After Halloween, Valentine’s Day is my favorite major holiday. A lot of people hate Valentine’s Day because they see it as a cheap commercialization of the romantic experience. I myself see it as a celebration of eating chocolate, watching romantic movies, and the color pink: three of my great passions in life. I don’t feel particularly inclined to blog about my love of pretty colors, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge the first Valentine’s Day since I started blogging with a celebration of a woman who could portray romance on the big screen like no other screen actor before her or since: Miss Bette Davis.
Bette Davis was an incredibly romantic person, onscreen and off. In her autobiographies, Bette wrote about her great love affairs with the same fondness that she spoke of her finest roles in film. Hedda Hopper once famously said that she gave her best performances when she was in love, and that’s evident in several of the films here: she was in love with two co-stars and at least one director featured on this list. The films are All About Eve, Dark Victory, and Jezebel, and the respective romances attached were with final husband Gary Merrill, beloved co-star George Brent, and the legendary William Wyler. Miss Davis often cited William Wyler as the great love of her life, but I’ll bet I’m not the only fan who suspects brilliant New Englander Gary Merrill was her true soul mate.
This list is a celebration of Bette Davis’s gift as an actress; specifically, her ability to represent an unparalleled range of romantic emotions. This is not to say the films here all fall under the category of “Romance”. My twenty favorite Bette Davis love stories span five decades and many genres, from literary adaptations to gangster movies to film noir to showbiz melodrama to Southern gothic horror. These films thrill me as a viewer, inspire me as a writer, and have truly shaped my heart.
The list begins with her first great film, John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage, and ends on her last great film, George Schaefer’s Right of Way. But these are not my votes for her twenty finest films, perhaps not even for her twenty greatest romances—these are just the ones that mean the most to me. Some of them parallel my own relationships, while others offer an insight into my greatest fantasies or darkest fears—or both. All of them are, like love songs, linked to moments and memories in my life that can never be erased, and the massive impact they’ve all had is largely attributable to that divine leading lady. Not that the directors, writers, composers, cinematographers, and fellow actors are not vitally essential to what makes every one of these films superb. But there’s just no denying it: Bette Davis’s interpretation of human emotions, and of the infinite ways in which love will manifest in life, is what most captivates me and the millions of people who adore these films and have made them among the most rewatched of all time.
Some of these are funny, some are depressing, and a few are downright shocking. While they take place in a world separate from our own, their revelations of the infinite nuances of romance make them utterly relatable. That’s thanks to the one consistent element to be found in every single one of them: Miss Bette Davis herself. She fought for realism in her films with the same might with which she also fought for sentimentality. She achieved that delicate balance when she brought true love to life on the silver screen in these twenty films. And that’s what makes every one of them beautiful.
1. Bette Davis gave her first great performance as the seemingly cold-hearted Mildred, the object of Leslie Howard's unrequited love in John Cromwell's classic adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1934)....
2. ...while Paul Muni was the object of Bette's unrequited love when she gave her second great performance as the deeply disturbed Marie in Archie Mayo's gritty classic Bordertown (1935).
3. Leslie Howard finally found love with Bette Davis in in Archie Mayo's utterly brilliant adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's hit Broadway play The Petrified Forest (1936). The movie introduced the world to Humphrey Bogart and still serves as a timeless standard bearer for intelligent Hollywood filmmaking.
4. Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart play a prostitute and a district attorney fighting unspoken romance in Lloyd Bacon's classic crime melodrama, Marked Woman (1937). It was Bette Davis's first role after her legal battle with Warner Bros, and marked the beginning of her most glorious decade as an actress.
5. Gangster Edward G. Robinson is in love with moll Bette Davis, but she's in love with idealistic prizefighter Wayne Morris in Mike Curtiz's Kid Galahd (1937). The Elvis Presley remake is more well-known but the original is 1930s Warner Bros. filmmaking at its best and boasts an unforgettable ending.
6. Bette Davis and Leslie Howard teamed up for the third time as self-indulgent stage stars in Archie L. Mayo's romantic screwball comedy It's Love I'm After (1937). It was, sadly, their last film together before Howard's death in WWII. It also marks Davis's last collaboration with Archie Mayo and first collaboration with her greatest screenwriter, Casey Robinson, and one of her most treasured friends and co-stars, Olivia de Havilland.
7. Bette Davis had her first onscreen pairing with Henry Fonda while under the direction for the first time of Edmund Goulding in That Certain Woman (1937). Bette gives a timelessly brilliant performance that foreshadows the roles that would soon define her career, beginning with William Wyler's Jezebel.
8. As Julie Marsden, one of the greatest roles in film history, Bette Davis was in love with Henry Fonda onscreen and in love with director William Wyler offscreen. The career-defining Jezebel was a blockbuster in 1938, and in 1939 it won Bette her second Oscar and cemented her status as a legend.
9. Bette Davis had a famous romance with co-star George Brent onscreen and off when she gave what she considered her greatest performance in what she also considered her finest film: Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory. It was one of the signature blockbusters of 1939, the year considered by film fans to be the peak of Old Hollywood greatness, and remains perhaps the most powerfully affecting film ever made about meeting death with dignity.
10. Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are both in love with George Brent, even decades after his character's death, in one of the biggest and most beloved films of 1939: Edmund Goulding's The Old Maid.
11. Bette Davis's first time playing Queen Elizabeth and last time working opposite Errol Flynn remains one of the greatest films ever made about a powerful older woman in love with an ambitious young man: Mike Curtiz's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).
12. Bette Davis gives one of her subtlest, finest performances and shares one of the screen's greatest quiet romances with Charles Boyer in their only film together: Anatole Litvak's epic adaptation of Rachel Field's All This...And Heaven, Too (1940). Bette was nominated for an Oscar for The Letter that year, or else this film, a Best Picture nominee, would have no doubt earned her a fourth Best Actress nomination.
13. Do you think the universe has kept count of how many billions of times the final cigarette exchange in Now, Voyager has been rewatched? The onscreen romance between offscreen friends Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in Irving Rapper's adaptation of Olive Higgins Prouty's Now, Voyager (1942) is one of the most beloved love stories in the history of film. In my book, it is also the greatest American movie ever made.
14. Bette Davis played one of her most atypical characters and gave one of her best performances opposite her favorite actor, Claude Raines, as the titular character in Vincent Sherman's Mr. Skeffington. One of the biggest hits of 1944, it earned Bette her seventh Best Actress Oscar nomination and, like so many Davis classics, has an ending that is powerful enough to transform a viewer's life...as it did mine.
15. The first of two movies in which Bette Davis played good and bad twins, Curtis Bernhardt's A Stolen Life was a box office smash and a film noir classic. It's also a touching love story opposite rising star Glenn Ford, set against an effective soundstage recreation of Bette's beloved Cape Cod.
16. Bette Davis said that Bretaigne Windust's Winter Meeting (1948) could have been great if it had not been butchered by the censorship of its era. She was absolutely right. In spite of this, the connection between Bette Davis as a repressed New Yorker and Jim Davis as an aspiring priest also serves as an unintentional but devastatingly relatable parallel to unrequited love between a straight woman and a gay man.
17. What more can possibly be said about Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve? It is a perfect work of art in addition to being one of the great screen entertainments of all. It is also a beautiful love story between older actress Margo Channing and younger director Bill Sampson. Bette Davis and Gary Merrill's passionate offscreen romance in those respective roles no doubt adds to the film's pulsating energy and timelessness.
18. Sterling Hayden is in love with Bette Davis for the woman she is, not the Hollywood star she used to be. Stuart Heisler's The Star (1952) is as relevant today as sixty years ago, and its timeless love story is deeply affecting for anyone who has ever fought for a career while dreaming of a soul mate.
19. Bette Davis's portrayal of a deranged Southern recluse in Robert Aldrich's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) is a staple of 60s horror. But it is her obsession with her great love (Bruce Dern) whose life ended violently decades earlier that makes her performance, and the film, endlessly fascinating to watch. This rendition of the theme song, sung in character on "I've Got A Secret", speaks to the tragic romance at the heart of a suspense classic.
20. The equally legendary Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart finally got to work together in one and only film: George Schaefer's Right of Way (1983). As a married elderly couple who have decided to end their lives together, two of America's most talented and beloved actors bring a vital, relatable warmth to a telefilm so controversial that it was rejected by the major networks and aired on HBO to great acclaim. Having explored countless facets of human emotion in her body of work, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart's lone collaboration is a truly beautiful insight into the depth of a love that has only grown over decades. Sadly, her second film with Schaefer and only film with Stewart unexpectedly capped off the "Silver Age" of Bette's career, during which time high quality telefilms provided some of the best roles she had played since Warner Bros. Right of Way was the last film Bette made before a devastating stroke impacted the rest of her acting career, and as such, it is almost unbearably sad to cite it as "her last great film". Yet, in many ways, it is the perfect book end to Dark Victory, her proudest accomplishment, and thus makes for an undeniably appropriate final chapter in what might be the richest body of work of any screen actor.