You can’t think of the Golden Age of Hollywood without thinking of Bette Davis. Known for playing imperfect, complex characters, the actress was an undeniable star who prided herself on taking risks and fully committing to her roles. Her work ethic paid off, and we still remember her today.
Davis was the first person to receive ten Oscar nominations, and her 60-year career saw success, glamour, and a few media-fueled feuds and scandals. But what people don’t know is that behind closed doors, the real Davis was strong, bold, truly pioneering — and her tough persona was shaped by hidden pain.
1. From the start, the industry worked against Bette Davis. When she arrived for her first screen test in Hollywood at age 22, a producer was supposed to meet her at the train station, but he gave up and left because he didn’t see anyone who looked like an actress.
2. Adding insult to injury, Davis failed that first screen test. Instead of giving her acting roles, the studio kept her on staff to use as a human prop for male actors to kiss during their own screen tests.
3. As Davis continued to test for acting roles, she began dressing elegantly to improve her hireability. But she still couldn’t win; director William Wyler laughed loudly in front of the crew that she was “showing [her] chest to get jobs.”
Capitol Film Exchange
4. Although Davis powered through and worked hard, her first few movies didn’t see much success. Universal fired her after just one year, and she was ready to pack and move back to New York before Warner Brothers called with a movie offer.
5. Davis’s first widely renowned role was that of a prostitute in Of Human Bondage. She made waves by being unafraid to dive into a role of destitution and raw humanity — the opposite of the glamour her Hollywood peers craved at the time.
RKO Radio Pictures
6. Once Davis began landing more roles, she began to be nominated for Oscars, or Academy Awards. She actually invented the nickname of “Oscar,” joking that the statue’s rear end reminded her of her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson.
7. During that first marriage to Nelson, Davis struggled to maintain her equality. Her $1000-per-week income was ten times that of her husband’s, which reportedly threatened his masculinity so much that he wouldn’t let her buy a house until he’d saved up enough for his own.
Flickr / RockyandNelson
8. Despite her public rigidity, Davis was sympathetic toward the World War II bond effort. She spearheaded a fundraiser convincing fans to buy $2 million in war bonds in just two days. She raised an additional $250,000 by selling a promotional photo of herself — no small sum, especially then!
Flickr / U.S. National Archives
9. Davis kept up her community service by performing in a USO troupe for WWII soldiers. She didn’t believe in segregation and broke tradition by joining an acting cadre run by fellow star and friend Hattie McDaniel to perform for all-black troops.
10. In everything she did, Davis committed 110%. She once had to slap co-star Errol Flynn and stunned him by hitting him full-force. When he went to her trailer to complain afterwards, she told him “If I have to pull punches, I can’t do this…Mind shutting the door?”
11. The “slap” incident between Davis and Errol Flynn ended up costing them both roles in Gone With The Wind. A casting deal was brought to director David O. Selznick, but neither wanted to work with the other, so Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable got the parts instead.
Simon & Schuster
12. Still, Davis was committed to authenticity. In Of Human Bondage, she insisted that she be allowed to look disheveled, as the character required. In What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, she wanted to be so grotesque that her makeup artists refused to be named in the credits.
13. Ever the dry humorist, Davis took aging in stride. After Baby Jane came out, she fought back against Hollywood’s obsession with youth by running a classified ad, saying she was looking for work, and described herself as “mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it.”
J. Walter Thompson
14. Davis’s acerbic humor was one of her methods of coping with an industry that wasn’t always kind. According to legend, she planned her headstone inscription 40 years before she died, after Joseph L. Mankiewicz suggested it say that “she did it the hard way”.
Flickr / Alan Light
15. In the 1950s, Davis’s career began to struggle, and she experienced tragedy behind closed doors. She adopted a daughter, Margot, but the girl was diagnosed with severe brain damage induced during birth and had to be placed in an institution after just three years.
16. As Davis began to be “aged out” of the industry, her later career became overshadowed by a feud with fellow star Joan Crawford. However, this feud was largely exaggerated and was simply a sad byproduct of both actresses vying for too-scarce roles for women.
Flickr / Slightlyterrific
17. One memorable moment in Davis’s relationship with Crawford occurred while they both starred in a movie together, Davis had a Coca-Cola machine installed on set. This was a joking reference to Crawford’s position on the Pepsi board of directors — but the media saw it as a jab.
18. As both women approached retirement, Davis surprised the public by speaking up in support of Crawford, whose daughter wrote a scathing memoir about her. “I was not Miss Crawford’s biggest fan,” she said, “but…I did and still do respect her talent.”
19. In 1983, Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer, and subsequently had four strokes, but even serious illness couldn’t keep her from doing what she wanted. She had a mastectomy, underwent physical therapy, and got right back to acting, while still smoking 100 cigarettes a day.
Flickr / alan-light
20. In spite of all her struggles, Bette Davis prevailed. When her breast cancer returned and she died in 1989, she left behind a phenomenal legacy of achievements, and her foundation provides college scholarships for young actors to this day.
RKO Radio / Alexander Kahle
To this day, her legacy is entwined with Joan Crawford’s, an actress with her own stunning rise to the top . It turns out that Joan Crawford was just her stage name. Her birth name, Lucille Fay LeSueur, just wouldn’t look the same in lights!
2. From the moment she was born, Joan only knew hardships. Her father abandoned both her and her mother who then married a man named Henry J. Cassin. Joan believed him to be her biological father for most of her childhood.
3. As a young girl, Joan loved to dance and twirl around her front porch…until the day she severely cut her foot on a broken milk bottle. She underwent foot surgery three times, but her dancing was never the same again.
4. Henry, Joan’s stepfather, abused Joan until she was sent to St. Agnes Academy in Kansas City. She stayed at the school as often as she could to avoid going home, and cooked and cleaned to cover the tuition.
5. Her first foray into the entertainment business was when she was cast in the chorus line of the Broadway show Innocent Eyes. By the end of 1924, she had officially signed a contract with MGM for $75 a week.
6. After a smattering of roles, Joan secured her big break in the 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters. The movie was a huge success, and even F. Scott Fitzgerald commented that Joan was the “best example of a flapper” in Hollywood.
7. The arrival of “talkies” threw much of Hollywood for a loop, but not Joan. Years before, in an effort to shed her Southwestern accent, she had taken elocution classes, which made her a go-to leading lady once sound was introduced to film.
8. It’s no secret that 1931 was the year of Joan. She starred in three of her most successful films with Clark Gable, who was dubbed the “king of Hollywood” at the time. Their on-screen chemistry was so palpable, many believe they were having a secret affair.
9. Though she was one of Hollywood’s favorite actresses in the 1920s and ’30s, the ’40s were another thing altogether. After a string of critical and commercial flops, Joan’s career started to go downhill, and it wouldn’t level out again until 1945.
10. Desperate for a comeback, Joan starred in the 1945 film Mildred Pierce — and the gamble paid off. The film is considered one of her best, and her role as the titular character helped her win her one and only Oscar.
11. With her sultry eyes and incredible talent, it’s no wonder Joan married (and divorced) many of Hollywood’s most eligible leading men: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in 1929, Franchot Tone in 1935, and Phillip Terry in 1942.
12. Surprisingly, Joan’s most newsworthy marriage came in 1955, when she married Alfred Steele. What made Alfred famous wasn’t his good looks or acting ability, but his business. He was the president of the Pepsi corporation, a title Joan briefly took after his death.
13. Joan is iconic for many reasons, but her style really stood out. Her signature shoulder pads, as designed by fashion designer Adrian, became so popular that Joan ended up starting a trend. The pronounced-shoulder look is now synonymous with the 1940s.
14. Along with a legendary acting career, Joan is notorious for her parenting skills. When her adopted daughter, Christina, suffered a ruptured ovarian tumor on the set of The Secret Storm, Joan “lovingly” offered to take over the role.
15. Mommie Dearest was a memoir-turned-film written by Joan’s daughter Christina. In the book, Christina described the emotional and physical abuse Joan inflicted upon her children, a claim that some of Joan’s friends disputed…but others corroborated.
16. Remember the iconic line from the movie version of Mommie Dearest? Joan’s insistence that there be “no wire hangers!” in her closet may have been true. She was not only a germophobe, but she meticulously organized everything and wrapped furniture in plastic.
17. Instead of starting a charity for a rare disease or social issue, Joan had more…constructive plans for her money. She reportedly covered the costs of over 390 plastic surgeries for people in Hollywood, though she denied doing so years later.
18. Joan wasn’t always the feuding, egotistical actress Hollywood makes her out to be. Apparently, she used to respond to every single fan letter she received with a personal, typewritten response and her own signature.
19. Besides her acting and unconventional parenting skills, Joan was also known for her excessive drinking later in life. She became a recluse as she aged, and she died of a heart attack in her New York City apartment in 1977.