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Whatever happened to Bette Davis?

While other femmes fatales mellowed into grande dames, she fell from vogue. Still, those eyes intrigue . . .

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 30, 2008

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Bette Davis turns 100 on Saturday.

You're saying, of course, that she would have turned 100 Saturday, since conclusive evidence exists that the legendary actress passed away 19 years ago at the age of 81. She's still here, though - looking around and muttering "What a dump." The unique personas hammered out by the stars of Hollywood's golden age don't just go away. Cary Grant still lives. Bogie is eternal. Kate and Audrey Hepburn instantly matter to anyone who comes upon them for the first time.

And Davis - she still spits fire and rakes her co-stars with those Gollum eyes, still breaks the rules and the stemware with the hauteur of a queen accepting her due. On Tuesday, Warner Home Video releases its third DVD box set devoted to the actress's films, a decent grab-bag in which nestles one forgotten, unholy jewel that goes to the heart of what Davis was about.

It's a relentless melodrama - an emotional gangster movie, really - called "In This Our Life," and even Davis didn't think much of it at the time. Made in 1942, between "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and "Now, Voyager" (the latter possibly her single best movie), "Life" casts the star as Stanley Timberlake, the sweet-voiced, black-hearted sister of Roy Timberlake (Olivia de Haviland). (What's with the men's names? If anyone knew, they've long since forgotten.)

Stanley steals her sister's husband (Dennis Morgan) and drives him to suicide. Stanley gets snockered and runs down a little girl with her car, pinning the blame on a saintly black man. Stanley cozies up to her perverted moneybags uncle (Charles Coburn) and, in an astonishing scene that must have singed 1942 eyeballs, hints she'll do anything to earn his favor.

Stanley is b-a-a-d, and no one could have played her better than the ruthless Ruth Elizabeth Davis, late of 22 Lewis Street in Newton, Massachusetts. "In This Our Life" was the second film directed by a young John Huston, and he later wrote, "There is something elemental about Bette - a demon within her which threatens to break out and eat everybody, beginning with their ears. The studio was afraid of her - afraid of her demon. They confused it with overacting. Over their objections, I let the demon go."

As is fitting with a centenary, celebrations are afoot. Lowell, where Davis was born in 1908 (she later lived in Winchester, Newton, and the Berkshires before moving to New York City to study acting), is hosting a walking tour, a panel discussion, a cocktail party, and a Bette Davis look-alike contest, all on Wednesday. Cigarette holders required, presumably.

Another DVD box is coming from 20th Century Fox, not the source of her best work (that would be Warner Brothers, where the actress made 52 films in 18 years). And Turner Classic Movies will go all-Bette all Saturday, beginning at 6 a.m. with 1932's "Cabin in the Cotton" (the film in which she committed to celluloid the deathless line "I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair") and ending 24 hours later with one of her worst movies, 1961's "Pocketful of Miracles."

For all the belated love, though, Davis remains the prickliest and most complex of classic-era stars. Katharine Hepburn, another of New England's eccentric movie products, spent her final decades in a glow of universal adoration, but Davis fought and swore and battled with directors to the very end. (Ask Larry Cohen, from whose 1989 "Wicked Stepmother" she rancorously bailed out.)

Ironically, those positions were reversed during the stars' heydays in the 1930s and 1940s. Until Spencer Tracy mellowed Hepburn's image, audiences and the film industry deemed her too arrogant for popular consumption. Davis, by contrast, may have struck terror into Jack Warner's heart with her demands for better roles and her contract-breaking flights to England (in 1936 the studio sued her and won), but she spoke the language of the ladies in the back row of the Bijou better than almost any other working actress of her time.

How? By acting out their own contradictions and throttled fantasies. To women whose options were generally limited to whatever men let them have, Davis was a combination martyr and avenging angel. Initially the prude in the rough-and-tumble Warners boys' club, she learned to give as good as she got. The nervy "Marked Woman" (1937), her first film after losing her court case, cast Davis as a "cafe hostess" (read: hooker) who turns against her gangster boss and walks into the sunset not with crusading D.A. Bogart but her sister ladies of the night.

She lived out daydreams of life's unfairness (the spoiled rich girl dying of a brain tumor in "Dark Victory"), of the consequences of headstrong behavior (her Oscar-winning spoiled belle in "Jezebel," wearing a red dress to an all-white ball and losing fiance Henry Fonda to the scandal), of being too spoiled and selfish (the vain cluck of a wife in "Mr. Skeffington").

Her films were about female power first denied, then breaking through in a sensory overload of goodness or scalding villainy. "Now, Voyager," one of the great wish-fulfillment melodramas in all of cinema, casts Davis as Charlotte Vale - "one of the Boston Vales" - who transforms with the help of a benevolent psychiatrist (Claude Rains) from mother-oppressed ugly duckling to clear-eyed woman of the world, accepting the stars when she can't have the moon.

On the flip side is the upper-class Leslie Crosbie in "The Letter" (1940), who coldly guns her lover down as soon as the opening credits are over, then assumes a wronged-woman pose the rest of the film carefully dismantles. What kinds of power does a woman want? What kinds can she hope for? How does the difference between the two warp her? Every Bette Davis film asks these questions, even 1950's "All About Eve," in which Broadway star Margot Channing has it all while understanding it can all be taken from her in an instant.

This is the arena of neurosis; Bette Davis was a neurotic actress. Yet overacting was only one weapon in her arsenal. Watch any of her movies, especially the Warners movies, and you'll be struck by how often Davis underplays to the point of doing nothing. She makes subtlety seem gripping because the tension - expressed as a sense of imminent emotional explosion - is always there.

After the tentativeness of her first few films, Davis found her style in a clipped, off-kilter vocal delivery and an edgy physical presence, and she grew increasingly skilled at playing women who project a shaky false front. The famous Bette Davis gaze - the downcast eyes rising halfway, falling, then rising to stare the other actor full in the face - is a trick used by the actress to give her characters away. Through it we see the manipulativeness of women who think manipulation is their only choice. As it sometimes is.

Even when a Davis character is on firmer ground, she's fascinating to watch because she's always second-guessing the men. There's a moment in "Marked Woman" when the "cafe hostess" is sassing her mobster pimp (Eduardo Ciannelli) and Davis flashes a mean, electric little smile - the bravura of a woman talking as tough as she can get away with. It's gone in a second but the message lingers: Don't you dare underestimate me.

After World War II, Davis left Warners and her career foundered. She made two classics, "Eve" and the outrageous "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962), and a long run of less-than-stellar outings. Her professional jealousies got the better of her, and her fourth marriage, to actor Gary Merrill, fizzled. Instead of an institution, like Hepburn, she became camp, fodder for gay parodies that fondly but crudely colored outside the lines she drew. Unlike her "Baby Jane" co-star and putative rival Joan Crawford, Davis got the joke. That still didn't make it easy to swallow.

Yet in her prime there was no star as demanding or as watchable - none who drew the line so far out in the sand and explored the consequences. "In This Our Life" ends, marvelously, with Davis pushing the gas pedal to the floor and soaring into the unknown, leaving the dump that is Warner Brothers, Hollywood, our fallen world, far behind.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Bette Davis quote from the film "Cabin in the Cotton" was inaccurate in a story in Sunday's Movies section. The line was, "I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair."

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