Bette Davis’s 20 greatest performances – ranked!

Bette Davis was on her final stretch in this Agatha Christie vehicle, with a gallery of A-listers phoning in a souped-up version of their existing screen personae. The scene is a 1930s paddle steamer chugging down the Nile, aboard which a wealthy heiress has been shot: Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot investigates and suspicion falls on a querulous American, Mrs Van Schuyler, played by Davis, who may have wanted to get her gnarled hands on the victim’s pearl necklace.

This is one of the least-remembered of Davis’s gothic “has-been” roles, something which became a late-career speciality for her – but it did win her an Oscar nomination. She plays Maggie Elliot, a washed-up movie actor who is now broke, failing to get any work and faced with the awful reality of having to get a civilian job in a department store. The story takes an intriguing meta path when she is finally offered a film about an ex-star who can’t come to terms with the end of her career.

Working with Alec Guinness and the distinguished British director Robert Hamer in this Daphne du Maurier adaptation, Davis gives us one of her ripest bedridden roles, but with some great staircase work when she wants to come down to make an entrance in the drawing room. Guinness plays a timid Englishman who finds he has an exact double – a mysterious French count who switches places with him and forces him to deal with his family, including the inevitable cantankerous countess (Davis), who is deeply suspicious at her son’s unfathomable new behaviour.

Here was a queenly role for Davis in her “melodrama” phase, giving plenty of scope for portraying hauteur, neurosis and an embattled, tragic sense of entitlement. She has no less a title than Queen Carlota of Mexico, the wife of the 19th-century Austrian Archduke Maximilian (Brian Aherne), who has been installed as Mexico’s monarch by Napoleon III (Claude Rains). But this brings Maximilian and Carlota into conflict with the Mexican populist Benito Juaréz, played by Paul Muni, whose American-backed army induces Napoleon to withdraw French forces, leaving the pathetic puppet king and queen exposed. Davis’s Carlota has a desperate, hysterical moment as she returns to Paris to persuade Napoleon to change his mind.

The exquisitely handsome and sonorous Charles Boyer is a great pairing for Davis in this true story from pre-revolutionary 1840s France, although maybe these two stars are too similar in their diva-like self-consciousness to be a really great screen romance. Davis hits her mousy, gentle, submissive persona (so different from her sardonic villainess style) to play a governess, Henriette. Her employer, the Duc de Praslin (Boyer), tormented by his unhappy marriage, falls in love with this sweet-natured young woman, whom his children adore. His confrontation with his wife causes violence and a political scandal, leaving Davis endowed with an aura of martyred innocence and romance.

This screwball romp, adapted from the Moss Hart-George Kaufman stage play, gave Davis a rare outing in the world of comedy. She is Maggie Cutler, a self-effacing spinster who is assistant to a preening critic called Sheridan Whiteside who, while on a national lecture tour, slips on the ice and breaks his hip outside the house of a prominent local family, and then persuades them to let him to stay with them while he recuperates. While they are dealing with this nightmarishly demanding house-guest, Maggie falls in love with Bert, a local newspaperman and aspiring dramatist; she agrees to marry him and promises she will show his latest play to Sheridan. The critic is outraged at having his assistant stolen away from him, but pretends to admire the play and cunningly arranges for an attractive young actor to be in it, who will steal Bert away from Maggie.

Adapted from W Somerset Maugham, this was the movie that made Davis a star, although the role was darker, more shrewish and unsympathetic than those for which she would become famous. Putting on a sharp London accent, Davis played the blowsy, sexy blond waitress Mildred who entrances a sensitive medical student and would-be artist, played by Leslie Howard. His obsession with this woman who has nothing but cruel contempt for him comes close to destroying his life. A stagey and shrill part for Davis, atypical in many ways, but it undoubtedly put her on the map.

Davis plays Elizabeth I in a movie about the Virgin Queen’s complex political flirtation with the Earl of Essex, played by Errol Flynn. (These actors were both 31 – which was in fact Essex’s age at this historical moment, though Queen Elizabeth was 63, and so Davis is labouring under heavy makeup.) Davis’s Queen is deeply attracted to the handsome Essex, who has just crushed the Spanish in her name at the battle of Cádiz. Their sexual chemistry is somehow intensified by her fear of his ambition, disloyalty and popularity, and his possible relationship with Lady Penelope Grey, played by Olivia de Havilland. As sometimes happened with Davis in a romantic drama, she got a little upstaged by the more preening male lead.

This was the follow-up to What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and it is another of the Miss Havisham-style roles that Davis knew how to play with such gusto. Here she is Miss Charlotte, an ageing and lonely southern belle who is haunted by the mysterious unsolved murder of her married lover 30 years before. Now the local authorities seek to have her property demolished to make way for a new highway, and Charlotte calls on a young cousin with family knowledge to help her fight the case. This is Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), and the legal action rakes up all sorts of ghosts from the past. A ripe piece of gothic acting from Davis, although really she needed another titan like Joan Crawford to play off.

There are more sensational staircase scenes in this grand melodrama on the theme of antisemitism, with Davis on her most toweringly unsympathetic form. She is the vain, spoilt and empty-headed Fanny, who – if she loves anyone at all – loves her similarly indulged brother, Trippy. When he is suspected of stealing from his Jewish employer, Mr Skeffington (Claude Rains), Fanny realises that she has to seduce this man and get him to marry her, to keep her beloved Trippy from landing in prison. And so the Skeffingtons’ marriage begins, in all its unhappiness and dishonesty, with Mr Skeffington all too aware of how the bigots feel about him, and how little his coquettish wife really cares about that or anything else. A role of delicious wickedness for Davis, although she is redeemed at the end.

This earned Davis one of her two Oscars, for a role which in some ways recalls her great breakthrough in Of Human Bondage, but with a far more sympathetic, approachable performance. She plays Joyce, an out-of-work actor who has become obsessed with the idea that she is a jinx for anyone who gets emotionally close to her. She meets Don (Franchot Tone), an architect who falls in love with the fascinating and tempestuous Joyce, despite being already engaged. He then risks his fortune to back Joyce in a new show, which leads to an emotional maelstrom of unhappiness, with Davis visibly relishing her position at the centre of it all.

Another Somerset Maugham adaptation, this noir melodrama, loosely based on a real scandal, gave Davis one of her greatest movie “entrances”. It opens at a colonial rubber plantation in Malaya at night, where indigenous workers are dozing or playing cards. They look up astonished at the sound of gunshots; a man staggers out of the main house as Davis walks calmly after him, pumping bullets into him as the camera moves in for a closeup on her magnificently uncaring beauty. Davis is Leslie Crosbie, wife of the plantation manager; at her trial, she will claim that this man was trying to rape her; but there is a letter proving that she set up a secret assignation. Although she maintains it was defence against attempted rape, Leslie must now try to get this letter back. A tantalisingly adult and commanding performance.

Davis plays twins in this highly entertaining suspense thriller, directed by the actor Paul Henreid. She plays both widow Margaret and her sister Edith, an embittered, dowdy singleton who once dated the wealthy man Margaret married after tricking him with a fake claim that she was pregnant. Now the resentful Edith has a plan to kill Margaret, and make it look like her own suicide so she can step into her sister’s rich and comfortable life. It’s a bit of a grand guignol performance and the “twins” conceit perhaps tempted Davis into ham, but entertaining nonetheless.

A classic southern belle role for Davis, which gave her the second of her two Oscars, and another great showcase for what Graham Greene called her “phosphorescent beauty”. In antebellum New Orleans, Davis’s character Julie is engaged to Pres Dillard, a banker played with ramrod rectitude by Henry Fonda. His skittish fiancee achieves Jezebel status by insisting on coming to the prestigious Olympus ball in a brazen red dress rather than the purest white expected of unmarried ladies. Furious and humiliated, Pres marries someone else and this fills Julie with a brokenhearted vengefulness that leads to tragedy. It’s a classic piece of American aristocrat acting from Davis.

This was the brash crime drama that relaunched Davis as a studio player after a very public falling-out with Warner Bros over the quality of the scripts she was being asked to do. This one, at any rate, met with her approval: the story of a campaigning district attorney (played by Humphrey Bogart) battling to take down a notorious racketeer who is running a string of nightclub hostesses, whose job is to bamboozle clients into drinking and gambling. One of these hostesses is Mary, played by Davis, terrified of being a “marked woman” if she refuses her boss anything. A forthright, if slightly one-note performance.

Davis gave a showstopping performance in William Wyler’s movie, based on a Lillian Hellman play, in which she was on the cusp of youth and maturity, visibly on the point of morphing from a manipulative, kittenish figure into the haughty and disdainful but secretly haunted older woman. Once again, she plays a southern belle (Davis was in fact from Lowell, Massachusetts); Regina Giddens is a married woman resentful at not being as wealthy as her brothers who are the legal heirs to their father’s fortune. So she negotiates a bigger share of the brothers’ planned new cotton mill in return for getting her ailing husband to finance it, which provokes an ugly confrontation with her weary spouse, who at last understands how much she despises him, and perhaps herself as well. Davis’s face is a tragic mask of fear and dismay.

Here is the sweepingly and unashamedly emotional melodrama that got Davis another Oscar nomination and paired her with the actor she called “Little Ronnie Reagan”. Outrageously glamorous and wide-eyed, as if astonished at her own gorgeousness, Davis plays Judith Traherne, a carefree socialite who loves parties, smoking and drinking. After strange dizzy spells and moments of forgetfulness, Judith is persuaded to see a specialist, Dr Steele, played by her longtime co-star George Brent, who diagnoses a brain tumour and realises that she does not have long to live and that death will be preceded by a short period of blindness. Overwhelmed by sympathy and romantic gallantry, Dr Steele falls in love with Judith and marries her, while resolving to keep the seriousness of her condition a secret from his bride until the very end.

In the early 60s, Davis found a way to stay relevant in a Hollywood where she might simply have become a has-been – and that was to satirise, in the fiercest and most brilliant way, not merely her own persona, but modern America’s infatuation with the cult of youth. She co-starred in this disturbing drama with her bitter rival Joan Crawford, and the film did wonders for each of their careers. Davis plays “Baby” Jane Hudson, a former child star on the vaudeville circuit who dwindled pathetically into alcoholism and delusion when she outgrew the act. She lives in a decaying mansion paid for by her older sister Blanche (Crawford), who became a Hollywood actor after Jane’s career flamed out but who herself fell on hard times after serious injury in a car crash. Now these two ruined belles live together in a hateful, paranoid intimacy. Of course Davis’s performance is colossally exaggerated and mad, and her wide-eyed ingénue of old has become an eye-rolling monster. But it’s a compelling, bizarre spectacle – and a classic Davis performance.

This is the most passionate and engaged of Davis’s romantic melodramas, adapted from the now forgotten bestseller by Olive Higgins Prouty. It is also perhaps Davis’s most technically accomplished film, involving a huge transformation scene. She is Charlotte, beginning the film as a mousy, repressed spinster (that classic Davis trope) who is dominated by an overbearing mother, played by Gladys Cooper. Finally, Charlotte gets away to spend time in a sanatorium run by the shrewd but kindly Claude Rains. Charlotte miraculously blooms into a confident, beautiful young woman who takes a cruise and there meets the sensitive, intelligent married Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid); they fall passionately, fatefully in love. Charlotte’s emotional redemption is the friendship and mentorship she finds with Jerry’s young daughter, which gives her life meaning. For all its cheesiness and extravagance, there is something genuinely moving in Now, Voyager and that is all down to Davis’s wonderful performance.

“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Joseph Mankiewicz’s film is Davis’s masterpiece, a crackling black comedy-drama which once again played on the trope of the has-been, but made it more disturbing. It shows how the has-been was once a still-am, and was dislodged from that position by the cuckoo in the nest. Mankiewicz adapted his movie from the short story The Wisdom Of Eve by Mary Orr, who based it on the real-life Viennese actor Elisabeth Bergner.

Davis plays Margo Channing, a brilliant Broadway star of a certain age who may not be playing romantic leads for much longer. Una notte, she meets an adoring fan called Eve (Anne Baxter) who spins her a yarn about being a war widow; kind-hearted Margo gives her a job as her assistant and Eve makes herself parasitically indispensable and, without Margo’s knowledge, arranges to become her understudy. Soon the star grasps how her protege is plotting to take over her career and life. Davis does a great deal of drinking and smoking and gown-wearing and hair-tossing, and the superbly sharp and witty script makes sense of her cynicism and wariness. Female friendship and female enmity had always been keynotes of Davis’s career, along with the fear of failure and fear of death, but it was never so drolly and insouciantly presented (with great supporting turns from George Sanders, Celeste Holm and Marilyn Monroe). Davis, with her gift for acid dialogue, had been waiting for this role to come along.

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