Born in Perth, Western Australia, on April 23, 1955, Davis rebelled against her Catholic upbringing by leaving home at the age of 17 to join a rock band, which toured across Asia for six months.
Upon her return to Australia, she soon gave up her singing career to attend the Western Australia Institute of Technology and then concentrated on another branch of performing at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. At NIDA she trained with the likes of Mel Gibson, with whom she starred in a school production of Romeo and Juliet.
In her subsequent stage work, Davis gravitated toward characters whose significant traits alternated between steel-like strength and vacillating vulnerability: she played the title roles in Lulu and Piaf.
In films from 1977, Davis ascended to stardom as Sybilla Melvin in director Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979), a performance that won her several awards, including the Australian and British equivalents of the Oscar. She was likewise showered with industry and film-festival honors for her work in Hoodwink (1981), The Winter of Our Dreams (1982), Heatwave (1982), and Kangaroo (1984), appearing in the latter film with her husband, Colin Friels. She was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of young Golda Meir in the TV miniseries A Woman Called Golda > (1982), and earned her first Oscar nomination for her interpretation of the enigmatic Adela Quested in David Lean's A Passage to India in 1984.
Described by one colleague as "the patron saint of modern emotions," Davis has never done anything by halves: she was a lusty George Sand in Impromptu (1991), the junkie wife of William Lee in Naked Lunch (1991), a bibulous, self-destructive Hollywood ghostwriter in Barton Fink (1991), an overbearing ex-spouse in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives (1992) (the second of her Oscar-nominated turns), and a hostage from Hell in The Ref
Davis' films during the second half of the '90s were marked by a notably uneven quality, and she could be seen in everything from the wildly idiosyncratic Children of the Revolution (1996) to further collaborations with Allen, Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Celebrity (1998). In 1999, she received another Emmy nomination for her work in Dash and Lilly, in which she starred as Lillian Hellman opposite Sam Shepard as Dashiell Hammett. Even though that particular award eluded her grasp, it was but a few short years later that Davis would be recognized with a Golden Globe for her performance in Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.