Pretty In The Past: Bette Davis

Photos don’t always capture what a film camera sees. And the film camera saw a quality in Davis that made her the equal - if not the better - of all those legendary beauties.
Publish date:
January 30, 2013
Hollywood, pretty in the past, Bette Davis, movie stars, baby jane

Please forgive me as I start today’s post by bringing up one of my favourite moments from the American version of The Office. In this particular episode, Michael Scott is out of the titular location - up to some mischief I’ve forgotten about - and in his absence all work has ceased as those left behind become viciously divided in an important debate. The subject? The “hotness” of two-time Oscar winner, Hilary Swank.

I enjoyed this moment as much as I did because it was a rare depiction of an event that occurs frequently in real life. Although the subjects vary, we’ve all had impassioned debates regarding the appeal of one famous figure or another. As frivolous as it may seem, it’s a subject we tend to take very personally.

Identifying the performers we “get” and those we don’t is just as important to us as the music we surround ourselves with. And it can disturb us when the rest of society elevates a figure we consider drab and ordinary or - even worse - when someone else “Mehs” in response to someone we think is magnificent.

Though such debates have no real relevance to our existence, they still matter deeply to us, because our individual perception of the world we live in is one of the few things we can truly claim as ours and having someone else blithely dismiss it through a contrary opinion calls that into question.

So, I both laughed at and completely understood the lengths to which the employees at the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin went to justify their feelings about Ms. Swank’s “hotness” (and was genuinely relieved when Michael returned and broke the tie in favour of the side I was cheering for).

And it’s why I’m drawing a line in the sand and taking a stand in regards to today’s subject, regardless of how much others might disagree with it.

Bette Davis was hot.

You heard me.

Now I realize many of you are responding to this with a, “How is that controversial, Allan? Of course she was!” but experience has also taught me that others are now seriously questioning my percipience. “Talented? Of course. An electric performer? One of the best! But hot? Not a chance, Allan. Better luck next time. Hopefully when you’re writing about Ava Gardner.”

Were she still with us, one of these people would have been my mother. I remember a moment sometime in my teens when I was watching TV with my parents and this very subject came up. Interestingly, my mom was the one who argued against Bette’s sexual attractiveness, while my dad and I argued in her defense. We acknowledged that while she was never a typical sultry sexpot, her visible appeal was undeniable nonetheless. My mom remained unconvinced.

Bringing this debate to the immediate present, here’s a tweet made by my friend Adrienne after I put the subject of this post up to a vote between Davis and the much more overtly “hot” Jane Russell:

I find Adrienne’s conclusion interesting because a quick Google image search produces many photos of a young Bette Davis that even the most critical of observers would consider worthy of being described as “pretty”, yet her evaluation is one I’ve encountered many times before.

There are, I think, several good reasons for this. The first is that Bette’s features really weren’t that of a standard glamour girl of the '30s and '40s. Place her photos next to contemporaries like Carol Lombard, Ingrid Bergman and Gene Tierney and she stands out like a sore thumb, but still photos don’t always capture what a film camera sees. And the film camera saw a quality in Davis that made her the equal - if not the better - of all those legendary beauties.

Don’t just take my word for it. Ask Kim Carnes if you don’t believe me.

More so than any other performer from that period, there’s an essential confidence in Bette’s presence that transcends what some may perceive as her lack of Hollywood-standard allure. Her power is internal, but it burns so powerfully it exudes out onto the surface where it becomes visibly apparent. She shines on camera, no matter what the role. It’s a quality greater than anything merely physical.

I know many people who are dismissive of the idea of “charisma”. They insist that celebrity is all a matter of luck and hype. Put any dope in front of a movie camera and place them on enough magazine covers and the world will become convinced they’re a star. It’s a cynical opinion, often expressed with some bitterness, but it’s one I find easily disproved by the historical record.

Open an old magazine and chances are you’ll find a bunch of faces you don’t recognize being hyped as the next big thing. As hard as the studio machine tried to make those folks a star, the public resisted and refused to make it happen. Hype and luck may get you a few good roles, but true stardom only comes to those the public truly wants to see on a continual basis.

And this leads to the second reason why people balk at acknowledging Bette’s physical appeal - she was one of the first superstar performers who truly grew up and grew old in the public eye. Unlike those who died young, like Lombard, or who retired before beset by middle age, like Tierney, Bette Davis transformed in front of our eyes from the gorgeous creature found in 1932’s Cabin in the Cotton:

To the terrifying gargoyle of 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?:

Bette’s willingness to embrace the grotesque was a sign of her courage as a performer, but it also affected how many perceive her today. For a lot of people the first image that flashes in their mind when they think of her is that of Baby Jane Hudson or another one of the odd characters Hollywood insisted on casting her in once she grew older. In the face of that, it’s easy to forget this:

“And you’re going to see one tomorrow night,” she tells Henry Fonda in this scene from 1938’s Jezebel, after he tells her that no unmarried woman has ever worn anything other than white at the Olympus Ball. It’s a moment so casually defiant that one can miss it if you aren’t looking for it, but in that second the core of Bette’s power shines through and is so palpable you can almost touch it.

So the debaters can debate. I know what I know and see what I see. Nothing is ever going to change my mind.

Bette Davis was hot, because she burned from the inside out. She radiated, even though she was talented enough that she didn’t have to. That is what being a legend is all about.