21 June 2024

Is it difficult for you to conceive of the once indisputable queen of Hollywood as a scream queen of terror cinema?

Read on, dear reader.

Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts on April 15, 1908, Davis started in theatre in 1928. She made her film debut in 1931's Bad Sister. It was a forgettable picture and Davis really didn't make a mark until Michael Curtiz directed her in Cabin In the Cotton (1932). Still, it was two more years until she became a star.

In Of Human Bondage, Davis delivered the first of many unlikable characterizations. As a sluttish, selfish and self-absorbed waitress, she gave her all. Audiences had never quite seen anything like it.

There would be the first of two Oscars with Dangerous (1935). Three years later, Davis would win her second, with Jezebel. A consolation prize for losing out on Scarlett O'Hara, her role as Julie Marston was written in a similar vein and beat David O. Selznick's blockbuster classic to the screen by a year.

By 1939, Davis was at the top of her game. She was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award every year from 1938-1942 (there would be ten nominations in all). Among her work in the late '30s and early '40s are some of the greatest motion pictures ever, including Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes and Now Voyager.

After her star waned in the post-war years, Davis made one of the most spectacular comebacks in film history with All About Eve. It garnered fourteen Oscar nominations (the most up until that time) and won six, including Best Picture. But the 1950s weren't as kind to Davis as the previous decade and she worked often in television.

Her fortune changed once again when she came across a script called What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Relishing the chance to star in a motion picture opposite Joan Crawford, her rival at Warner Bros. Studio, Davis brought the script to Crawford's attention. The story of a demented former child star who torments her crippled sister while living in their decaying mansion, was a gamble.

It was famously said at the time that no one would pay to see these "two old broads." However, the gamble paid off and the film was a huge hit, spawning a cottage industry of fear films starring aging actresses.

Davis would spend the next two decades in a variety of horror films and thrillers. One of the best was 1964's Dead Ringer, in which she played twins, one of which murders the other and assumes her identity. The twist ending was a shocker and typical of the sub-genre.

Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was supposed to have re-teamed Davis and Crawford but it was not to be. Olivia De Havilland replaced Crawford shortly after filming began and the film remains a classic of Southern gothic.

Davis went to England in 1965 and filmed The Nanny for Hammer Films. She put away the usual mannerisms and underplayed, giving a modulated performance that is quite touching. Her role as an eye-patched, domineering mother in 1968's The Anniversary (also Hammer) would not be as nuanced.

In the '70s, Davis split her time between TV and big screen endeavors. She starred in Scream, Pretty Peggy (yet another PSYCHO wannabe) and had a supporting role in Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings (1976).

1978's memorable mini-series, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, saw her engaging in black magic and pagan worship in a small, rural New England community.

After suffering a stroke and other ailments in the early '80s, Davis soldiered on...continuing to work and appear on talk shows with her saucy comments. She died in France in 1989 of cancer.

Burnt Offerings 1976
The Dark Secret of Harvest Home 1978
Dead Ringer 1964
Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte 1964
The Nanny 1965
Scream, Pretty Peggy 1973
Watcher in the Woods 1980
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962
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