original name Ruth Elizabeth Davis
born April 5, 1908, Lowell, Massachusetts, U.S.
died Oct. 6, 1989, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
versatile, volatile American actress, whose raw, unbridled intensity
kept her at the top of her profession for 50 years.
Davis developed a taste for acting while attending her mother’s alma
mater, Cushing Academy in Massachussetts. After gaining a smattering of
experience in summer stock, she was accepted by John Murray Anderson’s
acting school, where she quickly became a star pupil. In 1929 she made
her first Broadway appearances, in Broken Dishes and Solid South, which
led to a movie contract with Universal Pictures. Upon her arrival in
Hollywood, however, the studio executives determined that she had no
“sex appeal,” and after a series of thankless roles in such films as Bad
Sister (1931) and a handful of equally unrewarding loanouts to other
studios, Universal dropped her option. The dispirited young actress was
on the verge of looking for another line of work when actor Murray
Kinnell, with whom she had appeared in The Menace (1932), recommended
her to play the ingenue in Warner Bros.’ The Man Who Played God (1932).
The positive critical response to her work in this film prompted Warner
Bros. to sign Davis to a contract.
After a series of undemanding roles for Warners, she begged the
studio to lend her to RKO Radio Pictures to play the vicious,
relentlessly unsympathetic Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934), a film
version of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel. Davis’s bravura performance as
Mildred won her critical acclaim and industry respect, but studio
politics prevented her from receiving an Academy Award. She subsequently
won what many considered a “consolation” Oscar for her portrayal of an
alcoholic, self-destructive actress in Dangerous (1935).
Her achievements notwithstanding, Warners continued to cast Davis in
roles she considered beneath her talents and refused to pay her what she
felt she was worth. Suspended by the studio for turning down yet another
inconsequential role, she went to England to seek better roles. When
Warners blocked her from doing any work outside of her contract, she
sued the studio—and lost. In the long run, however, she won: upon
returning to Warners, she was lavishly indulged. Her salary demands were
met, and her choice of screen assignments improved dramatically. She
went on to win a second Oscar for Jezebel (1938), the first of three
rewarding collaborations with director William Wyler. Her other notable
vehicles from this period include Dark Victory (1939), Juarez (1939),
and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).