Despite her imposing talent, it’s actually not that hard to whittle down the top 10 best Bette Davis movies. Her films come from an era marked by melodrama that’s best appreciated through the lens of camp, and, even then, there’s only a few that are worth a second watch.
Even the author of this article — a diehard Bette fan who could perform All About Eve from memory as a one-man show if he ever ended up isolated on a desert island — admits that not all of the ten films listed here could be considered great, even if Davis is always beyond great in them. The very definition of camp, taken from the seminal 1964 Susan Sontag essay “Notes on Camp,” describes it as “the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
Anyone itching for the premiere of Feud on Sunday evening is undoubtedly a fan of artifice and exaggeration. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more symbolic mainstream representation of camp than Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, the film that the series is based on. In fact, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would probably be the top two actresses in competition for “Best Camp Actress” should such an award ever be given.
Here are Bette’s greatest performances. Notable absences are Now, Voyager and Dark Victory, which might irk some purists, but let’s be real: We don’t show up to watch her weep into a handkerchief. We show up to watch her burn the cinema to the ground.
1. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
All About Eve is still one of the greatest scripts that Hollywood has ever produced. Each line is so deftly sharpened that one could easily cut themselves trying to pick it apart from any angle, which is part of the reason that Sontag herself admits that it’s “maybe a little to slick” to be considered campy, especially considering what a powerhouse Davis is as aging actress Margo Channing. No matter how well it’s done, there’s no denying that the movie is larger than life, a tale of cat-fighting and betrayals that will cause even the most cynical movie-watcher to appreciate the unrealistic acting style of the time period. Bonus: Marilyn Monroe makes one of her earliest appearances here.“I’ll admit I may have seen better days, but I’m still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut.”
2. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (Robert Aldrich, 1962)
All About Eve may be the best Bette Davis movie on this list, but there’s a reason Ryan Murphy chose this film for the first season of feud. Kim Kardashian couldn’t hope for a better piece of scalding hot PR than two diva actresses known for their hatred of one another coming together for a movie in which they torture and abuse each other, sparking a new “hagsploitation” genre in the process. To hell with La La Land, this piece of unashamed campiness is true escapism. The acting might seem over-the-top, but the contempt is all real. Upon Joan Crawford’s death, her co-star remarked, “They say you should not say bad things of the dead, only good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
3. Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Robert Aldrich, 1964)
Now that we’re past the two undisputed classics on the list, we move into the Bette movies you not have seen already if you’re a casual fan. Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte finds Davis in a Southern gothic drama, this time a much more deranged character than she’d played in that setting earlier in her career in The Little Foxes and Jezebel. Some may call this film and Baby Jane a horror movie, but it’s more of a psychological drama than anything — even though someone does get hacked to pieces in the first 20 minutes.
4. The Letter (William Wyler, 1940)
While her best remembered films are from the second half of her career, Bette first rose to prominence the late ’30s and early ’40s playing the kind of difficult, intense women that many young actresses were unable to pull off or too scared to attempt lest they offend the typical gender roles of the day. Davis may have become somewhat typecast in this sort of role after her powerful work in The Letter, just check out the opening scene to see why. No one plays a woman scorned quite like her.
5. The Star (Stuart Heisler, 1952)
Though you can’t knock All About Eve or Baby Jane form their pedestal at the top of Bette’s movies, her performance in The Star is a stunner is every way. After making her comeback two years earlier, she was willing to act the living hell out of a film that many saw as a parody of her own life. Watching it, you know there has to be some truth to that because there’s just unquenchable Davis fire all over this one.
6. Dead Ringer (Paul Henreid, 1964)
Baby Jane might steal its thunder, but Dead Ringer might be even campier than its predecessor. Bette plays two character, a sister and her wealthier twin who she murders in order to take on a better life. The Davis-on-Davis dialogue is ridiculous in all the best ways.
7. Oh Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)
All actresses have to claw their way to the top somehow, but with Bette that desperation was literal. Davis was considered something of an ugly duckling in Hollywood, forced to rely on her explosive talent like her contemporary Judy Garland is order to get anywhere. Of Human Bondage was such a triumph for Davis that she was given a write-in nomination at the Oscars, and won the next year for Dangerous in what many viewed as a consolation prize for losing out here.
A young blonde Bette Davis was a far cry from her later days, but she gave some of her best performances in those days. [Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]
8. The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941)
So many of the best Bette Davis movies features the actress playing a Southern woman that it’s hard to believe that she was born in Massachusetts. Something about her grandiose gestures and unshakeable pride just lends her to playing Scarlett O’ Hara’s wicked stepmother — and that’s never on better display than in The Little Foxes.
9. Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938)
If Of Human Bondage established Bette on the scene, then Jezebel was what made sure she stayed there. After losing out on the lead in Gone with the Wind, this film was viewed as the Davis chance to play a similar character. Watching it, it’s easy to why they went with Vivienne Leigh, there’s a certain capriciousness to her performance as Scarlett O’ Hara that the Jezebel actress doesn’t quite capture, but if you ever wondered what could have been, this is the movie to find out with.
10. The Whales of August (Lindsay Anderson, 1987)
Dozens of the top Bette films from her early catalogue should be on this list, but the honor for sheer guts has to go to The Whales of August, a sort of On Golden Pond for Davis. She passed away just two years after its release, but it was clear that she held on to her signature fire and music right to the very end. For hardcore fans, it’s like the memories of a final visit with your deceased grandmother — increasingly poignant and revealing as the years go on.
Absolutely outraged that this top 10 best Bette Davis movies list didn’t feature your favorite film or performance? Let it all out in the comments.
[Featured Image via Keystone/Getty Images]