Hair studies would be remiss in overlooking Bette Davis’s contrarian, Golden Age, Hollywood mane. Off-screen, the actress was celebrated for her outdoorsy New England look, sports clothes, and self-styled locks. But Bette Davis’s on-screen tresses in the years between 1942 and 1962 did more than simply mirror Hollywood’s unfolding archive of white female beauty. Her hair often flouted the aesthetic norms of classical Hollywood cinema, in ways that help us see her own auteurism. Davis’s look evolved, but what endured was her unique cinematic signature. And unsurprisingly, with her hair, as well as her physical gestures, this actress so well known for representing the contortions of white feminine envy and power has much to teach us about racial feeling in America during the Golden Age.
That Davis was the arbiter of her onscreen image is indisputable: on the set of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), she defied director Michael Curtiz by insisting on retracting her hairline, shaving it back six inches. The star was adamant that the studio’s elaborate red wig would not hide what she envisioned was the aging queen’s balding pate. This was not her sole moment of “meddling.” Davis seized the reins from the studio’s hair and makeup departments on several additional pictures, The Little Foxes, Mr. Skeffington, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Expressing disdain for Method Acting in the 1950s, Davis claimed that she worked like Laurence Olivier, from the outside in. Bespoke hair and excessive whiteness became her auteurist language for signaling the dangers of racial animus and gender inequality. Despite Davis’s integration of the Hollywood Canteen during WWII, and her career-long mentoring of Black actors, the star’s commitments to social justice constitute a little-known dimension of her legend.
That Bette Davis’s hair contributed to how she challenged norms of feminine beauty is well established. Now, Voyager offers a case study. A mother-tormented spinster lets her hair down so that, healed by the talking cure, she can put it back up again, on her own terms. The actress’s range, depth, and sprezzatura in the 1941 melodrama were virtually unmatched, save perhaps in Dark Victory, her personal favorite. Davis’s on-screen hair in Voyager was front and center, but most famously, it was obscured, along with her pensive, quietly radiant, face, half shaded by a glorious Panama hat. In the scene recording her physical transformation, early in the film, the camera did an ascending blazon, focusing on spectator pumps, silk-stockinged legs, chic suit, shadowed face, and upswept hair. Coming to rest on Charlotte’s wide-brimmed chapeau, the viewer followed the heroine as she descended the ocean liner gang plank to embark on a new life.
In brief moments across the remainder of the film, Davis, known for her hyper-embodied gestures, deftly worked lacquered fingernails over a series of glittering hat pins, projecting her heroine’s new-found competence. The reborn, masterful Charlotte, now an heiress, took her place at the patriarchal table. That this was achieved by sacrificing her chance for romantic love and sexual satisfaction is the subject of a vast feminist critical bibliography inaugurated by Teresa De Lauretis, Maria De Laplace, and Lauren Berlant, most recently joined by Angelica Jade Bastien and Briallen Hopper.
Along with Now, Voyager’s focus on Charlotte’s metamorphosis, I am fascinated by Davis’s self-mutilating hairdo in the 1942 stealth Race film, In This Our Life. Based on Ellen Glasgow’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1941, it features a secondary civil rights plot that gave the book its progressive aura. Davis played Glasgow’s villainess, Stanley Timberlake, who stole her sister’s husband, drove him to suicide, killed a child, and maimed her mother in a drunken hit and run. In her final show of treachery, Stanley framed for her own crimes the African American Parry, gifted son of the family housekeeper (Hattie McDaniel. The ambitious Black youth had risen from chauffeur to store clerk to legal apprentice to George Bent. Stanley ranked on par with the Little Foxes Regina Giddens, who denied lifesaving heart medication to her dying husband, and Baby Jane Hudson, who starved and tortured her own sister to death in Baby Jane.
John Huston’s film remains critically overlooked, despite James Baldwin’s brilliant analysis of it in The Devil Finds Work. Baldwin saw the picture twice at age 18: once uncut in a movie palace on Broadway and 42nd Street; and again, in Harlem, where Black actor Ernest Anderson’s antiracist soliloquy, which he wrote himself, had been expurgated for its purported potential to incite African American audiences. The Production Code’s censors feared that “Negro” viewers would identify with Parry’s scathing critique of the antiblackness at the heart of the American justice system. Those scenes were also removed in the South, though Black troops at training camp, Ernest Anderson among them, saw the unedited film and requested that the actor’s screed be replayed several times.
Might a hairdo communicate racial animus? What about a style? In the actress’s more famous villainous roles — Little Foxes and Baby Jane — Davis sported a veritable whiteface mask, a look that she devised and insisted on, to the horror of Foxes director William Wyler. In Foxes, Davis’s character and her brothers were associated with the New South’s exploitation of Black workers; in Baby Jane, Davis played a demented ex-child star who blamed their Black housekeeper and her paralyzed sister for planning to cashier her in an institution. Jane ended up hammering to death the African American Elvira and trussing up paralyzed sibling Blanche in a scene evocative of a lynching, crimes redolent of white supremacist terrorism.
For Life, Davis determined that her heinous character had to look sleazy to stand out amongst the frumpy early 1940s fashions by which she was surrounded. Her on-screen sister Roy (Olivia De Havilland) wore upswept hair and drab suits. Stanley was clad in flashy synthetic dresses, far shorter than Roy’s skirts, and provocative open-toed shoes that seem to beckon to be removed. Davis concocted a ghastly hairstyle to convey this tacky sensibility, cutting her own bangs as might a four-year-old child who’s discovered the contraband family scissors; she also styled garish waves and a flipped silhouette that consistently repelled test audiences. Distressed over the negative feedback collected from theaters in Pasadena and L.A., the actress came to agree with these early spectators, finding her own look so lamentable that she never viewed the film again.
The character of Stanley powerfully illustrated the racism afoot in the 1940s. Her sordid aesthetic telegraphed immorality, while the botched haircut was a sign of bad faith. That Glasgow (who wrote the screenplay) and Huston’s villainess carried a racial prejudice so deep as to ruin the life of an exceptional family protegee makes a statement about white American attitudes toward Black life at the dawn of WWII. Toward the end of the war, African American leaders had hoped that Black participation and sacrifice in Europe and the Pacific would compel white politicians to desegregate the armed forces. This only happened belatedly, in 1948, three long years after the German and Japanese surrenders. It is my sense that although the racially progressive Davis played such a monster (“those people all lie for each other,” she complained to sister Roy when Parry’s mother provides him with an alibi), she may have been less than thrilled by the ease with which her character destroyed a promising Black life. Perhaps Davis’s self-castigation for her look in Life was a displacement for her political ambivalence about playing a desperate racist on screen.
This was not Bette Davis’s final performance as a racist. We don’t know whether, in imagining What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1960), Henry Farrell was knowing or oblivious in his appropriation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s little Eva character, the doomed angelic child who seeks to end slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On her deathbed from consumption (exacerbated by her horror of human bondage), Stowe’s Eva evangelized her own bondspeople with locks of her own golden curls. Such was Stowe’s sacramental vision, her notion that abolition would be a salve for the shattering nation.
When director Robert Aldrich brought Baby Jane to the screen, Farrell’s antislavery iconography migrated with the novel. (Farrell wrote the screenplay with Howard Koch). The young actress avatar of Bette Davis’s adult protagonist was dressed in Eva-esque white and lace, sporting golden curls. Performing on the Vaudeville stage in 1917, she evoked in her audience a sympathetic filiopiety, as she sang of her lost father, to whom she had been devoted.
Bette Davis’s on-screen hair in Baby Jane was linked to the original sin of slavery, the beacon of abolition, and the Myth of the Lost Cause. This southern ideology denied the significance of black bondage as the inciting reason for the Civil War. White women curated the memory of the heroic Confederate Dead, while erasing the centrality of race-based oppression in their moonlight and magnolias version of history. Adult Baby Jane sported a terrible wig of long golden curls and a white baby-doll dress replicating her girlhood costume. She also groomed the curly blond hair of her three-quarter-sized Baby Jane doll, the doppelgänger that her father had hawked on stage during Vaudeville days. Jane devotedly brushed, ribboned, and cooed to the creepy doll with a tenderness never displayed toward sister Blanche, or housekeeper Elvira.
Along with Davis’s “hair” in the film came her equally political, ever-whitening visage. In another autuerist moment, without consulting director Aldrich, the actress decided that she wanted Jane’s face to be masklike. Collaborating with Perc Westmore, who had been Davis’s makeup man for 20 years, the two concocted a paste that she applied to her face every day of filming. The result was a mien that seemed to reflect archeological time, as Davis refused to wash off the white layers for the entire 28-day shoot.
The look they created conjured portraits of pre-revolutionary French aristocrats, with powdered faces and black beauty spots, which Davis also wore. Decadent and reactionary, Baby Jane was herself a deposed aristocrat of the Vaudeville stage. The character perceived a mortal enemy in the family’s articulate Black housekeeper. Elvira supported sister Blanche’s desire to put Jane into a “home”; and in a fascinating aside, we learned that she wanted “to see a man about jury duty.” Actress-racial activist cum auteur Maidie Norman created that line to replace Farrell’s original racist language, which Norman described as hailing from “slavery times.” Once connected to a Little Eva’s centrality to abolitionist literature, Baby Jane’s faux golden curls and bleached visage had come to telegraph white supremacy.
The auteurist theory of great male directors, derived from studying figures like Hitchcock, Truffaut, Bergmann, and John Ford, has remained compelling to some in cinema studies. But materialist film scholars have argued that auteurism has failed to account for the vast numbers of artists, craftspeople, and technicians required to create a motion picture. The category can be recuperated, however, when applied to certain performers. Bette Davis was an actress-auteur. She imagined her characters in highly physical ways, which led to the defiance of directors, writers, and occasionally herself, in the case of In This Our Life. Accordingly, attending to Bette Davis’s contrarian, classic Hollywood hair provides access to the social and political vision behind the performance for an actress who claimed devotion to the surface of her characters, but who instinctively loved their depths.
Julia Stern is Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence and Professor of English at Northwestern University and the author of Bette Davis Black and White (Chicago UP, 2022).
Lead Image: Bette Davis portrait by George Hurrell, 1938.