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TIFF Cinematheque Have Bette Davis Eyes: Lightbox Plays Host to Screen Legend Tribute

Bette Davis. No doubt the name instantly brings to mind Kim Carnes’ earworm ‘Bette Davis Eyes’, which has been covered by artists ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow to Brandon Flowers and Taylor Swift. Ah yes, those spellbinding, haunting heavy-cast eyes. They bewitched countless men and are part of our cultural zeitgeist. Bette Davis was so much more than the sum of her parts though. Her tenacity, independence, unique idiosyncrasies, and artistic instincts had and have no equal, even today. She has been labeled a diva and an outright bitch, but she is unquestionably a trailblazer and an icon in every sense.

This “Noirvember” TIFF Cinematheque’s senior programmer James Quandt has curated a divine tribute to the classy dame (labeled The Hard Way:The Films of Bette Davis), highlighting fifteen of her most memorable roles.

Some crowning films of the tribute include (In chronological order):

Three on a Match (1932)-Now part of TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood collection, this film was part of Davis’ very successful five year contract with Warner Brothers, which caused a considerable rift in her marriage to her far less wealthy husband, Harmon Nelson, at the time. The film tells the story of three women (Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak) who are formerly childhood schoolmates who each take very dangerous directions in their respective lives.

Three on a Match plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday December 6 at 6:30pm.

Of Human Bondage (1934)-The film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel brought Davis considerable commercial and critical approbation. Its director, John Cromwell, trusted her instincts and it paid off. Life magazine declared that she gave “..probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress”. When Davis was not nominated for an Academy Award for the film, nominee Norma Shearer spearheaded a campaign that led to a landmark decision by the Academy President to change voting procedures in the following year.

Of Human Bondage plays on November 15 at 6:30pm.

Dangerous (1935)-This film brought Bette Davis her first Academy Award for Best Actress and the New York Times declaring her “one of the most interesting of our screen actresses”. The plot of the film revolves around a self-destructive former Broadway star who makes a final attempt to return to the stage.

Dangerous plays on Tuesday December 3 at 6:30pm.

Marked Woman (1937)-Davis’ second film starring opposite Humphrey Bogart has since achieved a cult admiration amongst critics. who have hailed it as one of her most captivating early performances. Inspired by the true story of Lucky Luciano, the film revolves around a New York nightclub hostess (Davis) who is coaxed by a crusading DA (Bogart) to testify against her Mobster boss. The film was produced following Davis’ bitter legal public battle with Warner Brothers wherein she fought desperately to get out of her contract with them. She lost her case and returned to Hollywood broke but not broken, as her strong performance defiantly displays.

Marked Woman plays on Saturday November 23 at 4:30pm.

Jezebel (1938)-This film marked Davis’ second best actress Academy Award and brought upon her relationship with director William Wyler. In the film she plays a difficult Southern belle who loses her fiance (Henry Fonda) due to her haughty pride and plots to reclaim him. The role made Davis an audience favourite for the role of Scarlett O’hara in Gone with the Wind but director David O. Selznick scoffed at placing her in the role. Nevertheless, Jezebel marked the beginning of the most commercially successful period in Davis’ career.

Jezebel plays on Friday November 22 at 6:30pm.

Dark Victory (1939)-Produced immediately following Bette Davis’ bitter divorce battle with Nelson, she later called her performance in the film her personal favourite. She plays an emotionally cold socialite who softens when she is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. Davis clearly channelled her inner turmoil and strife into an astonishingly realistic portrayal.

Dark Victory plays on Thursday November 21 at 6:30pm.

The Letter (1940)-Widely hailed as one of the best pictures of the year, the film noir tells the story of a murderess (Davis) whose pleas of innocence after the shooting death of a man, are unravelled in a defamatory letter.

The Letter plays on Saturday November 16 at 4:30pm.

The Great Lie (1941)-This film was a marked change for Davis, as her role displayed her softer and gentler side. In her personal life, however, she was marred with constant tribulations as the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. During her run her stubbornly independent spirit was met with regular hostility from the rest of the Academy and she stepped down after her brief stint.

The Great Lie plays on Saturday November 30 at 4:15pm.

All About Eve (1950)- “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” Perhaps Bette Davis’ most quintessential film and widely named one of the best films of all time. Her bitingly satiric performance earned her yet another Academy Award nomination and confirmed her status as an icon. Unquestionably a must see performance and film.

All About Eve plays on Sunday November 17 at 1pm.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)-Following a slew of critical and commercial failures, Davis reminded audiences of her powerhouse acting abilities in this film. Acting opposite another screen legend, Joan Crawford (who Davis famously and notoriously butted heads with), they played a pair of quirky sisters who make each others lives wretched while living together in a festering Hollywood estate.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane plays on Saturday December 7 at 4pm.

The Hard Way: The Films of Bette Davis runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from November 15 to December 8.

Leora Heilbronn is a Toronto-based writer. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (Volver), Coen Bros. (Burn After Reading), Dardennes (Lorna's Silence), Haneke (The Piano Teacher), Hsiao-Hsien (Three Times), Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), Kiarostami (Certified Copy), Lynch (Mulholland Drive), Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds), Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), von Trier (Melancholia)

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