Bette Davis, the First Female Head of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Got Mad and Quit

In Depth

In 1941, 33-year-old Bette Davis was appointed the first female president of the Academy of Motion Pictures. She didn’t even make it to the two-month mark before she got annoyed with the fact they didn’t really want her do anything except look pretty—and then she bailed.

The Hollywood Reporter throws it back to this chapter in entertainment history: Davis had already racked up two Best Actress wins when she was nominated for the gig by Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck. “If any woman here deserves that job, it’s Bette,” said columnist Hedda Hopper. Interesting phrasing there, Hedda.

Davis arrived at the first meeting with two big suggestions. For starters, she wanted to retool the Oscars to reflect the fact that Pearl Harbor had happened. Her plan sounds very, very reasonable:

First, she wanted to reformat the annual Academy Awards banquet. Since her election, Pearl Harbor had been attacked, thrusting America into World War II and prompting calls for the cancellation of the Oscars, which had theretofore centered around dinner and dancing. She argued that it would be more appropriate to scrap the dinner and dancing and present the awards in a large theatre, charging at least $25 a seat and donating the proceeds to war relief efforts. “The members of the board were horrified,” she later said. “Such an evening would rob the Academy of all dignity.”

She also wanted to ban extras from voting on awards, partly because she wasn’t too sure about their aesthetic judgement (Bette, you snob) and partly out of concern “that their votes could be swung behind whichever studio hired them around the time of balloting,” says THR.

Neither idea went over very well. To hear Davis tell it, they didn’t really want any suggestions out of her at all. “I was not supposed to preside intelligently,” she said years later. Davis did not appreciate their attitude. She would eventually regret quitting, but explained her reasoning at the time: “They wanted a mere figurehead, someone famous to publicize the Academy. I didn’t know that. I wanted to rule.”

So she quit.

Naturally Zanuck gave her the old “you’ll never work in this town again” song and dance, which of course was wrong—the very next year she’d make the wonderful Now, Voyager, and, in 1950, All About Eve would secure her place in movie history forever. The Hollywood Reporter notes that the Academy would eventually pull extras’ voting rights for the Oscars, as Davis suggested, as well as ditching the dinner-and-dancing portions of the evening.

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Photo via Getty.

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