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Originally published Monday, April 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Grand Illusion theater is celebrating Bette Davis' centennial with a film series

A hundred years ago this week, a baby girl was born to the Davis family of Lowell, Mass. The proud parents named their wide-eyed daughter...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie series preview

"Fasten Your Seat Belts: Bette Davis Turns 100"

"All About Eve" and "The Letter" (screening daily April 11- 17); "Jezebel" and "The Virgin Queen" (screening daily April 18-14); "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" (screening daily April 25-May 1); "The Nanny" (screening late-night only April 18-19 and 25-26); and "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" (screening late-night only May 2-3 and 9-10). Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th St., Seattle; for showtimes and additional information, see www.grandillusioncinema.org or call 206-523-3935. Series passes are available ($40 general, $25 Grand Illusion members).

A hundred years ago this week, a baby girl was born to the Davis family of Lowell, Mass. The proud parents named their wide-eyed daughter Ruth Elizabeth but always called her Betty.

If Betty Davis hadn't chosen to alter one letter in the spelling of her name while in high school (inspired by the Balzac novel "Cousin Bette"), would her story have been different? The more alluringly spelled Bette — who, unlike many of her contemporaries, didn't need to change her name upon arriving in Hollywood — is the subject of a tribute film series this month at the Grand Illusion: "Fasten Your Seat Belts: Bette Davis Turns 100." Screening daily through May 1 (and late-night on weekends through May 10), the series features seven of her iconic films, from her early years as a Warner Bros. contract player to her late-career revival in the horror genre.

And yes, Davis' greatest role will be showcased here, kicking off the series on Friday: the prickly, feral actress Margo Channing, in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1950 bacchanal of backstage bitchery "All About Eve." Endlessly rewatchable, this wicked-smart movie gives Davis a role as big as a holiday feast — and she devours it, with the same gimlet-eyed focus she levels onto the single unfortunate chocolate that she devours in the film's party scene, after eyeing it like a wolf with prey. (Actresses, this movie reminds us, are always hungry, in many different ways.) As a middle-age star who learns too late that her young protégé Eve (Anne Baxter) is a scheming, "contemptible little worm," Davis blusters, fidgets, orates, simmers, lurches and storms; creating, as her own character describes herself, "a mass of music and fire."

Davis herself — like Margo Channing — was a force of nature; a hardworking actress who took no prisoners (her feuds with co-stars and studios were legendary) and always played women, never girls. Making her screen debut in her early 20s (in 1931's "The Bad Sister," sharing a screen with an early-in-his-career Humphrey Bogart), she ultimately would appear in more than 100 movies, right up until shortly before her death from breast cancer in 1989 at the age of 81. She received 10 Academy Award nominations (among actresses, only Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn have more) and won twice, for "Dangerous" and "Jezebel." On her tombstone at Hollywood's Forest Lawn cemetery are the words "She did it the hard way."

Watch Davis' first scenes in the two earliest films in the Grand Illusion series and see two remarkable examples of her fearless allure. In "Jezebel," William Wyler's 1938 Civil War drama, Davis plays Julie, a rebellious young woman whom we first meet as she dismounts from her horse, giddily indifferent to the fact that an entire party of people are waiting for her. Turning toward the camera in her long black riding habit, she saucily catches up its train with her riding crop. (It's a gesture that seems as natural to Julie as breathing, though it reportedly took Wyler and Davis 48 takes to get it right.) Still breathing hard from her ride, she immediately seems more alive than anyone else on screen; as she sashays off to greet the party, we breathlessly follow.

Two years later (and also directed by Wyler), the skillful melodrama "The Letter" showcases Davis at her iciest. As the camera pans along the exotic palms of a Singapore rubber plantation, the shadowy nighttime calm is interrupted by a series of gunshots. We see a man falling to the ground in the doorway of the plantation house, and a woman firing the gun, at close range. Her face is composed yet frighteningly blank as she continues to squeeze the trigger, until she runs out of bullets. Davis gives us not a hint of passion or anger or fear — anything that might explain her actions. The unapologetic stillness of her face is riveting. Who is she? Why did she do this? "The Letter" is almost over before she breaks her unearthly calm.

The Grand Illusion series also presents films from Davis' midlife triumphs on screen: "All About Eve," and her regal performance in 1955's "The Virgin Queen." (In the latter film, Davis plays Queen Elizabeth I at the age of 48; she'd already played the monarch at 60, in 1939's "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.") And it includes three films from her "horror era" late in her career, including the can't-look-away grotesquerie of the former child star Jane Hudson in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," alongside former nemesis Joan Crawford. The 1960s thrillers "The Nanny" and "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" appear in the series as late-night screenings, for those who want a little scary Bette before bedtime.

Though most of Davis' movies are readily available on DVD (including the new box set "The Bette Davis Centenary Celebration Collection," out this week), nothing compares to seeing those eyes blaze in the darkness of a movie theater. Her 100th anniversary provides an opportunity to raise a glass, and a bag of popcorn, to a unique performer whose determination and fire is evident in every frame of her work.

"My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist," she once said. "Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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