8 Classics Starring Bette Davis

Notorious Perfectionist, Iconic Star

One of the greatest screen actresses of all time, Bette Davis used her iron will to forge a remarkable career that boasted two Academy Awards for Best Actress and 10 nominations. A notorious perfectionist who often clashed with her directors and co-stars, Davis was nonetheless decidedly professional and delivered her best regardless of the project. She suffered numerous setbacks in her life and career and was often parodied for her distinctive diction and over-the-top affectations. Nevertheless, Davis remained one of classic Hollywood’s greatest and most iconic stars.

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Of Human Bondage - 1934

Of Human Bondage

Davis earned her first Academy Award nomination for her turn as the slatternly Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (1934). Adapted from Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel of the same name, the film starred Leslie Howard as an artist and medical student who finds himself in a destructive relationship with Davis’ savage Mildred. An unsympathetic role that numerous actresses turned down, Mildred gave Davis an opportunity to really cut loose as she delivered a riveting performance many thought would win her the Oscar. But an insufficient studio campaign tilted favor towards Claudette Colbert instead and left the widely praised Davis empty-handed. She did win the following year for Dangerous (1935), though most observers consider the win to be more of a consolation prize.

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Jezebel - 1938

Warner Bros. / Wikimedia Commons

The first of her three great collaborations with director William Wyler, Jezebel delivered Davis her second and final Academy Award for Best Actress. Davis played Julie Marsden, a spoiled, strong-willed Southern belle who makes a spectacle of herself over her love of a gentleman banker (Henry Fonda), but ultimately finds redemption and humility in the face of an outbreak of yellow fever. Though there were many comparisons to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) – a role Davis lost out on – Jezebel was still a crowning achievement in her career.

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The Private Lives of Elizabeth - 1939

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
Warner Bros.

A beautifully crafted period piece from director Michael Curtiz, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex became remembered for the behind-the-scenes squabbling between Davis and her co-star Errol Flynn. The serious, hard-driving actress clashed repeatedly with the wanton, carefree Flynn, but that did little to harm their performances. Davis played a middle-aged Queen Elizabeth I, who falls in love with Flynn’s Earl of Essex enough to want to give up her crown. But when she learns of his warlike ambitions, she brands him a rebel and signs his execution order, though ultimately she wants him to beg for his release. Aside from her quarrels with Flynn, the picture was notable for being Davis’ first venture into Technicolor.

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The Man Who Came to Dinner - 1941

The Man Who Came to Dinner
Warner Bros.

While Davis primarily shined as a dramatic actress, she was also capable of delivering strong comic performances and her turn in the screwball comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner ranks as her best. Based on the Broadway hit by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the film featured the top-billed Davis as a spinsterish secretary whose relationship with a local newspaper man (Richard Travis) is temporarily disrupted by an acerbic radio personality (Monty Woolley) forced to stay with an Ohio family after suffering an accident. While the film ultimately belonged to Woolley’s pompous character, Davis more than holds her own with one snappy line after another.

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The Little Foxes - 1941

The Foxes
RKO Radio/Wikimedia Commons

Her third and final collaboration with Wyler, The Little Foxes was an extraordinary adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play of the same name. Stepping into the role originated by Tallulah Bankhead, Davis played Regina Hubbard Giddens, a Southern aristocrat forced to contend with her estranged, sickly husband Horace (Herbert Marshall) in order to secure $75,000 for her greedy brothers (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid) to finish construction on a cotton mill. But when refused the money, Regina tries blackmailing her brothers to disastrous effect – namely the loss of her daughter’s love and respect. Davis earned her sixth Oscar nomination but lost out to ​Joan Fontaine in ​Suspicion (1941).

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Now, Voyager - 1942

MGM Home Entertainment

In Irving Rapper’s tear-jerking melodrama, Now, Voyager, Davis gave a commanding performance that ranks as one of the best of her career. Here she played Charlotte Vale, an unmarried woman under the repressive thumb of her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). Urged by her psychiatrist (Claude Rains) to make radical changes in her life, Charlotte starts to slowly break free after falling in love with a married man while on a long ocean voyage (Paul Henreid), only to find her efforts ending in heartache. In hindsight, Davis’ superior performance should have won her a third Academy Award, but Greer Garson’s more patriotic turn took home the Oscar for Best Actress instead.

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All About Eve - 1950

All About Eve
20th Century Fox

With her most famous onscreen line, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night," Davis earned yet another Oscar nomination for Best Actress as Margo Channing, the most iconic role of her career. Davis was at the top of her game as the tempestuous, gin-swilling Broadway legend who takes a promising fan, Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), under her wing, only to see her scheming protégé stab everyone in the back on her own rise to stardom. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve marked Davis’ return to prominence after a string of setbacks.

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Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? - 1962

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane
Warner Bros.


, Davis came roaring back to prominence with a tour-de-force performance as one of the top screen villains of all time. Davis played the titular Baby Jane Hudson, a former child star turned flop actress in her adult years who cares for her invalid sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford), while both are in their autumn years. Seething with jealousy for Blanche’s successful career, Baby Jane plots her comeback in between tormenting her crippled sister. Both Davis and Crawford notoriously despised each other during filming, but in the end Davis emerged triumphant when she earned her final Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.