7 Dramatic Facts About Bette Davis

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bette Davis arrived in California just as talkies were becoming mainstream, and within a few years, she had blossomed into one of the first major stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. By 1942 she was earning more than any woman in the country. But her off-screen was as dramatic as her movies, with her infamous feud with Joan Crawford still tantalizing people today. In honor of her birthday on April 5, here are some facts about Bette Davis.

1. She took the name Bette from literature.

Like many Hollywood starlets, Bette Davis changed her name. She was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 5, 1908, and was nicknamed Betty from early childhood. When she was older, she changed her first name to Bette as an homage to Honoré de Balzac's novel La Cousine Bette.

2. Bette Davis was dubbed the “fourth Warner Brother.”

Davis worked for Universal Studios after moving to Hollywood in 1930, but she wouldn’t achieve fame until signing with Warner Bros. two years later. Davis starred in a number of hit pictures under Warner Bros., including Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), and Now, Voyager (1942), and was one of the studio’s biggest money-makers in the 1930s and early '40s. The press dubbed her “the fourth Warner brother,” but behind the scenes Davis struggled to get out of what she called the “contract slave system.” She lost that legal battle in the mid-1930s and continued to make successful films with the studio for years.

3. She contributed to the war effort.

Though she didn’t fight in World War II, Davis did everything she could to support the Allied troops as a civilian. She founded the Hollywood Canteen, where soldiers passing through Los Angeles could mingle with stars, and she toured with actresses Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, and Ethel Waters to perform for all-black army divisions. She also starred in several short films urging Americans to donate to the war effort. Her work throughout World War II contributed to the sale of millions of war bonds.

4. She was cast in All About Eve at the last minute.

All About Eve (1950), Davis's comeback vehicle, almost didn’t star Davis at all. Claudette Colbert, the leading lady in It Happened One Night (1934), was originally meant to play Margo Channing. When Colbert sustained a back injury on the set of Three Came Home (1950), she was forced to drop out of the project, and Davis was cast in her place at the last minute. Before the movie went into production, the script was revised so that the character of Margo Channing better reflected Davis’s headstrong personality.

5. She found creative ways to torment Joan Crawford.

The rivalry between Davis and Joan Crawford made for one of the most famous feuds in Hollywood history (and was the subject of the 2017 FX series, Feud). While filming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Davis had a Coke machine installed on set as a dig at her costar Crawford, who was the widow of Pepsi’s CEO. Crawford used more subtle tricks to get back at Davis: Before shooting a scene where Davis had to drag her across the ground, Crawford reportedly put on a lead-lined belt to make it that much harder on Davis (who had a bad back).

6. She broke Oscar records.

When Davis received her 10th Academy Award nomination for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, she became the most Oscar-nominated actor of the time. If she had won the Oscar statuette for that performance, she would have made history again as the first actress ever to win three Academy Awards. Instead, her rival Crawford accepted the award on behalf of Anne Bancroft following one of the industry's ugliest Oscars campaigns.

7. She was a fan of “Bette Davis Eyes.”

The song “Bette Davis Eye,” originally written by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon in 1974, topped the music charts when it was re-recorded by Kim Carnes in 1981. Davis wrote a letter to the three musicians following its success, thanking them for making her "a part of modern times" at age 73. The track was one of the biggest hits of 1981 and won the Grammy for Song of the Year.