She did it the hard way.”
That’s how Bette Davis wanted to be remembered, and a new U.S. postage stamp honoring her does that iron-willed image justice.
The 42-cent commemorative stamp, being released Thursday in Boston, features a portrait of Davis as she appeared in the 1950 film “All About Eve,” in which she played Margo Channing, an aging stage actress battling to save her career as a younger woman schemes to replace her.
In one scene author Joseph Mankiewicz’ stage directions for Margo read: “the steel begins to flash,” as Davis, her blue eyes glaring, responds to her lover’s description of Eve as a “stage-struck kid.”
“Stage-struck kid ... She’s a young lady — of qualities. And I’ll have you know I’m fed up with both the young lady and her qualities! Studying me as if — as if I were a play or a set of blueprints! How I walk, talk, think, eat, sleep!”
Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for that performance.
Indeed, she collected 10 nominations, winning in 1935 for “Dangerous” and in 1938 for “Jezebel,” and was nominated every year from 1938 to 1942.
Taking advantage of her age, she played a demented former child star in 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” scoring another Oscar nomination.
Davis chose “She did it the hard way” for an epitaph because she viewed a lot of her life as difficult but rewarding. “It isn’t that she was complaining, but that she had persevered ... to achieve great things and satisfying things even though it wasn’t easy for her,” explained her son, Michael Merrill, in a telephone interview.
People always think that life is easy for stars, he said, “but when you live with one, you realize it’s not.”
“She could be intimidating,” Merrill said. But “there was a sharing there. She was mom. She really filled that role well, she was very much a mother.”
“She would have been tremendously thrilled” to be honored with a postage stamp, he added.
Throughout her career the intensity of Davis’ eyes brought her characters to life, and a new generation was introduced to her in 1981 when Kim Carnes sang the hit song “Bette Davis Eyes,” including the lyric “She’ll tease you, She’ll unease you, Just to please you, She’s got Bette Davis eyes.”
Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis 100 years ago in Lowell, Mass., Davis went into acting early and won acclaim playing characters many consider tough and unsympathetic. She died in France in 1989.
Along the way she appeared in more than 100 films, was the first woman to be honored with the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the first woman to be president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Davis fought a court battle with Warner Brothers over her unhappiness with the roles she was offered, and over time earned a reputation for being difficult to work with, including an alleged feud with Joan Crawford, though both denied it.
But by 1942 she was reportedly the highest-paid woman in America and she helped organize the Hollywood Canteen during World War II for soldiers passing through Los Angeles.