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Tuesday 23 January 2018

Bette Davis v Joan Crawford: battle of the bitches

Real-life bitter rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Real-life bitter rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

Paul Whitington

From Glee and American Horror Story to The People v OJ Simpson, TV writer and producer Ryan Murphy has brought us some wonderfully melodramatic moments in recent years, but his next project promises to top the lot. Like American Horror Story, Feud will be an anthology series featuring a different and distinct storyline each season. And the first run will dramatise the vindictive spat that erupted between two of Hollywood's finest divas on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.

For those of you who haven't seen it, that strange 1960s Gothic extravaganza concerned two washed-up movie actress sisters who go to war in a tumbledown mansion, and starred two implacable real-life enemies - Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Jessica Lange will play Crawford, and Susan Sarandon, Davis, in a series that promises to leave no opportunity for hysterics and hissy fits behind.

And while Mr Murphy's use of soapy melodrama is sometimes excessive, it will be hard for him to exaggerate the ridiculous bitterness of this feud, because Bette Davis and Joan Crawford despised each other from way back.

Their enmity dated back to the 1940s, and Joan Crawford's arrival at Warner Brothers. When Crawford was transferred in from MGM in 1943, Davis was the undisputed queen bee of the Warner Bros lot, the incandescent star of hits like Jezebel, Dark Victory and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. But Crawford was nothing if not steely, and soon pushed her way to the top.

When her Oscar-winning performance in Michael Curtiz's 1945 film noir Mildred Pierce confirmed her as Warners' leading lady, Davis was incandescent. Claiming that Crawford had "slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie", Bette moved Joan to the front of her lengthy shit list.

But by the early 1960s, both of them had been forced to eat a bit of humble pie. When Robert Aldrich began shooting Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in the late summer of 1962, Joan Crawford was yesterday's news, and Bette Davis was so desperate for a gig that she'd recently placed an ad in Variety offering her services. They both craved a comeback, but on the face of it, Baby Jane didn't sound like the most promising vehicle.

Hastily adapted from a trashy novel and shot in less than a month on a small budget, the film's grotesque and outlandish storyline demanded that the divas leave their dignity at the studio gates and look their age (both were then comfortably the wrong side of 50). Yet this unlikely project turned out to be a minor masterpiece, and its success ensured that Davis and Crawford would both continue working until the bitter end. Their enmity was, of course, well known. "I wouldn't piss on Crawford if she was on fire," Ms Davis had once pithily remarked, and the feeling was most definitely mutual.

But this was precisely the reason why Robert Aldrich and his producers had hired them, hoping that some of that vinegar would find its way into the final cut. And it certainly did, because although both ladies saw Baby Jane as a chance to revive their fortunes and established an uneasy truce, it didn't hold for long.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is an archly camp and grimly humorous horror melodrama. It tells the story of two sisters, Jane and Blanche Hudson, who used to be film stars but now live in secluded obscurity in a crumbling Hollywood mansion.

Davis plays Jane, or 'Baby Jane' as she was known when she was a hugely popular child star in Vaudeville. An all-singing, all-dancing Shirley Temple-type, she was coddled and indulged by her father at the expense of her younger sister, Blanche.

The tables were turned when the girls grew up, however. As Jane's star rapidly faded, Blanche became a successful screen actress, and the elder sibling was soon reduced to bit parts in her sister's vehicles. All that, though, came to an end one night in front of the mansion's imposing gates. Returning from a Hollywood party, Blanche's legs were crushed by a car apparently driven by Jane, crippling her for life.

Though Jane was questioned by police, no charge was ever brought, and now, years later, the pair live alone and bitterly in their no longer fashionable neighbourhood. Jane cares for the wheelchair-bound Blanche, but resents her duties and the droning buzzer her sister uses to summon her.

Caked in guignol make-up that Davis cunningly applied herself, Jane is boozy, demented and delusional, and Blanche decides it would do them both good to move to somewhere smaller and more manageable. But when Jane overhears a conversation between Blanche and her lawyer, she leaps to the conclusion that her sister wants to put her in an asylum.

As Jane's mood darkens, she rings the lawyer impersonating her sister to call the deal off, then begins to vent her copious spleen.

She beats her sister, pushes her down the stairs, serves her a dead rat for "din-dins", then ultimately imprisons and tries to kill her. Simultaneously, she entertains delusions about reviving her career, but both her and her sister's illusions are cruelly shattered before the film ends with a surprising twist.

Despite an initial show of frosty on-set cordiality between Baby Jane's formidable stars, it was only a matter of time before open hostilities erupted. When Jane finds her sister Blanche on the telephone looking for help and attacks her, Davis thought it might be a good idea to put the boot in for real, and left Crawford needing stitches.

In retaliation, Joan hid weights in her dressing gown so that when Bette had to drag the supposedly unconscious Blanche, she put her back out. Crawford's late husband had owned Pepsi, and she was still a member of the board: fiendishly, Davis had a giant Coca Cola machine installed on the set. And the battle continued after filming was over.

When Davis was on a TV chat show promoting the movie, she told a story about Jack Warner being told that she and Crawford were to star in the film, and saying "I wouldn't give a plugged nickel for either one of those two old broads". The next day, Davis received a terse telegram from Crawford saying "In future, please do not refer to me an old broad!"

Davis missed no opportunity to bad mouth her rival on the set. She moaned about Crawford's vanity, and her constant desire to appear beautiful on screen. "As part of her wardrobe," Bette claimed, "Miss Crawford owned three sizes of bosoms. In the famous scene in which she lay on the beach, Joan wore the largest ones. The scene called for me to fall on top of her. I almost had the breath knocked out of me - it was like falling on two footballs!"

But Joan would get her own back. When Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her exceptional performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Crawford reportedly campaigned against her behind the scenes. And when Bette was beaten out by Anne Bancroft at the 1962 Oscars, guess who accepted on Bancroft's behalf - that's right, old Joan. And yet it's entirely possible Davis and Crawford didn't get on because they were cut from the same cloth. Both had impressive drinking problems, four husbands, blind ambition and disaffected children. Soon after Crawford's death in 1977, her eldest daughter, Christina, published a most unflattering account of her childhood, Mommie Dearest (see below) in which she portrayed her mother as an indifferent and even cruel parent.

And Davis had to endure the scathing tell-all while still alive: in 1985, her daughter Barbara described her as a controlling, self-obsessed anti-Semite in her book, My Mother's Keeper. Davis did not speak to her daughter again before she died in 1989.

Two pieces of work then, these bitchy Hollywood divas. But in these anodyne times where everyone pretends to have loved working with everyone else, how bracingly honest all this naked hostility seems. And they kept it up until the end.

When Crawford kicked the bucket in 1977, Davis was asked to comment on the sad news. She thought hard for a moment, before replying: "You should never say bad things about the dead, only good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good."

Mommie  Dearest

2016-05-28_ent_21313444_I1.JPG
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

Joan Crawford was a great battler, a formidable operator who survived several career slumps and always came up smiling. But her last few years were spent in unhappy, self-imposed exile from the spotlight, and worse would follow after her death. In 1978, her adopted daughter Christina Crawford released a scathing memoir.

In Mommie Dearest, she portrayed Crawford as a self-absorbed monster who'd only adopted her five children as a publicity stunt.

According to Christina, her mother drank like a fish and took many lovers both male and female. Joan had a mania for neatness, and in Mommie Dearest loses the plot when she finds her daughter's clothes hanging on vulgar wire hangers rather than the fancy quilted kind, and beats Christina with the offending hanger. Crawford would also present Christina with the same dinner three or four days running until she ate it, and later sent her off to strict private boarding schools. Joan would have been horrified to see all this turned into a lurid TV movie, but might at least have approved of the casting - she was played with aplomb by Faye Dunaway (above).

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