(There they are, stealing the show from the rest of the body: Bette Davis's eyes, wide in perpetual surprise, in shock, full of righteous indignation. Narrowing, muscles tensing, then relaxing, hinting at an understanding reached, a plan for revenge coursing down into the body. Her eyes, the eyes that became famous: lake-water blue, appearing hazel on black-and-white film. Lids slowly bobbing, lashes long, pupils giant, eyeballs overcoming their sockets, seemingly ready to leave the skull.)
Growing up with my grandparents, I watched more black-and-white movies of their generation than I did color films of mine. I didn't know who Molly Ringwald or John Cusack were, but I knew Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart well. I recited Marx Brothers lines by heart and imitated Charlie Chaplin's walk. But the image I associated most strongly with the era of movies we often watched was Bette Davis.
As a kid, her movies weren't particularly memorable or interesting. They tended to blend together in my mind, but Davis herself stuck out. She was simply different. She confused my categorical understanding of the world. She had a way of looking both youthful and ancient, grotesque and glamorous, and her characters were often mean-spirited anti-heroines. She was the evil twin, the cruel matriarch, the woman who stole her sister’s husband, the nanny who drowned the baby. She was the sex worker threatening the gangster: “I’ll get you if I have to come back from the grave to do it.” The woman telling her sickly husband: “I hope you die. I hope you die soon. I’ll be waiting for you to die.”
Biographer Ed Sikov: “Few have equaled Davis’s capacity to risk generating an audience’s thoroughgoing contempt, let alone openly invite it . . . She dares us to hate her, and we often do.”
(Her eyes, impossible to ignore, in her first film, 1931's Bad Sister: the 23-year-old Davis, a rail in a flapper dress, the apparent model for Olive Oil, stares up at the man she admires as if under hypnosis—or, more likely, attempting to hypnotize him. Each time her heavy lids open, it's almost shocking.)
Thirty years after her death and nearly eighty years since the height of her fame, Davis remains in our cultural memory. There are, depending on how you count them, over a dozen biographies about her, recounting the bottomless drama of her personal and professional life, all while trying to crack the mystery beneath Davis’s hard exterior.
Her combination of over-the-top delivery, cool demeanor, and unapologetic vitriol have made her a favorite of drag performers for generations. Her life-long feud with Joan Crawford is one of old Hollywood’s most-told stories; a battle grand enough to fill up a 500-page book and be made into a high-budget, star-studded 2017 television series. Few stars of her era even have names that register today and yet, even as most of her films sink out of favor, Davis continues to glare at us, living on in her infamy.
(Her eyes, in her 1934 breakthrough, Of Human Bondage, paving the path for the roles she would become most known for. Soon after defining the glamorous Golden Age close-up—giant eyes, soft-focused over a glass of champagne—her character sinks into disrepute. Flooded in eyeliner, donning a lace slip, fake-pearl necklace, thick black belt riding high over a velvet coat, she looks sixty years ahead of her time: heroin chic, pre-punk. The eyes sell the depravity. Under their made-up layers there’s a hardness, a meanness, a true dissatisfaction impossible to fake.)
According to Davis, it was only because of her eyes that her first three-month contract was renewed. Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle Jr., after her screen test: “She has about as much sex appeal as [gangly character actor] Slim Summerville."
Director Michael Curtiz: “[she’s a] goddamned nothing no good sexless son of a bitch” and (according to Davis): “the unsexiest woman I have ever seen in my life.”
From the beginning, her looks were remarked upon, openly debated, even in the midst of praise. Novelist Graham Greene: “pale ash-blonde hair, the popping neurotic eyes, a kind of corrupt and phosphorescent prettiness.”
Warner Bros studio head Jack Warner: “[she had a] magic quality that transformed this sometimes bland and not beautiful little girl into a great artist.”
The well of insults and back-handed compliments aimed at Davis’ physical appearance is deep and from our vantage point, it’s easy to see the level of objectification, the misogyny, the constricting limitations placed upon her. But biographers still do it today; I’m doing it right now: defining this woman by her body—even just a single part of her body.
We generally feel more comfortable doing this with the eyes, though, because they’re body parts we don’t consider private. They’re not only public, but we believe they hold secrets, answers. The windows to the soul, we say. It’s not objectification, but a way of understanding. Connecting. They’re out there, on display, functional.
Eyes reveal, to some degree, how a person is feeling in a particular moment. Look close enough and you’ll catch a hint. It takes a good actor or liar or sociopath (all of which Davis has been called) to hide it, but it also takes an observant watcher to see it. You often need to know a person to accurately interpret what is being revealed. Some looked into Davis’ eyes and saw beauty or sex. Some saw ugliness, disdain, even some form of evil. But so much of what we see in a pair of eyes is just ourselves, projecting onto another, then looking back.
Davis: "Hollywood always wanted me to be pretty, but I fought for realism.”
(Her eyes, in The Letter: eyes shining in the moonlight as she shoots the man she loves, putting bullets in him long after he's dead, the vast expanse of her eyes showing a mix of both horror and satisfaction. While just six years after her breakthrough, and only 32 years old, she looks as if she's aged a couple decades—her character a curious mix of noir femme fatale and quaint grandmother. In the lie her character tells of the shooting, the man's unwanted advances began with him saying, “You have very pretty eyes.”)
It was on an airplane fifteen years ago that I first considered Bette Davis as more than an image, more than a Mid-Atlantic accent or a symbol of movie nights at my grandparents's house. My friend and I were seated next to a middle-aged British man who was charmed by us as oddball, barely 20-somethings. At some point, I asked him about the book face-down on his lap. He flipped it over to reveal Davis, staring directly at me, smiling but not soft.
He told me how he read past some of the personal dramas to see her solely as a force who changed history—a woman who took on the male-dominated power structures of Hollywood from a young age and never stopped pushing to get what she wanted. She was the Golden Age starlet who talked back, who fought—and even sued—for equal pay, better roles, more complex female characters, who was never satisfied and announced it. Who famously “got most of her exercise by putting her foot down.”
His passion for Davis was palpable. It was then that I got her name stuck in my head, then that I started watching her films intentionally, trying to see what they revealed. But what I found there was another layer: a secret—or the suggestion of a secret—buried in her eyes that was hard to define, but kept me watching.
(In All About Eve, it's the lids: that oft-ignored flap of skin, constantly spreading tears across the surface of the eye, warding off invasion, blocking the light out during sleep. Davis's lids can hang so low, their weight so palpable, a biological anomaly. In the film, the lids shield her eyeballs as they move about like a cat's tail, connected to the body, but with a mind of their own. The half-mast lids are her character's trick, sending a signal of inattentiveness, the illusion of intoxication or exhaustion, while she covertly scans the room, her gaze filled with purpose.)
Some suggest Davis’s eyes were the result of the autoimmune thyroid condition, Graves’ disease. Swelling the muscles around the eyes and surrounding tissues, the condition pushes the eyeballs forward, causing them to protrude, limiting their movement. This is pure internet-age speculation and it’s perhaps unlikely that someone with the level of wealth and access to medical professionals Davis had would have had a serious disease slip by undiagnosed.
But it’s at least true that what we see in the eyes is often not emotional depth but the body’s interior health. Through the eyeballs, we can see signs of alcohol and drug abuse, allergies, infections, high cholesterol, certain types of cancer, stress, sleep issues, and a host of other diseases and conditions. When are eyes windows to the soul and when are they windows to the body? How often do we look into a pair of eyes and misinterpret health for emotion?
(Her eyes, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?: radiant, satisfied as she kicks her sister across the floor. In Hush . . . Hush Sweet Charlotte: eyes wild, soaking in a lightning storm, leaning over the rail of the balcony, the wind in her hair. Looking to the ground, lids heavy, having struck down her enemies once again.)
It’s Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte that are, perhaps rightfully, the most remembered and discussed Davis films today. They exhibit her at her wildest, her most unhinged, and are backed by scripts that do her talents justice. But they also initiated the “hagsploitation” sub-genre: older women portraying formerly-glamorous women who have fallen from their glamour, and are now struggling with their mental health, threatening the lives and well-being of those around them. They’re commentaries on how aging women are treated by society and also exploitive fantasies of the supposed inherent horror of older women—they were parts Davis thrived in while also being ashamed of. But, like many of her earlier roles, they set a new precedent; their existence and popularity bringing opportunities for more complex roles.
Jane Fonda:“Just watching Bette Davis on the screen was empowering to women. It’s like: this is what’s possible; this is the range and depth that is possible for a woman.”
Meryl Streep: “Bette Davis seemed willing, she even had an appetite, for parts that were conventionally unappealing. She changed the requirement that actresses in the movies invariably be likable or attractive. She lifted the veil of appropriate behavior in women to expose what was scary, unexpected, or ugly . . . Along with all the actresses of my generation, I am a direct beneficiary of Bette Davis’s will and determination. Because of her hard-fought achievements, we all had it a little easier.”
(Her eyes, in The Nanny: bulging under thickly-painted eyebrows, over deeply-lined bags, eyelids blinking quickly. Ostensibly in a role of servitude, but clearly holding the power.)
Davis, beginning her 1962 autobiography, The Lonely Life: “I have always been driven by some distant music—a battle hymn no doubt—for I have been at war from the beginning.” Is this what we see when we look into her eyes: beyond the unlikely result of genetics and her skill as an actress, do we see the lonely starlet, at war with the world, the self perpetually bursting through the role she's playing?
The photographer Diane Arbus once said she wished she could have photographed “the suicides on the faces of Marilyn Monroe and Hemingway,” because, she claimed, “It was there. Suicide was there.” Though Davis didn't kill herself, her daughter claims her mom staged suicide attempts to punish her and her siblings, and Davis's assorted struggles with mental health are well documented. But even those closest to her didn’t understand how her struggles worked.
Producer William Frye: “[Davis] was not a ‘safe’ person to have around. She was capable of blowing up at any moment.”
James Cagney: “[Davis’] unhappiness seeped through to the rest of us.”
Sikov: “Davis was an angry woman for reasons nobody who knew her ever adequately explained to me and for reasons I still cannot fully understand.”
Was that sadness and anger there: on her face, in her eyes? When I watch her films, I sometimes imagine I'm seeing a depression too grand to look away from.
(Her eyes, in The Anniversary: or, rather, her eye. With her left covered by a patch, she’s unwittingly kicking off another film trope: the bad-ass woman with an eyepatch, decades before Daryl Hannah, before Angelina Jolie, before Rachel Weisz. That eye—so alive, so active. Shimmering. Cheery, almost, as she tears each member of her family, and prospective member of her family, down, one-by-one.)
It’s been well over a year since I’ve started watching closer. Friends ask what draws me in, fascinated with my fascination, and I tell them, to their dissatisfaction: I’m curious about everyone else’s curiosity. They ask what I see in her eyes, and I have no answer. How do you separate the person from the character the actress is playing? At best, I’m looking for the real Davis in the cracks of the roles she was cast in. But with her entire adult life lived in the spotlight, when was she not playing a role? Davis: “It has been my experience that one cannot, in any shape or form, depend on human relations for any lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.” So perhaps the work is the best place to understand her; the place we can meet her where she preferred to be met.
Sikov: “She had, more than any performer I have ever studied, a blazing ability to imprint herself onto every character she ever played—to make me believe in those fictive characters while never letting me forget that I was watching her, a calculating actress, an intuitive star. Bette Davis forces audiences to notice her as Bette Davis even when she is most deeply immersed in her roles.”
I don’t know her secrets, my life and world are nothing like hers, but I like the possibilities her famed eyes present: a windows-of-the-soul Rorschach test spanning nearly a century of pop culture. What does each person see? What does it say about us for staring so hard, for caring so much?
(Her eyes, in her final film, Wicked Stepmother: lackadaisical, often bordering on closed, a purposed lethargy, bored by the terrible script, the awful cast surrounding her, her eyes doing more work than anyone on set.)
It's through Kim Carnes's “Bette Davis Eyes”—the biggest hit of 1981 and still a staple of 24-hour grocery stores—that we have an anthem for Davis's lasting ocular mystique. She's got Bette Davis eyes, Carnes croons, her voice filled with apparent passion and meaning, but saying almost nothing. Broadly, it’s a song in the “Maneater” vein—a woman who seduces for sport—but to listeners unaware of who Bette Davis is, there are few lyrical clues to what these eyes actually look like. There's no mention of their size, their color, the life—if truly like Davis’s—they seem to live separate from the woman herself, nothing of their lids. Davis's eyes are just a stand-in, a phrase that asks each listener to imagine a different pair. The anthemic chorus reminding us, again and again, of the meaning we make out of pressurized, gel-filled spheres; reminding us that eyes not only see, but are seen.