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While Bette Davis became famous through her movies, many people are familiar with her through Kim Carnes’ song “Bette Davis Eyes.” The woman depicted in the song is fascinating, but she’s not exactly a role model. So what did Davis herself think of the song?

Bette Davis with a newspaper
Bette Davis | Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

What it means to have ‘Bette Davis eyes’

To truly understand who Davis was, you have to understand Davis’ career. Davis was a famous actress known for playing characters who were often unsympathetic or morally grey. She was also known for her distinctive eyes. When Carnes says the main figure of her song has “Bette Davis Eyes,” she’s signalling to the audience that the character cannot be trusted, no matter how beautiful she is.

At the same time, the main character from “Bette Davis Eyes” seems cool in her way. She might mistreat her lovers but she’s still attractive and seductive. Because of this, Davis could have taken the song as either an insult or a compliment.

A scene in Of Human Bondage

How Kim Carnes come to record the song

It was the song’s connection to Davis which made Carnes want to sing it. “George Tobin had played me a Jackie DeShannon demo that was completely different,” Carnes told PopMatters. “It was all major chords, not minor, but the lyric killed me. Just the title — a song called ‘Bette Davis Eyes’? I’m interested! I kept saying to George, ‘I want to do that song!’ All of a sudden, it disappeared and he kept changing the subject.” Carnes later learned why Tobin acted that way.

“Donna Weiss, who wrote all the lyrics, called me and said, ‘Is it true that George Tobin played you ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ and that you really loved it?’” Carnes recalled. “I said, ‘Yes! Oh my gosh, I’d forgotten about it.’ She said, ‘Well, the reason why George never brought it up again is because he came to me and said that he could get you to do this song if we gave him half the publishing. Jackie and I wouldn’t do it.’ Thankfully, it didn’t happen.” Stereogum reports “Bette Davis Eyes” topped the Billboard Hot 100.

“Bette Davis Eyes”

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How Bette Davis felt about the song

Davis embraced the song. She wrote a letter to Carnes as well as the song’s writers — Donna Weiss and Jackie Shannon — thanking them mentioning her. Davis said “Bette Davis Eyes” made her seem cool to her grandchildren. It’s fascinating that Davis’ grandchildren were unimpressed by her string of classic films.

The other Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single that pays tribute to Bette Davis

Interestingly, “Bette Davis Eyes” is not the only Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single that mentions Davis. Madonna pays tribute to numerous Hollywood icons in her song “Vogue,” from Greta Garbo to Marlon Brando. Madonna mentions Davis in the lyric “Bette Davis, we love you.” Davis was not much of a singer but she left behind a musical legacy.