Bette Davis’s performance in “Of Human Bondage”, back in 1934 was widely acclaimed. So much so, that when she was not nominated for an Academy Award, several influential people (even Norma Shearer, who was actually nominated) mounted a campaign to have her name included.
The Academy relaxed its rules for that year to allow for the consideration of any performer nominated in a write-in vote; meaning, any performance of the year was technically eligible for consideration. For a period of time in the 1930s, the Academy revealed the second-and third-place vote-getters in each category: Davis placed third for best actress.
By the time Davis was married and living in a house purchased by her husband (and that fragile ego of his), she had appeared in more than 20 films but wasn't yet typecast into her later-famous image.
It was in a film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel "Of Human Bondage" where she portrayed the ruthless, cruel, and self-centered Mildred Rogers, that she earned her critical acclaim and sparked a unique path for her career. Many actresses at the time feared taking on such cruel and unsympathetic characters, with several refusing the part, but Bette Davis welcomed this new opportunity to showcase her talents.
Trusting Her Instincts
Since Bette was not yet a national sensation, some people still doubted her capabilities. She quickly proved her worth to everyone, though. Initially, Leslie Howard, Bette's co-star, was dismissive of her but after seeing her abilities, he realized she was more talented than he believed.
Even as a young actress, director John Cromwell, trusted her instincts and gave her a lot of freedom to take the role to different, interesting places. The film was a success and the critics were all saying that Davis's unapologetic characterization of such a cruel and unsympathetic character made it so intriguing for them to watch.
Despite her spectacular performance in "Of Human Bondage" and the praising critics, Davis didn't receive any official accolades for her part. It was only her role in "Dangerous" that she won her first Oscar. Bette played a troublesome actress, alongside Franchot Tone.
Davis remarked that the Oscar felt like a consolation prize for her performance in "Of Human Bondage ". It was only decades later that Davis would admit she fell in love with Franchot during filming, but she had to keep it private. Franchot Tone later married actress Joan Crawford, and some would say that's how their feud began.
Films have trained audiences to expect certain conventions when it comes to actresses and their portrayal of female characters, but Bette's role in "Of Human Bondage" proved to be a readily received respite for movie-goers. Apparently, audiences were ready to be challenged and given something a little different than the regular, chewed-up formula of female roles.
The New York Times even commended her on becoming "one of the most interesting actresses on screen." Bette had a flair for playing dramatic characters but despite all the praise, her hopes for more serious roles were dashed as Warner Bros. persistently offered her 'lighthearted' roles.