Ronald Reagan & Bette Davis: Politically Oppositional Co-Stars

Former co-stars Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis at the door to the Presidential box of the Kennedy Center Opera House, during the 1987 Kennedy Center Honors program.

Unlike Presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Nixon, or Obama, chronicling an unusual pairing between any Hollywood Actor or Actress and Ronald Reagan is almost an exercise in futility, a nearly moot story since Reagan was himself a professional Hollywood Actor for over forty years by the time he became President of the United States in 1981. Not even John F. Kennedy, with all his entertainment industry contacts,can compare with Reagan on this account.  These were not only his colleagues but his constituents, when he was served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952, and again for a one-year term in 1959.

Reagan and Davis in a still from the Dark Victory trailer.

The story of one such pairing, however, does take an interesting turn when it involves an iconic Actress with whom he, as a “bit player,” had two scenes and then, nearly an entire half-century later, ends up being outshone by him when he rises to become the biggest star of all professions.

The story reveals much about their personalities when that Actress, whose legend was built not only on her extraordinary talent but vicious wit, targets the latter character trait on her former co-star who then, in reaction, ends up bestowing a coveted lifetime achievement award to her just one year later. 

But that was Bette Davis – and Ronald Reagan.

Reagan and Davis.

They first met on the set of what proved to be one of Davis’s most acclaimed films, Dark Victory (1939), for which she and the film were both nominated for an Academy Award.

Bette Davis starred as a hard-partying socialite “Judith Traherne” surrounded by a group of friends who enjoy playing all night with her, including “Ann,” played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, and “Alec,” which is the role Reagan played.

As she did in so many quality feature films, Davis hit every mark in Dark Victory, and it remained a work for which she maintained a lifelong pride.

For Reagan it was also a victory of sorts, giving him the chance to play in a major feature film, as opposed to the “B” films he was invariably cast in as a contract player.  His role has Reagan performing as a good-time playboy type, who enjoys drinking it up with Davis. Unlike the Actress who drank and smoked heavily during her entire adult life, the typecasting for Reagan went against his real-life type and even his wholesome Hollywood persona. In fact,  as the son of an alcoholic father, he was always cautious around liquor and never known to drink to excess. When his friend and fellow actor Robert Taylor died of lung cancer, he drew on his extraordinary personal discipline to simply stop smoking one day and never slip back to the habit or yearn for another cigarette.

In their primary Dark Victory scene together.

Bette Davis and Ronald Reagan both acting drunk in their Dark Victory roles.

While Davis went on to maintain her stardom as an Actress, Reagan struggled to get the quality roles he sought. Dark Victory had left him especially frustrated, having been initially eager to bring his more nuanced take on his character to his screen depiction of Alec.

The director Edmund Goulding, however, wasn’t interested in Reagan’s desire to bring depth to the shallow character. “I made a mistake I promised myself will never be repeated,” Reagan later wrote about the compromise he had in not playing out the Alec character the way he had wanted to. He felt that his greatest opportunity came three years after Dark Victory, in the the film considered to be his best performance, in which he depicted a character whose legs are amputated, King’s Row (1942).

After Dark Victory, Bette Davis only crossed paths again with Reagan at Hollywood award ceremonies. She never expected to someday share the stage with him again at a Washington award ceremony forty-eight years after their one film together, in which they only shared two scenes.

Bette Davis gets JFK’s autograph at the 1960 Los Angeles Democratic National Convention; after supporting his candidacy, she also performed at his Inaugural Gala.

Both Davis and Reagan had started out as Democrats but during the 1960 presidential election, while Bette Davis made clear her support of John F. Kennedy and went on to perform at his Inaugural Gala on January 19, 1961, Reagan headed up the “Democrats for Nixon” committee of JFK’s opponent. It may have been hard to shock Bette Davis about anything, but even she admitted to being startled, after Reagan became a Republican and was twice elected as both Governor of California and President of the United States.

By the 1980s, when Reagan was serving his eight years as President, Bette Davis had passed the half-century mark as a hard-working actress to become that rarest of beings in any profession, a living legend. She was feted at roasts and awards, and flattered as the subject of television interviews and documentaries, her razor wit and intelligent turn-of-phrase always an abiding element to her persona. Nor did she disappoint the public, focusing her sharp remarks on studio executives, her notorious bete noir Joan Crawford and co-stars – like the current President of the United States.

Here is a clip from a British documentary about Bette Davis in which a moment of one of her scenes with Reagan is shown, followed by her remarks at the time about him:

While enthralling Americans on the night of May 22, 1986, as a guest on the famous Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Bette Davis seemed to relish the chance she got to critique the President as the host brought out a picture of them together from Dark Victory. It momentarily caught her off-guard. “Well, I still can’t get over…..calling him – ” she hemmed and hawed.

Momentarily.

Movie poster for Reagan’s greatest role in King’s Row (1942)

“I was delighted to find out you have not been invited to the White House. Neither have I,” she began, turning to Carson – who then corrected her. “You have been invited by the Reagans? Well. I have not!!” she continued on in mock insult, “I have not!” 

With no deference to the current status of the man she’d only known as a 28-year old Actor, the 78-year old Bette Davis let it rip: “Everybody called him Little Ronnie Reagan. He did give one good performance. King’s Row. We will hand that [to him]. But you know, take a man’s legs off. It’s a lot going for you in those scenes. But I have to say, I think he is infinitely better than I ever thought he would be. Infinitely.” Despite making one brief deflection (“I think he shows quite a lot of guts – upon occasion. He’s had some rather serious things to decide”), she couldn’t help adding, “I just hope it doesn’t encourage a lot of other actors. I think we shouldn’t take over that field.”

Here is a clip of the interview, a little bit into the recording:

Bette Davis during her Tonight Show interview in which she belittled Reagan.

Had her commentary on Reagan begun and ended with her Tonight Show appearance, Bette Davis’s tart opinion might have faded from public recall.

As the months went by and she was still not invited to the White House, however, Reagan became a mainstay topic in her subsequent broadcast and print interviews. Calling him “the boy scout” in one interview, she hit even harder: “We didn’t think he was terribly bright. For instance, in Dark Victory he is playing a gay man and he never really understood that….He did love to talk, though. He would go on and on and would eventually bore everyone. Jane Wyman divorced him because he was a bore!

Commenting on his presidential performance, she used a dramatic pause to deliver another wallop: He’s certainly turning out to be a better actor than any of us ever thought he was.”

Ronald Reagan and his first wife, fellow actor Jane Wyman; they later divorced.

Citizens had long exercised the right to sarcastically demean Presidents and the arrows shot at Reagan by his former co-star never failed to garner some press notice. Reagan made no response to Davis, even after she broke an tacitly-understood taboo of musing publicly about his divorce from Jane Wyman, still a painful issue for Reagan which the White House discouraged from even being acknowledging. Yet Ronald Reagan did respond to Bette Davis, passively but shockingly.

About a year after Bette Davis’s Tonight Show interview, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts board of trustees were in the midst of their secret selection process, deciding which artists in the fields of theater, film, comedy, dance, and music would be honored in 1987 with the center’s annual lifetime achievement award. Hours before the pre-taped televised awards program is held in the Kennedy Center Opera House on a Sunday evening, the President of the United States places each medal around the neck of the artists, following a White House reception. Presidents don’t chose which living legends are honored, but their prerogative to invite to the White House only those they’re willing to engage with directly certainly factors into the annual recipients.

Just after Labor Day in 1987, the names of those Reagan would honor in his second-to-last White House award ceremony were publicly announced. They were singer Perry Como, singer and entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., musician Nathan Milstein, choreographer Alwin Nikolais.

And Bette Davis.

In Hollywood, a good old-fashioned clash war of massive egos was typical, but in his Washington, Ronald Reagan showed a cooler hand to the caustic one played him a year earlier by Bette Davis – and in doing so, he deftly took the upper-hand.

Bette Davis rising to acknowledge a standing ovation during her Kennedy Center honors ceremony. 

But not for long.

Thirteen days before she would find herself again facing her old co-star again, Bette Davis granted an interview to gossip columnist Liz Smith, ostensibly in promotion of what proved to her her last film,  The Whales of August (1987).

As usual, she had something more to say – something about “little Ronnie Reagan.”  Her remarks may represent one of the few times when the formidable little woman essentially ate her own words : “I think Mr. Reagan has done very well under very difficult circumstances. He’s had terrific problems physically and he’s managed them very well.”

Her reference to his health crises was not only to his colon cancer surgery in 1985, but skin cancer surgery in July, just four months before the event – and also prostate surgery only two weeks before her interview. It was one reality with which she could relate. At that point, Bette Davis had recently endured breast cancer and four strokes.

Davis applauds remarks of Reagan about her career, in the White House. (AP/Edmonds)

Finally, on December 6, 1987, Bette Davis went to the White House, attending the reception and then taking to the stage in the East Room.  During the ceremony, just before placing the medal’s rainbow-striped ribbon around the neck of each recipient, the President made introductory remarks about each. As he began his commentary on Bette Davis, the tough Actress twitched with nerves but laughed uproariously at his remark that the New York Time had recently praised what was her 100th and most recent film The Whales of August.

Bette Davis (third from left) with other Kennedy Center Honor recipients listens to President Reagan’s introduction of them, after bestowing the medal on each.

“Since getting this job, I’ve found out just how difficult it is to get a good notice from the New York Times. But then, he harked back half a century to their professional collaboration, and paid the quality of her work a gracious homage with some self-deprecation of his own career as an Actor. “If I had gotten roles as good as yours and been able to do them as good as you did,” he said, with a wink to her, “I would have never left Hollywood.”

One year and one month later, in January of 1989, Reagan’s presidency ended and he returned home to Los Angeles.

Davis in her last full feature film role, The Whales of August (1987).

Despite learning that her cancer had returned, Davis kept in motion until almost quite literally her last breath. Ten months after Reagan retired, Bette Davis had summoned the strength to go to Europe to accept an award, but collapsed. She died in Paris. Although just three years her junior but without the years of her heavy smoking and drinking, Ronald Reagan survived Bette Davis by fifteen years.


Categories: History, Hollywood & The White House, Politics, Pop Culture, Presidents, Ronald Reagan, Television, The Reagans

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4 replies »

  1. Well, (as RR might say), Miss Davis may have been wrong in stating that Reagan didn’t know he was to play a gay character in “Dark Victory”. In his first memoir, he wrote that he did not want to interpret the role that way because he saw himself as the kind of man who would make women nervous if he accidently found himself in their dressing room–or words to that effect.

    I have never read that Miss Davis ever acted tenderly or kindly towards anyone. She seems not to have been a particularly happy person. Rather sad to be so successful and apparently so unfulfilled.

    I read that Katharine Hepburn was offered the Kennedy Centers honor while Reagan was president, but did not accept because she wasn’t a big fan of the First Lady. She did accept it while Bush I was president.

    • I don’t know much about Bette Davis except from researching her interviews for this article and seeing her movies over the years. What I do come away with, however, is a sense of working constantly from a sense that nobody would look after her as well as she would herself – and that when she ventured into marriages perhaps hoping for support, she didn’t find it. I think she might be one of millions of mid-20th century American women who were told they could do what they wished when the vote came to them but found the resistance to full equality was institutionalized in societal thinking – not until what former slaves found after emancipation. Despite her personality quirks, I do think she was talented and never stopped working on her craft. An interesting pairing, her and Reagan, I think.

  2. You are right. She was a pioneer and,as is said, pioneers get the arrows. Yet, she treated an even earlier pioneer–Lillian Gish–rather poorly when they filmed “Whales of August.” Miss Davis’s barbs were so frequent and pointed that Miss Gish came up with a simple and effective remedy–she turned off her hearing aid.

    This is from People magazine (Dec 14, 1987, Vol 28, No. 24):

    “But Bette flew into Maine on a four-jet broomstick. Though smoking was banned in the wooden lodge where most of the scenes were shot, Davis smoked like a smudge pot. Time and again, when director Lindsay Anderson suggested a gesture or a line reading, she snorted: “That’s nonsense!” And she cut Lillian cold—seldom spoke to her, rarely even looked at her, except as the script required. Lillian was hurt, yet at the same time she was shocked into sympathy. “That face! Have you ever seen such a tragic face? Poor woman! How she must be suffering! I don’t think it’s right to judge a person like that. We must bear and forbear.”

    Up to a point. When Bette continued to treat her like a piece of talking furniture, Lillian invented her own subtle version of the silent treatment. Though somewhat hard of hearing, she had no trouble understanding what Ann or Vincent said. But when Bette spoke a line, Lillian would often look puzzled and then gently protest: “I just can’t hear what she’s saying.” Whereupon, while Bette sat seething, Anderson would repeat Bette’s line in a ringing voice, and Lillian would instantly pick up her cue and continue the scene.”

    But maybe, Miss Davis was just staying in character who was expected to be rather nasty in the film.

    • Never knew any of that. I wonder what the true root of her resentment was? I wonder if being that way was the only way she felt comfortable seeking attention? Perhaps she was like that as a child? I know she felt the burden of assuming responsibility for her one parent and sister.

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