Icons / August 2017

Bette Davis: Stars in Her Eyes

Willful, cutting, smart, ballsy, and all amid a cloud of cigarette smoke, Bette Davis was iconic for all the right reasons.

Bette Davis posing whilst smoking on the beach, circa 1930s.

Bette Davis was an unlikely screen star. During her time in theatre - before cinema’s shift from silent to talkies brought a new demand for actors who also sounded good - she was dubbed the “little brown wren”, both for her unconventional looks and her retiring manner. But the person who grew out of that transformative shift was anything but meek. While she always fought shy of her status as a screen legend -  “unless I’m performing I don’t think of the professional part of my life, so there’s no way you can think of yourself as a legend,” she argued - shy in coming forward with an opinion she certainly was not. “Fasten your seat belts - it’s going to be a bumpy night”, indeed.

It was an attitude that would suit her screen persona: willful, cutting, smart, ballsy, and all amid a cloud of often maliciously-directed cigarette smoke. But it was real too, even when she remained relatively unestablished. The actress who in time would receive ten Oscar nominations and two wins (Davis claimed to have named the golden statuette - after her husband, since they shared the same shapely behind) described herself - in a kind of anti-hagiography of the kind Hollywood stars are not used to - as “insufferably rude and ill-mannered.” She was, she said, “uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile and ofttimes disagreeable.”

Standing her ground was hugely risky to a movie career - she would have been dropped by Universal were it not for a cinematographer noting to the studio heads that she had “lovely eyes”; such was the fragility of her position. Take her breakthrough movie, Of Human Bondage (1934), for example. This saw Davis take on a part that had been rejected by several actresses; ironically perhaps, given that it would be such better-written, more villainous parts that in time would win Davis such iconic standing. And yet, the same year, her future still uncertain, she was already bucking against Hollywood. Universal, the studio to which she was contracted, wanted to overhaul her image for the comedy Fashions of 1934, notably by remaking her in the look of Greta Garbo. Davis was having none of it.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.