It was 100th Birth anniversary of Bette Davis last week. New York Times published a fine appreciation of her career and work:
Bette Davis, God knows, could supply some personality. Versatile though she was, she was never an empty-vessel sort of actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. Part of the strange thrill of watching her perform is the tension you feel between the demands of the role and the demands of her outsize self, constantly threatening to breach the boundaries of the character.
In her bad movies, and there are many, you can always sense her impatience with the material she’s been given. She’ll start working her huge eyes a little more, bulging them out for emphasis or hooding them like a snake about to strike. Or she’ll pace restlessly, her clicking heels punctuating every clipped, spit-out line. Or she’ll do something tricky with her (ever-present) cigarette, holding it in an unusual way or stubbing it out abruptly or amusing herself by varying the rhythm of her exhalations. She’s like a kid with too much energy; when she’s bored, she fidgets and colors outside the lines.
It is true for many other Hollywood stars of that period too. Most of them brought their own personality, with their own tics, mannerisms, style and personal experiences, to the roles they played and this is what I think makes them joint-auteurs of the films they made.
That said, I must admit that I don't like her. (My feelings for her arch-rival Joan Crawford are also similar.) In fact my feelings were more extreme but I have been questioning and thinking about these things recently. First, the kind of roles she played - mostly of "screaming, hysterical harpies" as one of the characters says about her in All About Eve - and she played them as if they were extensions of her own personality, are so remote from my own personal temperament, which is cold, aloof, discreet and orderly (at least on the outside) that I generally found it difficult to appreciate the skill and craft that went into her portrayals without being judgmental. There was also, I think, a subconscious gender-bias in my judgment - if a woman's emotional outbursts makes you uncomfortable, label her "hysterical." What made Davis different is that she had no qualms about being perceived as unlikable or difficult. As she says in All About Eve, "Peace and quiet is for the libraries" - she will scream and raise hell and if you don't like her that's your problem.
It is also not just that she played a lot of "bad girl" roles. She is very different from other standard "bad girls" of film noir which makes men (me included) drool - like Rita Hayworth, Jane Greer, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and others (Barbara Stanwyck, my personal favourite "good girl" and "bad girl", doesn't belong there. She is in a different league but more on that later). They are bad but not "messy" and worse, they are not "real" at all. They are mostly creations of male subjectivity with its own mixture of sexual desire, paranoia and fear. A very good example is William Wyler's 1940 classic The Letter which can be technically called a film noir but its Bette Davis' femme fatale is so very different from the standard prototype and not just because she plays the lead role and is at the centre of the story but because she is "real". We don't see her through the eyes of men around her, we see her as she is. It is really a wonderful film with an uncharacteristically subtle performance from her. It is certainly one of her best alongwith All About Eve. That said, I still have to see a lot of her films.
An excellent essay on The Letter by self-styled siren here.