Why this might not seem so easy

Bette Davis could utter a withering line in a way that would leave anyone trembling in her wake, and over the course of her 58 years in the movie business, she had plenty of opportunity. Davis’s best characters had spines of steel. With an icy stare from those famous eyes, and a droll delivery of a poisonous barb, she’d liquify anyone who dared cross her.

Still, Davis was far more than just an iconic deliverer of devastating witticisms. From her ingénue years in Hollywood in the early 1930s she made a home for herself in melodramas, but she spanned other genres too, also appearing in comedy, horror and gangster films.

Get the latest from the BFI

Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.

Atypically for a star of her calibre, she sought out characters who were both unglamorous and unsympathetic, and she was always fighting for more substantial parts. In 1937, frustrated at the scripts she’d been getting, she sued Warner Brothers to be let out of her contract. Though she didn’t win the legal battle, the quality of her roles soon improved, and she was rewarded with a record-breaking run of five consecutive best actress Academy Award nominations between 1939 and 1943 (she’d earn 10 nominations in total, a feat which has only been bettered by Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep). 

Her career after that golden period had its inevitable peaks and troughs, but Davis kept striving for projects worthy of her talent, and continued to make interesting films well into the 1980s. Her life-long quest resulted in a rich cinematic legacy, as fascinating and formidable as the woman herself. 

The best place to start – All about Eve    

Davis is on prime, imperious form in All about Eve (1950), imbuing acclaimed stage actress Margo Channing with the imposing resilience of a woman who’s made it to middle age in an industry that reveres youth. She’s the glamorous sun around which all her friends and fans orbit, commanding attention both off-stage and on. When the youthful, seemingly sweet aspiring actress Eve (Anne Baxter) enters the picture, loudly idolising Margo while quietly trying to claim her life as her own, the older actress is among the first to see what’s going on. 

All about Eve (1950)

When she tries to tell her social circle, including her director boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill, whom Davis would marry shortly after filming wrapped), they put her worries down to paranoia. They know she’s self-conscious about being eight years Bill’s senior, and assume she just feels threatened by the arrival of a pretty younger woman on her turf. Soon they learn that she was right all along, but while Margo’s been waiting for them to catch up, she’s been re-evaluating what she wants from life.

All about Eve encapsulates all that was magnetic about Davis as a performer. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screenplay gifts her some of the most enduring lines in film history (“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”), and she delivers them with the regal acidity that was her calling card. Margo may see through Eve’s sugary-sweet charade, but she’s still shaken by what she represents – how easily a bright-eyed newcomer could upset all she’s worked so hard for. There’s a real vulnerability beneath Margo’s spiky outer shell that allows Davis to play hard and soft simultaneously, and the result is a turn that deepens her established intimidating persona into a rounded, textured performance that stands as one of the greatest of her career.

What to watch next

Davis excelled as complex characters like Margo Channing, but she was also riveting in irredeemably villainous roles. In The Little Foxes (1941), as the ruthless southern grand dame Regina Giddens, she commits a host of devilish acts without ever being troubled by a lick of conscience – yet because she’s Bette Davis, and she does it all with such intelligently committed panache, you almost find yourself rooting for her. 

The Little Foxes (1941)

It was playing another villain that garnered Davis her 10th and final Oscar nomination. Robert Aldrich’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) sees her in the title role, as a former child star whose lack of success as an adult has made her bitter, and murderously resentful of her acclaimed Hollywood actress older sister Blanche (Joan Crawford). The film follows the battle of wills between the two sisters – a battle that gained extra dramatic potency from the much-publicised off-screen rivalry between Davis and Crawford. 

“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962)

At the other end of the tonal spectrum sits Now, Voyager (1942), where Davis is Charlotte, the plain and meek daughter of an overbearingly cruel mother (Gladys Cooper), who blossoms when she takes her first solo holiday and falls in love with the handsome – but married – Jerry (Paul Henreid). Through a narrative that sends her heroine on a tremendous transformational journey, Davis projects a steadily growing inner strength that both moves and captivates. 

Amid all of her work in films of great emotional potency, it’s easy to forget that Bette Davis could also be really, really funny. It’s Love I’m After (1937) teams her with Leslie Howard for the third time, and the two are riotous as a renowned acting team whose fieriness and scheming threatens to derail both their personal and professional partnerships.

Where not to start

While Davis made more than her fair share of classics, especially during the first half of her career, there are still a number of films in which she was miscast or underused.

3 on a Match (1932) is an excellent pre-Code drama, but only a year after her Hollywood debut – and saddled with the least interesting of the three leading roles – Davis is overshadowed by co-stars Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak.

In Phone Call from a Stranger (1952) – the last and the worst of the movies Davis made with then-husband Gary Merrill – she gives an atypically saccharine and cloying performance as a recently bereaved paraplegic woman. And Davis’s appearance as a domineering countess in The Scapegoat (1959) is little more than a self-parodic extended cameo. 

With so many iconic roles to explore first, these films are best left to those further into their Davis journey.

A Bette Davis season runs at BFI Southbank in August.

Now, Voyager is back in cinemas nationwide from 6 August.