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From Hollywood to Rome: Bette Davis expert heads to celebrity conference

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Published on 25 June 2018

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

A star studies expert from the University of Sunderland is travelling to Italy this week to share his knowledge on his favourite subject, the Hollywood movie star Bette Davis.

Dr Martin Shingler will be at the Celebrity Studies Conference in Rome, which sees prominent academics and scholars from around the world gathering together.

Dr Shingler has spent much of his career researching some of the biggest names in Hollywood and has co-edited a series of books on superstars of the big screen, past and present, as well as writing Star Studies: A Critical Guide (2012).

The Programme Leader in Film and Media at the University examines the cultural significance of celebrities, as well as their lasting influence and legacy.

He will be at the University of Rome in Sapienza on Wednesday to discuss the work and legacy of Bette Davis.

Dr Shingler said: “I’ve written and talked a lot about Davis’s work as a movie star and, more specifically, as an actor but I’ve never really focused on her celebrity before.

“I’ll be looking in particular at her later career in the 1980s when she struggled to find film work as an elderly actress but could still command attention on TV and in the press as a well-known personally with strong opinions and a distinctive image.”

During the 1930s, Bette Davis became a major film star at Warner Bros, later becoming infamous for her volatile temper, wicked sense of humour and controlling behaviour, as well as an increasing dependency on cigarettes and alcohol.

In her later years, she became a cult figure for a younger generation of audiences and a gay icon. By the time of her death in October 1989, she had transcended cult status to become a popular cultural icon with a strongly defined brand image that included her trademark eyes, brightly painted red lips and a gloved hand holding a smoking cigarette.

According to Dr Shingler, public fascination with the late actress has so far shown no sign of subsiding.

He said: “In 2018, the 110th anniversary of her birth, Bette Davis seems to be more relevant than ever when it comes to understanding the dynamics of stardom and celebrity.

“The recent high profile TV mini-series Feud, starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, provides ample evidence of Davis’s enduring fascination, as does the bestselling novel The Bette Davis Club by Jane Lotter.

“As far as I can see, Bette Davis is here to stay and I’m fascinated as to why she remains so relevant in contemporary culture almost 30 years after her death.”

The Celebrity Studies Conference sees some of the world’s most preeminent celebrity scholars meeting to debate and discuss their latest research.


Six of the Bette:

Whatever happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Davis’ famous feud with co-star Joan Crawford helped add fuel to the tense nature of this film, and the film itself created an entire subgenre of psycho-biddy pictures. With both actresses well past their respective primes, Davis played an over-the-hill child actress who feels her sister Blanche (Crawford), stole the spotlight from her by becoming famous later in life.

Now, Voyager (1942)

Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale delivers one of the most iconic lines in the history of American Cinema. “Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” She also has one of the great character arcs of all time, starting out the film as an awkward spinster and transforming into an elegant woman.

Old Acquaintance (1943)

Kit Marlowe is not only one of the most sophisticated characters that Davis played, but she turns out in the end to be one of the classiest as well. Marlowe is a critically acclaimed writer who inspires her best friend Millie Drake to take up writing as well.

Jezebel (1938)

Bette Davis won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role playing Julie Marsden, a spoiled, conniving and manipulative woman who will stop at nothing to gain the affections of Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda).

Dark Victory (1939)

 Another film nominated for Best Picture that would garner Davis her second consecutive Best Actress nomination is Dark Victory. Unfortunately, it went up against a juggernaut called Gone With the Wind. 

All About Eve (1950)

Winner of Best Picture, this was nominated for a whopping 14 Oscars. Davis was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for playing Margo Channing, the First Lady of American Theatre.