “e” into Bette after seeing a friend reading Honoré de Balzac’s novel, La Cousine Bette. It took years before Davis found out that the character was a bit of a bad girl—kinda like the over-the-top women that Davis often played...
2. She Had A Dark Idol
When asked why went into acting, Davis cited a 1926 production of The Wild Duck starring Peg Entwistle. Just three years later, Davis snagged the Entwistle’s role in said show. However, Davis's childhood idol met a horrific end. Entwistle infamously climbed to the top of the Hollywood sign and jumped to her end—and just like her hero, Davis would grapple with dark times too...
3. She Was Difficult
Right from the beginning of her career, people had polarizing opinions about Bette Davis. As a sign of her, ahem, combative personality, Davis actually got snubbed by a New York theater troupe called the Manhattan Civic Repertory Theatre. Their reasons for turning down one of the greatest actresses of all time? Her, and I quote, “frivolous” and “insincere” attitude.
4. She Got Stood Up
When Davis travelled to Hollywood for her first screen test in 1930, she made a long, arduous journey—just to get royally insulted at the end of it. She waited at the airport for ages, having been told that a studio head would meet her there. Eventually, she just left, assuming that there had been a miscommunication or, worse, she had been stood up. Oh, but the truth was even worse.
5. People Insulted Her
For her entire career, Davis had to struggle with Hollywood's harsh beauty standards. She was a beautiful woman, but to Hollywood executives, she'd never be a screen siren. Davis learned this the hard way. It turned out that the studio head had been at the airport to pick her up. Instead, he assumed she wasn't around because he didn't see anyone attractive enough to be an actress—even though Davis was right there. Ouch.
6. She Had A Casting Couch Experience
While Davis failed her first Hollywood screen-test in 1930, she was “used” in screen tests for other male actors. This involved “intimate” work for which she will ill-prepared. To quote Davis, “I was the most Yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth. They laid me on a couch, and I tested 15 men ... They all had to lie on top of me and give me a passionate kiss. Oh, I thought I would die". Spoiler: Young Bette’s modesty will become very ironic later on.
7. Her Family Dissolved
Davis wasn’t putting on airs. She really was an awkward, inexperienced young woman. While growing up, her father was cold and distant, while her mother was religious and prim. Davis quickly learned two things: Good girls waited until marriage—and marriage was no walk in the park. According to Davis herself, her parents made each other miserable, and when they finally split, she felt overjoyed.
With such a healthy relationship unfolding before her eyes, you can probably guess that Davis’s own romances would be, well, let’s just say it: Huge messes.
8. She Had A Rough Start
Despite Davis’s rough start in Tinseltown, she did eventually land a contract with Universal Studios. In 1931, a cinematographer praised Davis’s “lovely eyes” and put in her in her film debut, The Bad Sister. Unfortunately, this movie was not the star vehicle that Davis had hoped for. In fact, it was such a disaster that Universal dropped Davis, leaving her on the hunt for work. And that wasn’t the only source of trouble in Davis’s life.
9. She Married The Wrong Guy
Remember how Davis grew up with strict parents who were trapped in a miserable marriage? Yeah, that had some consequences on young Bette. In 1932, she married her high school sweetheart Harmon Nelson. She was just 24 years old on her wedding night—and true to her repressed upbringing, she’d never slept with anyone before. So far, Davis had done everything by the book—but it wouldn’t save her.
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10. Her Husband Was Cruel
Davis’s first marriage was far from idyllic. Her husband Harmon Nelson (who preferred to be called “Ham”—you do you, bud) could be controlling and cruel. While married to Nelson, Davis became pregnant twice. Both times, Nelson ordered her to abort the baby. In the 1930s, that wasn’t just emotionally horrific. It was incredibly dangerous too.
11. She Wasn't A Conventional Beauty
Poor Bette. Life really wasn’t kind to her in the early 1930s. As she tried to break into Hollywood, Davis endured mean comments about her looks. When she tried to dress more seductively for a screen test, director William Wyler loudly mocked her to the crew and stated, “What do you think of these dames who show their chests and think they can get jobs?"
On the other end of the spectrum, chief of production Carl Laemmle, Jr. described Davis as having “about as much...appeal as Slim Summerville,” her gawky male co-star. Thanks!
12. She Nearly Quit
After a string of failed launches, Bette Davis was at her wit’s end. She planned on packing it up and going back to New York—just before she booked The Man Who Played God, a film about a deaf pianist. Davis’s performance (and her unique looks) finally got her noticed. With a hit in the can, at long last, her star was on the rise.
13. She Had A Famous Feud
Look, you can’t be an iconic Hollywood star without rubbing some people the wrong way—and wowy, Bette Davis is no exception. Her feud with rival starlet Joan Crawford is the stuff of legend, but few people know how it started. Well, here’s the beef: Back in 1933, on the exact same day that Universal Studios planned to release an article announcing Bette Davis as the Next Big Thing in movies, Joan Crawford swept in to take Davis’s thunder with a stunning announcement of her own.
14. She Got Snubbed
Imagine it: Bette Davis wakes up, rushes to get the morning paper, and immediately sees red. Instead of reading about her status as Hollywood’s most exciting It Girl, the front page is taken up with the news that Joan Crawford was divorcing her famous husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. For the first time—but hardly the last—Crawford took Davis’s thunder.
The newspaper shuttled Davis’s “grand” announcement into a tiny little paragraph in the Reviews section. It was the beginning of a now-legendary Hollywood rivalry.
15. She Made An Impact
By 1934, Bette Davis had only been in Hollywood for two years—but she’d already appeared in a whopping 22 films. Thankfully for her health, the 22nd movie was the charm. When Davis played a villainess in Of Human Bon-dage, her performance electrified audiences. Well, all audiences except the one that mattered.
16. She Held A Grudge
No one could hold a grudge quite like Bette Davis. Literal decades after she didn’t win the Oscar for her adaptation of Somerset Maugham's most famous book, she was still fuming. In her memoir, Davis said that when she didn’t take home the precious golden statuette, people were so incensed that they demanded the Academy Awards hire independent vote counters. Did they really? Or did Davis just have a big case of sour grapes? We’ll never know—but one thing is for sure: Davis was ticked.
17. It Was Make Or Break
For Davis, this was her big make or break moment. She could follow up her rave reviews with another hit—or she could follow Warner Brothers’ orders and appear in a string of so-so movies. Unfortunately, back in old Hollywood, studio executives ruled the roost. Davis basically had to do whatever WB told her, and that meant watching her promising career flounder in lame material. If WB thought Davis would let them ruin her career, they had another think coming.
18. She Stood Up For Her Art
Warner Brothers would soon learn not to mess with Bette Davis. Instead of acting in another stinker, the actress went out and got herself a shiny new contract with an English studio. She flew overseas and filmed some British flicks as a way to tell WB that if they wouldn’t give her good roles, she’d find someone else to work for. It was an amazing “screw you” to the studio—but there was one problem with Davis’s plan.
19. She Got Sued By Her Own Studio
You see, Bette Davis was under contract at Warner Brothers. Legally, she wasn’t allowed to just up and leave—never mind work for anyone else. WB sent over an injunction telling Bette to get back to the USA where she belonged. But Bette wasn’t backing down without a fight. She straight-up sued Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, the law suit...didn’t go smoothly.
20. She Did The Impossible
At first, Bette’s big gamble didn’t quite pay off. She took Warner to court and lost hugely. But then, because Bette Davis is an absolute legend, she somehow managed to turn her failure into a stunning success. She returned to Warner Brothers—and instead of being a chastened, meek starlet, she managed to negotiate herself into a bigger paycheck and those meaty roles she wanted all along. Bette, teach me your ways.
21. She Lost An Iconic Role
But even with her super-size confidence, Davis couldn’t get everything she wanted. She was desperate to book the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind—only to lose it to Vivien Leigh. Why? Oh, because Bette was too busy shading her leading man. Producers would only give Scarlett to Bette if they could get the heartthrob Errol Flynn to play Rhett. Davis thought Flynn had the acting ability of an old shoe and outright refused to be in the movie with him. Ouch.
22. She Was Part Of A Love Triangle
As we all know, producers didn’t bend to Bette’s will. But don’t feel too bad for her—Davis’s career was just heating up. While filming the movie Dangerous with her iconic frenemy Joan Crawford, Davis got embroiled in a fiery love triangle. Davis fell for her elegant co-star Franchot Tone...who was already dating Joan Crawford. What could go wrong?
23. She Pursued Her Man
Despite being a married lady, Davis pulled out all the stops while she pursued Tone—and Crawford definitely noticed. Determined not to let Davis win, Crawford pressured Tone into a quick engagement while they were still filming, which meant that poor Bette had to watch the newly-betrothed couple celebrate on set. Davis declared that she would “never forgive” Crawford for taking her man.
24. She Got Shaded By A Rival
What’s a love triangle without some shade? Joan Crawford once sad that the reason Tone chose her instead of Bette was simple: “He thought Bette was a good actress, but he never thought of her as a woman". Yep, the claws were coming out—and by the time the Oscars rolled around, Crawford and Davis’s catfight got even uglier.
25. Her Feud Went Nuclear
At the 1936 Oscars, Crawford and Davis took their feud to another level. Here’s the deal: Davis hadn’t wanted to attend the ceremony because she was sure she wouldn’t win, so as a “Screw You” to the studio head who made her go, she intentionally wore an incredibly ugly dress. Well, the joke was on Bette. She won the Best Actress trophy—and had to march up to accept it in a heinous gown. That’s when Crawford struck.
26. She Got Served
On Davis’s way up to the stage, her unrequited love Franchot Tone gave her a congratulatory hug. Meanwhile, Tone’s new bride Joan Crawford crossed her arms and turned away from Davis. When Tone basically made Crawford acknowledge her co-star, Crawford sneered and delivered an acidic one-liner: “Dear Bette! What a lovely frock".
27. She's Why We Call Them "Oscars"
Yeah, Davis’s first Oscar win wasn’t the blissful experience she expected. But it did provide one good thing! According to Davis, the Academy Awards are known as “Oscars” because of her. She said the “posterior” of her Best Actress statue, which she won for her 1935 role in Dangerous, reminded her of her first husband, Harmon “Oscar” Nelson.
28. Her Husband Was Old School
Kudos to "Ham" for having a pert derriere, but if you ask me, that's about all he had going for him. When his wife's career took off, Nelson absolutely refused to let her buy a house. He insisted that she wait until he could afford to buy his first house. His reason? Good old fashioned patriarchy. Nelson refused to be so “emasculated” by his wife.
Yeah, this marriage wouldn't last long...
29. She Struck Up An Affair
In 1937, Bette Davis was a bonafide A-Lister—and like any rising star, it was only a matter of time before she left her starter spouse behind. When Davis filmed the movie The Great Lie, she struck up a passionate affair with her co-star George Brent. He fell for Davis hard and even proposed, but Davis declined. With that, her first affair went kaput—and another fiery romance began.
30. She Fell Hard
To use one of Davis’s own iconic lines, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night". In 1938, Bette Davis signed on to the movie Jezebel, directed by William Wyler. To say that filming was dramatic would be an understatement. Right off the bat, Davis and Wyler felt a connection and it didn’t take long for them to start a full-blown affair.
31. People Suspected Her Of Cheating
When Davis looked back on her life, the only man she remembered fondly was William Wyler. That says a lot about how much he meant to her. During filming, she fell deeply in love with the director—and her passion didn’t go unnoticed. After the movie came out, the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper accused Davis of having an affair with her leading man, Henry Fonda. According to Hopper, you couldn’t look at someone that way if you weren’t truly in love with them.
Hopper had it right—but she also had it wrong. Fonda wasn’t even on set when this footage was shot. The person that Davis had been looking at hadn’t been her co-star. It was her director, standing just behind the camera.
32. She Made A Startling Discovery
Davis later said that Wyler was “the love of my life—no question". However, their romance was bumpy at best. When filming wrapped up, Davis learned that she was pregnant (and no, her husband was not the father). Davis hoped that the pregnancy would, shall we say, encourage Wyler to propose. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
33. Her Heart Broke
After Wyler failed to get down on one knee, Davis quietly terminated the pregnancy and continued her tumultuous affair. However, things didn’t last long. Sadly, Davis and Wyler were just about the worst communicators you could imagine. Davis often acted cold, hoping to attract Wyler by playing at being the cool girl. Wyler, meanwhile, struggled to penetrate Davis’s emotional walls. Eventually, everything came tumbling down.
34. She Rebounded Hard
When Wyler and Davis called time on their affair, Davis did what any girl would do: Rebound. She attended a swanky Hollywood party where she met the most notorious womanizer in the biz: Howard Hughes. When Hughes asked her out, Davis accepted, bluntly saying, “I was flattered, I was married, I was bored, I accepted". Heads up: This tryst got out of control fast.
35. Her Husband Was Suspicious
At the same time as Davis was busily romancing Hollywood’s finest, she was also—oh right—married. Her husband, “Ham” Nelson, suspected Davis of sneaking around and became so desperate that he hired a private investigator to follow his wife and see what she was doing. Said PI was in for the shock of his life when he stumbled upon Davis and Hughes in bed together.
36. She Got Caught With Another Man
This was a ready-made celebrity scandal. The papers hounded Davis, asking her if she was really seeing Hughes and if she’d be getting a divorce from “Ham". Another starlet would have given a flustered reply, but not Davis. She sent off a tart telegram, letting the gossip columnists know that she was on a “vacation” from her marriage. Iconic.
37. Her Divorce Made Headlines
Good ol’ “Ham” Nelson decided to make Bette’s vacation permanent. After the scandal leaked, Nelson divorced Davis for a slew of incredible reasons. First, he cited “cruel and inhumane” treatment, which you’d think referred to Davis constantly cheating on him. But no—Nelson had something else in mind...
38. She Didn't Suffer Fools
To this day, if you look up Bette Davis’s first divorce, you’ll find some primo content. In the newspapers, Nelson said that the specific reason he divorced Davis was because she dared to like her job more than him and, best of all, because she “read in bed” too much. However, another version of the divorce is even more outrageous.
39. She Had To Pay To Get Out
Some sources say that Nelson didn’t want to get divorced, even after all Bette’s affairs and novel-reading. Instead, Nelson knew that being Bette Davis’s husband meant enjoying a very comfortable lifestyle—so if Davis wanted to end their marriage, she’d have to say goodbye to a big fat paycheck too. Davis was determined to find another way
40. Her Boyfriend Left Her In A Lurch
When Davis heard about her hubby’s ultimatum, she went to her mega-loaded boyfriend Howard Hughes and told him to pony up. Unfortunately for Davis, Hughes refused to pay Nelson off, leaving Bette in a lurch. She grumpily gave Nelson the money he wanted, then dumped Hughes for being cheap. And then Davis played dirty.
41. She Shaded Her Ex
Davis always told it like it was. When she was asked about Howard Hughes’s abilities, she quipped, “Howard Huge, he was not". Call the burn unit! Man down.
42. A Co-Star Hated Her
With her first marriage over, Davis threw herself into her work and signed on for a movie called The Old Maid. Little did Davis know, this decision would kick-start another signature feud—this time with an actress named Miriam Hopkins. Hopkins started things off on the first day of filming, when she arrived on set wearing one of Davis’s dresses from her Oscar-winning performance in Jezebel. You see, Hopkins had also auditioned for the part—and clearly, she was still bitter about not getting it.
43. She Was A Maneater
According to some sources, the reason for Hopkins’s burning hatred for Davis wasn’t about Jezebel. Instead, Davis may have had a fling with Hopkins’s husband, the Slavic filmmaker Anatole Litvak.
44. She Was Part Of A Wild Feud
You know a set is messy when you’re tempted to make a movie about the making of a movie. While filming The Old Maid, Hopkins and Davis became hellbent on making each other miserable. They’d mess up each other’s takes, get in each other’s light, and made a competition out of arriving to the set light, just to keep the other from being able to film.
The sparring actresses even posed for a photograph where they wore boxing gloves, trying to “joke” about their very real, very extravagant feud.
45. She Was Irresistible
The stressed out director of The Old Maid later said that he didn’t direct the movie—he “refereed it". With a comment like that, you’d think he hated Bette Davis—but you’d be wrong. Davis was so charming that even though she made the director miserable, he still couldn’t resist her. The two had a brief affair during the film. Dear God, please give me 1/10th of Bette Davis’s charisma.
46. She Insulted An Icon
What can I say, Bette Davis loved feuds. Hot off her fight with Hopkins, she took a role alongside her old enemy Errol Flynn. When asked about her co-star’s talent, Davis side-stepped the question by complimenting Flynn’s beauty. It seemed like she was going to be nice—until she added this zinger, “Flynn openly said he knew nothing about acting, and I admired his honesty because he was absolutely right".
47. She Put Her Back Into It
Bette Davis did nothing halfway. Ask Errol Flynn, her co-star in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. A scene required Davis to hit him—which she did with way more force than needed. Flynn complained to which Davis just quipped “If you can’t take a little slap, that is just too bad!” Can’t take a hit? Just quit.
48. Her True Love Came Back
1940 wasn’t just the year that Bette Davis shaded Errol Flynn into oblivion. It was also jam-packed with romantic drama. Hollywood lore claims that Davis’s old flame William Wyler re-entered her life and demanded that she marry him the next week. He said that if she didn’t, he’d close the door on their relationship and find someone else.
49. She Made A Terrible Mistake
Thanks to Davis’s investment in a lifetime supply of emotional barriers, she turned down Wyler’s admittedly tense proposal. Sadly, she regretted that decision for the rest of her life. Wyler made good on his word. He found another woman and he married her, leaving Davis in the cold. When the actress looked back on this period in her life, she admitted that she played hard to get with Wyler—and that clearly, she’d gone too far.
50. She Insulted The President
Here's some classic Bette Davis shade. Before he was President of the United States, Ronald Regan was Bette Davis’s co-star in Dark Victory (1939). Davis appraised her future Head of State as “dull".
51. She Lost Her Husband
After turning down William Wyler, Davis went out and rebounded hard. She got married to a hunky innkeeper named Arthur Farnsworth. However, their romance didn’t last long. Just three years after they tied the knot, Davis tragically lost her second husband and went wild with grief. You see, Farnsworth’s passing wasn’t just heartbreaking—it was strangely suspicious too.
52. His Passing Was Mysterious
Farnsworth passed out in a Hollywood street and perished two days later. When the autopsy came back, it revealed the cause of his demise—and it was jaw-dropping. According to the report, Farnsworth had suffered a skull fracture two weeks before he passed. The authorities were suspicious enough to question Davis about this injury. To this day, her testimony raises more questions than answers.
53. It's Suspicious To This Day
Davis testified that she didn’t know what could possibly have caused the fatal injury, though she also said Farnsworth fell down the stairs while running to answer the phone. While Farnsworth’s strange end was classified as an accident, to this day, people wonder if Davis flew into one of her trademark rages and could have pushed him.
54. She Was Bossy
Credit to Bette Davis—you couldn’t keep her down. Even during these tough times, she hustled. She became the first woman to run the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (better known as the people who give out Oscars). However, in a classic Bette Davis move, she quit when the rest of the committee didn’t follow her orders.
55. She Made History
Davis moved on from the kerfuffle with the Academy by creating the now-legendary Hollywood Canteen. As WWII raged on, Davis felt like she had to fight—so she started the Canteen as a way to raise money for the war effort. Nowadays, this seems like the obvious thing to do, but back in 1940s Hollywood, most actors and studios refused to get political. Davis risked it all by making her opinions known—and the real reason she went to bat was heartbreaking.
56. She Carried A Torch
Remember Davis’s one true love, William Wyler? He was Jewish. During one of their recent films together, Davis saw first-hand how much WWII made Wyler suffer. She watched as he stressfully worked to get his family out of Europe and into safe territory. Was her work at the Hollywood Canteen a way to make amends with Wyler?
57. She Stood Up For Others
While running the Canteen, Davis made it clear that she would stand up for the oppressed—and that didn’t just mean victims of WWII. As Davis organized a benefit at a white establishment, she made sure to hire Black musicians and invite the Black actor Rex Ingram to be her date. In the segregated world of Old Hollywood, this was a big risk—but Davis knew she’d be on the right side of history.
58. She Hooked Up With A Huge Star
Amid all her social justice activities, you know that Bette Davis still found time to squeeze in some dramatic romances. Around this time, Humphrey Bogart allegedly tried to seduce Davis. His plan hit a snag when his mother burst in on Bogart and Davis and kicked her son out of the house. As she gave Bogie the boot, his mother screamed that he was, “a slave to [his] genitalia".
Even this, ahem, eventful night had nothing on Davis’s next romance.
59. She Married A Cruel Man
They say that the third time’s the charm—but not for Bette Davis. In 1945, she tied the knot with her third husband, the painter William Sherry. By all accounts, it doesn’t sound like a particularly happy time in Davis’s life. Sherry viciously beat Davis, causing her to go to the doctor multiple times. Once, her physician sadly asked her, “How could any bright woman like you marry that man?”
60. She Welcomed A Daughter
It’s safe to say that Sherry was Davis’s worst husband—but for some reason, he’s also the father of her only biological child. In 1947, when Davis was almost 40 years old, she welcomed her daughter Barbara. Keep little Barbara in the back of your mind because boy, oh boy, will she cause trouble in the years to come.
61. She's A Screen Legend
Don’t get intimidated or anything: Bette Davis is the first actor to be nominated for five consecutive Academy Awards. Most impressively, they were all in the category for Best Actress, which she dominated with nominations every year from 1938 to 1942. However, by the late 1940s, all that had changed. Bette’s career was going just about as well as her marriage.
62. She Made A Huge Mistake
Bette was an amazing actress, but our girl was not the best judge of character—and I mean that literally. She unwisely turned down more than one famous part, including the title role in Mildred Pierce. After Davis passed, the part went to her arch-enemy Joan Crawford. Davis bitterly watched as her rival won an Oscar for a role that Davis thought she was above. Awkward.
63. She Needed A Hit
By the late 1940s, Davis needed a hit—and fast. After giving birth to her daughter, her career began to slow down. She started a production company, only to release a critical flop. Her other flicks failed to money and worst of all, Davis had to watch as her rivals strode ahead of her. In a humiliating twist, Davis dropped out of a movie called Possessed only to be replaced by—guess who!—Joan Crawford. Rubbing salt in the wound, Crawford then received an Oscar nod for her performance.
Thankfully, Davis’s luck was about to change.
64. She Became A Comeback Kid
In 1950, Bette Davis was back with a vengeance. Her classic film All About Eve revived her career and re-cemented her as the greatest actress in Hollywood. It also allowed Davis to meet her next hubby: her co-star, Gary Merrill. They began to see each other during filming and by the time the movie wrapped, they were determined to be together—come what may.
65. She Fell For A Co-Star
On July 3, 1950, Davis officially divorced her awful third husband—then the ish hit the fan. Evidently, both spouses had a competition to see who could move on faster. Davis married her fourth husband less than a month (!) after her divorce paperwork went through. Meanwhile, her ex-hubby promptly married the nanny that had lived with him and Davis. Nothing suspicious about that...
66. She Wouldn't Compromise
Bette and her new hubby stayed married for ten eventful years and adopted two children together. However, just like all Davis’s other attempts at wedded bliss, this one didn’t work out. In an apocryphal quote, Davis explained why she and Gary didn’t make it by saying, “Gary was a macho man, but none of my husbands was ever man enough to become Mr. Bette Davis".
It’s a delicious quote—but the reality is that Davis was very unhappy in love. And soon, her romantic life would get even worse.
67. She Reconnected With An Ex
By 1959, Davis’s fourth marriage was on its last legs. Maybe in a last ditch attempt to rekindle her old romance with William Wyler, Davis paid a visit to the director on the set of his new film Ben-Hur. Sadly, Davis’s attempt at a reconciliation failed spectacularly. Wyler’s reaction to Davis was the worst possible option: Indifference. He greeted her politely but distantly, as though they’d never been together. His coldness broke Davis’s heart.
68. Her Feud Kicked Into Gear
Around this time, Davis received an offer that she couldn’t refuse: 90 glorious on-screen minutes to make digs at her rival Joan Crawford. 1952 saw an eager Davis play a loosely veiled caricature of Joan Crawford in The Star. She played Margaret Elliot, a washed-up Oscar-winner who suffers a series of indignities for her bad attitude. The screenplay was even written by Joan’s frenemy.
For now, Davis was winning the long-running feud, but soon Crawford would get her revenge. Enter: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
69. The Rivalry Made History
In the history of Hollywood feuds, nothing trumps Bette Davis’s rivalry with Joan Crawford—and the reason is simple: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? This campy masterpiece saw Davis and Crawford face off. Sure, while the cameras rolled, they (mostly) kept things under control. But the second they turned off, the leading ladies were at each other’s throats. Let’s dive into the petty—and eventually downright cruel—rivalry...
70. She Had Some Creepy Conditions
First off, Davis was weary about working with her old enemy, so she only agreed to be in the movie if the director could guarantee that she’d play Jane (the title role) and if he promised her he wasn’t dating Joan Crawford. Was Davis’s old jealousy over their past co-star Franchot Tone coming out? According to her, nothing could be further from the truth. She just didn’t want the director giving Crawford more close-ups. With that, these leading ladies were off to the races.
71. Her Co-Star Made Her Miserable
Crawford won the next round in this Hollywood hate match. During a scene where Davis had to drag Crawford across a room, Crawford hatched a brilliantly mean plan. She knew that Davis struggled with back pain, so she stuffed her pockets with rocks and made herself nearly impossible to move. Some sources even say that Crawford intentionally messed up multiple takes so that Davis was exhausted and in intense pain by the end of the day.
72. She Got Her Revenge
It didn't take long for Davis to strike back at Joan Crawford. Knowing that Crawford was the widow of the Pepsi Cola Company CEO and that Crawford sat on the company’s board of directors, Davis hatched a petty plan for revenge. Naturally, Davis installed a pop machine on the set of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?—it only stocked cans from Pepsi’s enemy, Coca-Cola.
73. She Wasn't Afraid
Davis wasn’t afraid to look deranged and even did her own makeup to play an unhinged has-been in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? No professional “make-up man” wanted his name attached to how grotesque Davis wanted to look. To quote the actress, “One told me he was afraid that if he did what I wanted, he might never work again". Soon, Davis turned her total commitment to her role into a way to insult Joan Crawford...
74. She Burned Her Rival
By the time the publicity tour for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? rolled around, Davis and Crawford could barely keep their hatred under wraps. They pretty much decided to pass on promoting the movie and just use the press to publicly insult each other. Davis got the first dig, infamously declaring that sure, “Mrs. Crawford is a movie star” but Davis was “an actress". Crawford wasn’t going to take that sitting down.
75. Their Feud Was VERY Public
In another interview, Crawford insulted Davis’s pride and joy: Her status as the greatest actress of the time. Crawford tartly shaded Davis’s acting abilities by saying, “Bette and I work differently. Bette screams and I knit. While she screamed, I knitted a scarf that stretched clear to Malibu". As you can imagine, Davis was ticked. She took the low road by claiming that Crawford “slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie". And our girls weren’t done yet...
76. Her Publicity Stunt Was Wacky
In a twisted act of self-awareness about her waning star (or maybe a publicity stunt), Bette Davis put out this employment ad in the papers just nine days after filming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: “Situation Wanted, Women. Mother of three—10, 11 & 15—divorcée. American. Thirty years’ experience as an actress in motion pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood".
77. Her Rival Hatched A Brilliant Plan
In 1963, Davis thought she had this feud in the bag. You see, she’d received an Oscar nomination for her performance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? while the Academy snubbed Crawford. However, Crawford didn’t just accept her defeat. Instead, she got to work and crafted a now-legendary plan. She got in touch with all the ladies that received nods for Best Actress and let them know that in case they didn’t want to attend the Awards, she’d be happy to pick up the Oscar on their behalf.
78. She Ate Some Humble Pie
Nowadays, the thought of letting someone else accept your Oscar is outrageous, but the 1950s were another world. Since all the other nominees lived far away from the venue, they happily took Crawford up on her “generous” offer. And that’s how, even though Joan Crawford didn’t even get a nomination, she still managed to waltz up and smugly accept the golden trophy—as Davis fumed in the front row.
79. The Real Story Is Incredible
What caused Hollywood’s most famous feud? Sure, Franchot Tone didn’t help matters—but according to multiple sources, he wasn’t the real reason for Davis and Crawford’s rivalry. Heads up: Joan Crawford was bi and she had a big crush on Bette Davis. She once told a friend, “Franchot isn't interested in Bette, but I wouldn't mind giving her a poke if I was in the right mood". Davis, who was tragically straight, felt creeped out by Crawford’s feelings, and so an iconic feud was born.
80. She Never Forgave Her
Davis made it clear that even the Grim Reaper himself couldn’t stop her hatred of Crawford. In 1977, after her old rival passed, Davis allegedly delivered one final insult to Crawford. When asked what she thought of Crawford’s passing, Davis declared, “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say the good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good". Note to self: Do not cross Bette Davis.
81. She Drew The Line
However, just a year later, Davis shocked everyone by—gasp!—saying something nice about Crawford. Apparently, Davis drew the line at supporting daughterly “ingratitude". When Crawford’s daughter Christine penned her shocking memoir Mommie Dearest, Davis stood up for her old rival. She said, “I was not Miss Crawford’s biggest fan, but, wisecracks to the contrary, I did and still do respect her talent. What she did not deserve was that detestable book written by her daughter". Stay classy, Bette.
Joan Crawford's daughter Christine Crawford
82. Her Daughter Betrayed Her
Davis’s defense of Crawford proved to be a little prophetic. In 1985, Davis’s own estranged daughter B.D. published her own tell-all book about Davis. This memoir was an absolute barn burner. It permanently ended Davis and B.D.’s relationship. Mother and daughter never spoke to each other after it came out. So what exactly did B.D.’s book say? Oh, strap in.
83. The Claims Were Outrageous
According to B.D., her mother was a raging alcoholic who regularly tormented her children. B.D. alleged that if she misbehaved, Davis would pretend to take too many pills, then lock herself in her bedroom as B.D. panicked outside. When Davis emerged the next morning, B.D. alleges that she smugly said, “I hope that taught you a good lesson".
If that sounds too outrageous to be true, you’re not alone. B.D.’s book is rarely seen as credible—and when we get into her later allegations, you’ll understand why. Spoiler: B.D. has some...personal issues.
84. She Felt Broken
In public, Davis put on a brave face. But in private, her daughter's betrayal cut her deep. According to Davis’s long-time personal assistant, Davis had endured a great deal of pain over the years, but “nothing compared to the betrayal of B.D.’s book. That broke her heart".
85. She Lashed Out
After her daughter’s book My Mother’s Keeper came out, Davis felt blind-sided. Just two years later, she published a rival memoir where she remembered her decades in Hollywood and not-so-subtly said that her daughter’s tell-all was a pack of lies. Then, because the Davis family can’t resist a highly-publicized fight, B.D. responded to her mother’s new book by publishing another book about how awful Davis was. Woof.
In other words, Davis’s elderly years were just as dramatic as her time as a Hollywood starlet. Sadly, they wouldn’t last much longer.
86. She Inspired A Hit Song
Bette Davis loved Kim Carnes’ hit song, “Bette Davis Eyes". She even thanked Carnes for cementing her role in song history as well as film history.
87. Her Health Began To Fail
1983 was not a healthy year for Bette Davis. Not only did she learn that she had breast cancer, the actress also suffered four strokes and became paralyzed on the left side of her face and left arm. As though all that wasn’t enough, the paralysis occurred within just two weeks of Davis's invasive mastectomy surgery. Poor Bette was in a tough spot.
88. She Was Addicted
Even during (and after) her intense physical therapy following her four strokes, Bette Davis just couldn't give up her most dangerous habit. The Hollywood star continued to smoke more than a pack a day until her passing. She preferred Vanguards and lit them up them constantly. Davis couldn’t even let them go for a 10-minute interview.
89. She Breathed Her Last
After suffering numerous health setbacks, Davis knew that her time on earth was coming to an end. When the time came, she faced the end with her trademark gusto. In 1989, Davis and her assistant were relaxing in Europe when Davis learned that her breast cancer was back with a vengeance. According to doctors, the legendary actress had mere days to live. Davis took the news in stride—but she had one final request.
90. She Had One Final Request
Davis liked to be in control. She never pitched herself as a victim—and even her end wasn’t going to change that. As she lay on her deathbed, Davis told her assistant not to let her son come see her. In Davis’s words, she didn’t want “this bedraggled body” to be her child’s final memory of his once-indomitable mother. As usual, Davis got what she wanted. She passed, with only her assistant at her side, on October 6, 1989.
It looked like Davis’s days of making trouble were finally over—but the star had one last trick up her sleeve.
91. Her Will Caused A Scandal
When Bette Davis’s will came out, it ruffled a lot of feathers. The star split her significant fortune between two people: her adopted son Michael and her long-time assistant. Unsurprisingly, she did not leave anything for her daughter B.D. Indeed, Davis used the will as a place to get in one last dig at her wayward child, writing that she “intentionally and with full knowledge” left B.D. out of the will. However, she also left another, far more surprising person out too...
92. She Shut Out Her Daughter
Back when she was married to Gary Merrill, Davis adopted two children: her son Michael and a daughter named Margot. As you might have noticed, Margot did not receive anything in Davis’s will—and the story behind this is equal parts suspicious and upsetting. You see, Margot Davis did not have a charmed life. At three years old, she began to display some odd traits. When Davis and her husband took little Margot to the doctor, they received life-changing news.
93. Her Child Had A Hard Life
It turned out that when Margot was born, she suffered a brain injury that permanently affected her development. No matter how old Margot became, she would never be a mature adult and she would never be able to live independently. Distressed, Davis placed Margot in an institution when she was still a toddler. During Margot’s younger years, Davis often visited her, but as time passed, Davis became tight-lipped about Margot. And then the mystery deepened.
94. It's Still A Mystery
When Davis’s will became public knowledge, people were quick to notice that Margot had been shunted to the side. While Davis did at least acknowledge that Margot existed, the only thing she said about her daughter was that she “intentionally” excluded her from the will. To this day, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what happened between them or who is providing for Margot now.
95. Her Daughter Made Dark Claims
While Margot has never commented on the will, Davis’s other daughter B.D. seems happy to bring up her thorny relationship with her mother. The born-again Christian hosts an...interesting...YouTube channel where she discusses her faith and, no lie, claims that her mother was a literal witch. In recent years, B.D. has claimed that Davis placed a “demonic” curse on her and that Davis cast spells on her enemies. Make of that what you will...
96. Her Legacy Speaks For Itself
Nowadays, Bette Davis is best remembered as a legendary actress who committed herself fully to her craft. Called “The Empress of Hollywood,” Davis was one of the first famous female character actors. She wasn’t afraid to play “ugly”—now a staple for a gorgeous leading lady who wants an Oscar—and she justifiably went down in cinema history as a true original.
When asked about her legacy, Davis focused on her celebrated career, saying she’d like to be remembered as a “good worker” who “did the best [she] could".
97. She Had A Healthy Ego
Bette Davis entombed herself in style. She is interred in a specialized crypt between her sibling Bobby and her mother Ruthie—but Davis's name is in the bigger typeface, of course. Her tomb also reads “She did it the hard way". Apparently, Davis had this epitaph in mind for almost 40 years, as early as when she was filming All Above Eve (1950), when the director suggested it. What better place to plan your gravestone than the watercooler?
98. She's An Icon
However, Davis had some mixed feelings about her life. To the end, she knew she was a great actress (she once called herself “the female Marlon Brando”), but she also said that her famously unlikable characters cast a pall on her life and even threatened to overtake her real self. In Davis’s words, no matter where she went, she “had to take all those" roles with her.
To me, that’s a sign that Davis made a truly unique impact on film. As she herself once said, “I do not regret the dust I kicked up". Cheers to you, Bette Davis.