October 16, 1989 12:01 AM EDT

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The frail wee bird tottered onto Manhattan’s Lincoln Center stage last April, surveyed the gilded hall in which she was being paid tribute, and bellowed her famous line from Beyond the Forest: ”What a dump!” Even in her decrepitude, sapped by a stroke and the rodentoid cancer inside her, Bette Davis knew how to fill a room with her majestic arrogance. When she died last week near Paris at 81, that hard-earned pride was Davis’ enduring legacy.

And how her pride spilled across the screen! In 101 feature films and TV movies, she created Hollywood’s first and finest portrait of the thoroughly modern woman: her independence born in neurosis, her strength forged in professional and domestic combat, her man of the moment an irrelevance or a desperate burden. ”I either have to hold him off/ Or have to hold him up,” she sang in Thank Your Lucky Stars. The only thing Bette Davis cared to hold up was her head.

Young Bette (she said it was pronounced Bet) held up her head through her parents’ dissolved marriage, a childhood exiled to boarding schools, an apprenticeship under movie moguls ready to crush a headstrong actress. She got what she wanted and paid for it: four stormy marriages of her own, an estranged daughter, a lonely life. Davis hoped her epitaph would read SHE DID IT THE HARD WAY.

How hard? She was canned in 1931 by Universal’s Carl Laemmle, who said she had about ”as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville.” Laemmle’s loss was Warner Bros.’ gain; she worked there for 17 years. In her first films Davis already had the mannerisms down: the window-washer hand gestures, the lush cigarette smoking, the too precise diction. And of course the Bette Davis eyes, which she batted like whiffle balls at any man in her path. Yet Davis felt strangled in minor roles and lame movies. It took a loan-out to RKO in 1934 to prove she could be more than a society ingenue. In Of Human Bondage she played a tart waitress with a blend of shopgirl prissiness and sexual loathing. In 1936 she won an Oscar for Dangerous and soon after walked out on Warners. The studio sued to get her back.

Warners was a tough guy’s studio, and it took a tough woman to stand up to the boys in the front office. When Davis returned to work, she was rewarded with a golden decade of melodrama. Now a Davis heroine would seize her destiny (The Letter) or fight it to the death (Jezebel, her second and last Oscar). She would go blind with dignity (Dark Victory) or go to hell in style (The Little Foxes). She could be noble as well (in All This and Heaven Too and Now, Voyager), while making the world seem a meaner place for insisting that she bend her passion to its propriety.

And then, having created Bette Davis, she got to do Bette Davis: to heighten her performances till they swerved between tragedy and camp. She served wit on a knife to Anne Baxter in All About Eve, a rat on a platter to Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She kicked her style into a higher gear for a new movie audience raised on sensation. She could still cause one; she could still be one.

”So many people know me,” Davis says in All About Eve. ”Except me. I wish somebody would tell me about me.” Moviegoers could tell a lot just from her movie dialogue. On the callowness of men: ”I’d like ta kiss ya, but I just washed my hair” (The Cabin in the Cotton). On the road of romance: ”Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” (All About Eve). On accommodating a lonely life: ”Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars” (Now, Voyager). So no grieving on Bette Davis’ account, or our own. For more than a half-century, we had the star.

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