In the Blog
Review - TIFF’s The Hard Way: The Films of Bette Davis
Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test? Named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test examines gender bias in film by asking one basic question: does this film feature at least two [named] women talking to each other about something other than a man? It sounds simple enough, and you would think that most movies would pass this test with flying colours, but, in fact, the opposite is true. The truth is that the majority of contemporary films fail the Bechdel test.
It’s easy to assume that if movies made today, in this comparatively progressive, enlightened age, fare so badly when it comes to how female characters relate to one another, then surely work from several decades ago would fail even more miserably. Surely scripts written in the days long before The Feminine Mystique would only serve to reinforce the idea that women exist only for men. Surely back in the bad old days female characters would spend the majority of their screen time discussing their menfolk. Surely there wouldn’t be much that was feminist about these films.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered how many of Bette Davis’ films pass the Bechdel test.
Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in 1950’s All About Eve TIFF Film Reference Library
Davis, who was famous for her willingness and ability to play mean, unsympathetic and even downright unlikeable characters, worked hard to carve her own path in Hollywood. When she felt that her contract with Warner Bros. was damaging to her career due to the mediocrity of the roles being offered to her, she fled to Britain and broke the contract. In explaining her actions to the British press, she said, “I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.” Although Davis’ counsel built an excellent case against Warner Bros.’ treatment of their actresses - highlighting the fact that an actress would be suspended without pay for refusing a part, that that period of suspension would be added to the length of their contract, that so long as a role was “within her abilities” she had to play it, regardless of her personal beliefs, that she could even be required to support a political party if Warner Bros. required her to - Davis still lost the case. She returned to Hollywood deeply in debt and without income, forced to continue working for Warner Bros.
In spite of her failure to free herself from her constrictive contract, Bette Davis kept up the fight to get meatier, more interesting roles. It was here that her willingness to play characters that other actresses wouldn’t even consider became an enormous asset. While many women worried that playing the part of a sex worker, an unfaithful lover or a spoiled, pettish, unrepentant woman would stain their image and limit future rolls, Davis embraced these parts with gusto. Encouraged by the advice of her friend, actor Charles Laughton, who said, “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,” Davis continued to accept parts that other actresses shied away from. When she found the found the path that Hollywood offered to women to be to dull and limiting, she fought tooth and nail to create her own path. She endured personal and professional setbacks in order to stay true to the type of actress that she wanted to be.
Davis’ grit and determination, along with her success on the silver screen, helped her forge a career that contained several important firsts: the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the first person to ever accrue ten Academy Award nominations for acting (a feat which has since only been equalled or surpassed by four other people). Her dedication to playing characters who maintained their own agency, spoke their own minds and had their own agendas helped create a series of films the central characters of which were women who had concerns far greater and more interesting than the men in their lives. Davis brought to life women who talked about so many things other than men - they talked about their careers, their aspirations, their desire to be the master of their own lives. They debated philosophy and the possibility of an afterlife in the face of almost certain death. They discussed the ways that society prioritizes younger, prettier women over women who have entered middle age. They talked about life, a life that was so much richer than just who you were going to marry and how many babies you were going to have.
Bette Davis’ epitaph, spelled out in neat cursive letters beneath her name, date of birth and date of death, perfectly sums up her life:
“She did it the hard way.”
Davis found value in being difficult, if only because difficulty was her main mode of rebellion against a system that did its absolute best to grind women down and then spit them out. Through her own hardheadedness she helped pave the way for other actresses who wanted roles that were deeper and more interesting than those of supporting wives and daughters. And while it’s tempting to think that we’ve come so far since Davis’ heyday in the 1930s and 40s, reviewing Davis’ work gives us a clear indication that sometimes you need to look back in order to go forward.
The Hard Way: The Films of Bette Davis, which runs from November 15th until December 8th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre, is a revelation plain and simple. The series is perfectly curated, and includes a new digital restoration of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane<. The full schedule can be found here. For those interested, the films that pass the Bechdel Test are All About Eve, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, Now, Voyager, The Great Lie, Dark Victory, The Little Foxes, and Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.