Bette Davis, First Woman Ever Appointed, Resigns as President of Film Academy

Bette Davis won her first Oscar in 1936 for
Bette Davis won her first Oscar in 1936 for "Dangerous"

Less than two months after being appointed the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Bette Davis resigned. The two-time best actress winner was appointed November 7, and wrote in her autobiography, “As the only woman so honored, I was frankly proud.”1 However, it became clear after her first meeting that the board had no interest in listening to her ideas: “I had been put in as President merely as a figurehead.”2

In some ways, Davis was the Meryl Streep of her day, so beloved by voters that she was constantly a nominee. She was nominated for best actress a grand total of eleven times, five of which were in a row. Succeeding producer Walter Wanger (Stagecoach, Foreign Correspondent) as president, Davis came in at an unstable moment—right before the country entered the war. Many of the ideas she presented at that first meeting had to do with World War II, and that year’s ceremony.

Bob Hope with Walter Wanger at the 1945 Academy ceremony
Bob Hope with Walter Wanger at the 1945 Academy ceremony

In a change from the usual banquet, she suggested “that we present the Oscars in a large theatre, charging at least twenty-five dollars a seat and giving the proceeds to the British War Relief. The members of the board were horrified. Such an evening would rob the Academy of all dignity.”3

Davis proposed actress Rosalind Russell take over running the ceremony from previous chairman Mervyn LeRoy. Her final suggestion was to take away extras’ voting privileges, “since many of them didn’t even speak English, let alone know anything about the excellence of performance.”4 Supposedly this was the last straw, leading Wanger to ask, “What have you got against the Academy?” 5

Instead of taking her suggestion of a war relief benefit, on December 17, the Academy announced there would be no banquet in 1942. This was not received well. In The Hollywood Reporter, editor W.R. Wilkerson wrote, “The Academy offers a poor example to all our people and makes a pretty hefty thrust at national good morale by calling off an event that has been a good diversion for the movie bugs of our country—which means a big slice of the U.S. population.”

When Davis threatened to resign, Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck threatened she would “never work in Hollywood again.”

“I took the chance and resigned anyway,” she wrote.6

The actress issued a statement claiming she was stepping down, “because her health will not permit her to devote sufficient time to the job.”7 In the interim, Wanger took over; in January he called the banquet back on, albeit in a slightly modified format. Despite her resignation, Davis was still nominated for her work in The Little Foxes, though she understandably skipped the ceremony.

As for her suggested changes?

“Jean Hersholt was the next President,” Davis wrote. “During his term the Academy took the vote away from the extras—and the Academy dinner became a thing of the past. They have held the event in theaters ever since.”8

References   [ + ]

1. Davis, Bette, The Lonely Life (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962), p. 251.
2, 3, 4, 6. Davis 1962, p. 252.
5. Holden, Anthony, Behind the Oscar (New York: Plume, 1994), p. 152.
7. “Screen News Here and in Hollywood.” The New York Times, December 27, 1941.
8. Davis 1962, p. 253.