The Post – Bette Davis Inspiration

As someone who generally works alone, I often look for inspiration in others’ lives. I think that the truly heroic can be found in anyone’s life and I never tire of hearing another’s story. This even extends to the world of movies and the people who bring them to life.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I love are old movies. The “real” old ones. From the thirties and forties. The era of black and white film, the era that generated some real “legends.” Two I rank at the top are Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis. For today, I’ll write only about Bette, but I will note that both shared an independence and forthrightness that often got them in trouble, isolated, reviled or ridiculed. Yet, both were often on untrodden paths, trying things women didn’t do at that time, including standing up for what they wanted in their careers. They stuck it out and came back to create legendary careers and blaze a trail for those who came after them.

When you think of “leading lady” you think of “glamorous beauties” and Bette Davis, “Bette Davis eyes” aside, certainly wasn’t viewed that way. Even she noted that unlike her contemporaries, “she forged a career without the benefit of beauty.” She said she “became tough by necessity,” and even chose her own tombstone epitaph: “She did it the hard way.” And in reading over her Wikipedia entry, she sure did. Battles over movies, marriages, scripts, and co-stars, she was anything but “demure.” Yet, gifted or flawed, you can’t read her biography and not respect her.

She believed in her work, wouldn’t compromise on how she thought something should be done, and stood up for herself in an age where women were not only not taken seriously, but usually victimized. She fought for her rights, as in her lawsuit against Jack Warner to gain more control over her life and work choices, and even though she lost she set an example that others would later follow…and win.

She took on roles and challenges others wouldn’t touch. Her Wikipedia entry states:

“Her film choices were often unconventional; she sought roles as manipulators and killers in an era when actresses usually preferred to play sympathetic characters, and she excelled in them. She favored authenticity over glamour and was willing to change her own appearance if it suited the character. Claudette Colbert commented that Davis was the first actress to play roles older than herself, and therefore did not have to make the difficult transition to character parts as she aged.”

She wasn’t a saint. Outspoken, she had a caustic wit often at the expense of others. A particularly favorite target of hers was one of her co-stars, Joan Crawford:

‘The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” ”

“Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why Miss Crawford always plays ladies.”

“You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good…Joan Crawford is dead, good!”

But personal flaws aside, when it came to her art, her soul was true. Acting was her life-long passion. Her observations about the meaning of her work can be an inspiration to anyone, no matter their path in life:

“It has been my experience that one cannot, in any shape or form, depend on human relations for lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.”

“My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”

“To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lonely labor, to be given the chance to create, is the meat and potatoes of life. The money is the gravy. As everyone else, I love to dunk my crust in it. But alone, it is not a diet designed to keep body and soul together.”

One of her co-stars, Charles Laughton, gave her the impetus to always push herself to reach for things way beyond what she thought she could do. He told her:

“Never not dare to hang yourself. That’s the only way you grow in your profession. You must continually attempt things that you think are beyond you, or you get into a complete rut.”

That became her philosophy in life and it seems like a good one. At the very least, I expect life and work never gets dull, and may even be an adventure. I guess if you decide to take her approach , a line from one of her movies probably sums it up best:

“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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