Monday, May 23, 2011

Bigger Than Life

Thirty years ago, Kim Carnes was dominating the Billboard Hot 100 with "Bette Davis Eyes". It would spend a total of nine weeks at the top spot and win the Grammy for Song of the Year. The song is about an aggressively sexual woman, with undercurrents of deception and objectification. Behind her external charms, she's a manipulative person, willing to use you for her own gratification.

"She'll take a tumble on you
Roll you like you were dice
Until you come up blue
She's got Bette Davis eyes."

Here's the original vid:

A great deal can be said for the vocal qualities of the performance or the engaging rhythm, but I think that the thing that makes this song stand out is the evocative qualities associated with the primary cultural reference, the "Bette Davis" eyes.

Bette Davis was an actress from the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. She was frequently cast in the role of shrewish, tempestuous, and dangerous women. She won the Oscar in 1935 for Dangerous and in 1938 for Jezebel, both of which featured her in the role of a "troublesome" woman. My favorite Bette Davis movie is All About Eve. Davis's part has originally been intended for Claudette Colbert, but, when Davis was cast, the character's personality was rewritten to be more abrasive.  
But it wasn't just on the Silver Screen that Bette Davis had a harsh persona. Her personal and professional life was filled with strife and animosity. One of her most famous quotes is:

"I do not regret one professional enemy I have made. Any actor who doesn't dare to make an enemy should get out of the business."

And so it is that Bette Davis became the icon for beautiful but forceful women. At Forest Lawn, her tombstone reads "She did it the hard way."

And it is the evocation of this attitude that makes "Betty Davis Eyes" memorable. It isn't just about a ravenously lustful lady, but about the sharpness that underlies her behavior.

Here's a vid of the song that I feel better captures its essence:

Here's a link to Kim Carnes' Wikipedia page and her official website.

And here's a link to Bette Davis' Wikipedia page and her official website.


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