What’s notable is that whether she won or not, or whether she was even nominated, Bette Davis always gave the same strength of performance. She burned up scenes and left them on the ground of the theater like so much ash from a cigarette. No matter the role, no matter the film, she gave a smoldering turn, and her presence as heiress Judith Traherne in Dark Victory is no different. In fact, had it not been for the unreal performance from Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind (which also won Best Picture that year), Davis would have had another statue for her mantel.
So what’s so damned special about this role?
For one, the raw humanity of it all. Davis was used to playing cruel-eyed characters, but this was her most soaring opportunity to take that apathy and turn it into something that everyone in the audience could recognize in themselves. When Traherne is diagnosed with cancer, it levels the playing field. When the operation isn’t entirely successful, it rips up all the grass and plants a tombstone at the fifty-yard line. Suddenly, her salty exterior becomes just transparent enough to see the frightened soul hiding inside.