Of Human Bondage (1934)
Davis' big breakout role was one she had to fight for, but she proved herself more than capable of playing Mildred, the opportunistic working class girl who seduces Leslie Howard's aimless protagonist and then spirals into self-destruction. Davis begins the drama as a pert, attractive waitress but deteriorates horrifically as her character turns to alcohol, drugs, and prostitution; never content to play only glamorous parts, she would continue to embrace such challenging roles throughout her career. She picked up her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress for this picture but would not win until the next year for her leading role in Dangerous (1935).
|Of Human Bondage (1934)|
Released the year before Gone with the Wind (1939), this Civil War tale of a Southern belle bad girl stars Davis as stubborn, headstrong Julie, who wrecks her relationship with her beau (Henry Fonda) by violating the social norms of their community. Julie then wants to mend the damage but finds a Northern bride has filled the spot she carelessly abandoned; an outbreak of yellow fever throws her set into a panic but gives Julie a long-desired opportunity to show how much she has changed. While the plantation setting of the story raises problems for modern audiences, I do like the redemptive arc for Davis' protagonist and her great performance, which earned her second and final win for the Best Actress Oscar.
Now, Voyager (1942)
Davis shines in this beloved melodramatic romance, in which nervous, oppressed Charlotte Vale gets a makeover and a second chance at happiness after she's whisked away from her domineering mother for treatment at a sanitarium. Paul Henreid plays the unhappily married love of her life, who can't bring himself to leave his difficult wife but takes comfort in the bond that develops between Charlotte and his troubled young daughter. Davis achieves one of her many remarkable transformations during the early part of the picture, culminating in a polished, elegant Charlotte whom her relatives hardly recognize. She picked up her seventh nomination for Best Actress for this role, while Max Steiner won for the picture's excellent score.
Always willing to be ugly for the sake of a juicy role, Davis is relentlessly awful in both appearance and manner as the titular Baby Jane in this hagsploitation classic. While some dismiss it as camp, the tragedy and horror of the picture are very real in the roles played by Davis and Joan Crawford, who famously clashed during production. Baby Jane, undeniably deranged and even violent, at first comes across as simply villainous but slowly reveals the grief, pain, and confusion that have driven her to such a state. Davis picked up the final Best Actress nomination of her career for this performance, which I appreciate more the older I get.
|The Whales of August (1987)|
The Whales of August (1987)
I find this quiet drama deeply moving every time I revisit it, and Davis gives a brilliant performance in this, her penultimate role and the last picture she actually completed; she walked off production of Wicked Stepmother (1989), which would be her final screen credit. Davis and silent star Lillian Gish play elderly, widowed sisters spending the summer in a New England cottage, and the rest of the characters are also played by iconic stars in their own twilight years. Gish actually plays the younger of the sisters even though she was 93 at the time, but Davis had survived breast cancer, a mastectomy, a massive stroke, and a broken hip, which made her utterly credible as the frailer elder sister. Davis made dozens of movies that are more celebrated, but this one is special for showing how her talent and determination to keep working stayed with her in spite of everything else that happened in her long career.
This is by no means a list of Bette Davis' five best films; it's a list of personal favorites that reflect my own tastes. Other Davis fans might offer a completely different list of favorites, and there are plenty of outstanding options to choose. For more Bette Davis hits, see The Petrified Forest (1936), Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), and All About Eve (1950).
You'll find more full reviews of Bette Davis' films in my book, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, available in the Amazon Kindle Store.