best film: Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve has a wickedly cynical screenplay. Mankiewicz’s writing is stunning. It is so witty- he is throwing one-hundred miles per hour the entire time, cutting like a razor- very Billy Wilder-like or Aaron Sorkin-like. This is Mankiewicz in his prime (back-to-back wins for Best Screenplay and Best Director at the Oscars in 1949 and 1950 for A Letter to Three Wives and this). The performances from Anne Baxter to Thelma Ritter (Davis and Ritter are such a dynamic duo- spitting fire) to George Sanders and Celeste Holm are electric- but it is Bette Davis who presides over it all. Davis’ trio of films with William Wyler are close on the heels of All About Eve in this category- but it should be noted that this category is not a strength of hers.
best performance: All About Eve. Davis’ Margo has it all as a character and Davis plays her to perfection. Margo is prickly, gifted, clever and high maintenance (this is the vision of Bette Davis herself as a Hollywood diva whether true or not in real life)- but Margo is often a wounded character (pretty rare in Davis’ filmography) throughout the film’s running time. Davis ousts not only Anne Baxter (co-lead in All About Eve) but Gloria Swanson’s renowned performance in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. Davis clearly was born to play a star like Margo (or royalty or social elite as she did so many times) as she does here. But again, she is also a sympathetic star and becomes the viewer’s point of view over the course of the film.
stylistic innovations/traits: Bette Davis had an edge from the very beginning. Often one can look to the truly big movie stars and pick those that were less than perfect looking (though Davis was beautiful in her youth) to find the most talented actors. The three peaks of her resume are a) All About Eve b) her work with William Wyler and c) her later work with Robert Aldrich (that is a decently distant third). She was in eleven (11) archiveable films from 1938-1943— astounding. She was also nominated a remarkable eleven (11) times for an Oscar. Her strengths are her screen presence, flair (was she ever in a film where someone else stole scenes from her or out acted her?) and that incredibly deep body of work (nineteen- 19 archiveable films). Her weakness is that best film category and the sheer lack of truly great films (though when the top 500 is expanded to 1000 she should make quite a few appearances).
directors worked with: William Wyler (3) and she is way down this list if not off the list completely without these three films, Robert Aldrich (2), Edmund Goulding (2) and once with Michael Curtiz, Mervyn LeRoy, Joseph Mankiewicz. The partnership with Wyler should not be underappreciated. Those are Davis’ second, third and fourth best films and performances.
top five performances:
- All About Eve
- Little Foxes
- The Letter
- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
|1932- Three on a Match|
|1934- Of Human Bondage|
|1936- The Petrified Forest|
|1939- Dark Victory|
|1939- The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex|
|1940- All This and Heaven Too|
|1940- The Letter|
|1941- The Great Lie|
|1941- The Little Foxes|
|1942- Now, Voyager|
|1942- The Man Who Came to Dinner|
|1943- Watch on the Rhine|
|1950- All About Eve|
|1962- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?|
|1964- Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte|
|1965- The Nanny|
|1978- Death on the Nile|