Friday, September 11

Joan and Bette

What sort of relationship movie queens Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had has been the subject of speculation for many decades.  Most would probably subscribe to the theory that they had a grand feud.  Such chatter filled the gossip columns of the day and has been written about in books, including one that concerned itself with nothing else.  But was it for real or did it just make good copy?  When Hedda and Louella lacked newsworthy items for their columns, might they simply hauled out some old Joan & Bette well-worn stories to fill out the space?  If it was a real, honest-to-goodness feud, then what caused it? 

Prior to 1961 I suspect the so-called feud was more Hollywood hype than anything.  Both women feuded with their husbands (four a piece) and obviously with their daughters (since both daughters wrote scathing books) and both feuded with directors and costars.  Davis did have a rip-snorting feud with actress Miriam Hopkins and Crawford was known to be unkind to younger actresses in her films.   (No, not you, Ann Blyth.  We've already covered that.)

I do believe they were rivals in some regards and there came a time when there was bad blood and it likely stemmed from something not too difficult to understand in these cases... jealousy.  The fact is during the 1940s and 1950s they hardly knew one another.  They hadn't that many opportunities to even run into each other.  They had not worked together nor for many years were they even at the same studio.  They didn't even run into one another at parties because, although Joan was a fixture on the party circuit, Davis rarely attended them mainly because she deplored small talk.

By the time Bette made her first movie, Joan was already a star.  By the time Bette was star caliber (and it took a number of years), she became a far better actress than Joan.  Crawford, of course, was always the grand movie star.  Davis might have been a little green over how glamorous and stylish Crawford always appeared.  That was a field upon which Davis was a bit out of her element.

Davis' great idol was Garbo whom she was dying to meet and never did.  Consider that in view of the fact that Davis leased Garbo's home for a spell.  Furthermore that home was just down the road   from Crawford's.  After Crawford got wind of Davis's feelings about Garbo, Crawford laid it on pretty thick in the press how much she admired the Swede with whom she had worked in Grand Hotel (1932).

Those who knew both claimed that JC had the hots for BD.  Davis, despite a large gay following, had actually never much cottoned to gay folks and she especially didn't like it when she heard of Crawford's crush on her.  What Crawford did not like was that Davis was infatuated with Crawford's husband, Franchot Tone, while they appeared together in Dangerous (1935). They also shared some of the same boyfriends though not at the same time.

Bette never had to sleep around the way Joan did.  Frankly, Bette, with her snooty yankee (she loved that word) ways, was a great deal more chaste than Joan.   I never had to sleep around as some actresses have.  I made it to the top on talent,  Miss D would purr.

Crawford got the message loud and clear.  She was jealous of Bette's talent.  Once Davis made Of Human Bondage (1934), Hollywood rarely stopped talking about her.  She won an Oscar for Dangerous (more a consolation prize for not winning for Bondage)and another three years later for Jezebel.  Crawford would not win hers until 1947 (for Mildred Pierce).

If this weren't enough, there were mother issues.  Davis told everyone how much she adored her mother.  She would often include her in movie magazine articles.  The truth is they were close but what may not have been as well known was how much they fought.  Davis preferred, of course, a sanitized version and mutual friends would comment how much this hurt (read: jealous) Crawford because she had a dreadful relationship not only with her mother but her entire family.

In the mid-1940s, the drums might have beat louder when Crawford was ingloriously dumped by her longtime studio, MGM, and tail between her legs, trotted off to Warner Bros where Davis was the queen.  It must have been humiliating for Crawford, a woman to whom appearances meant everything.  She was shoved into Hollywood Canteen (1944), the all-star spectacle about actresses and actors entertaining visiting soldiers, but in a cameo role.  Davis, on the other hand, had a larger role because she was actually one of the co-founders of the Canteen

They were both difficult actresses, controlling-type personalities and used to getting their own way.  But the similarities ended there.  Bette didn't bond with a lot of people.  She was there to give one hell of a performance and others had better give her a wide path to do that.  She fought with directors and she fought with studio chieftain Jack Warner.  Their dislike of one another was legendary.  She didn't battle a lot with costars because in her heart, they were really beneath her.  (This is partly why I don't think the Crawford-Davis feud was quite what it's been purported to be because Davis would find it too undignified.  The queen fight with that heavily made-up movie starlet?)

Crawford got along with most of her male costars (Jack Palance and Sterling Hayden were colorful exceptions) but directors appeared to be more her forte.  Her avocation was being the other woman.  She brought trays of food to her sets and gifted directors with presents at the end of a shoot.  She usually spoke in that unctuous voice that Faye Dunaway would one day perfect so well in Mommie Dearest.  From her queen bee role she would bestow favors and trinkets among the crew.   

Her voice could shatter dressing room mirrors when something went wrong with costumes or hairdressing or makeup.  If screaming didn't work, she would not be reluctant to lock herself in her dressing room or even go home.

One rarely heard the actresses mentioned in the same breath during the 1950s.  They no longer worked for Warners and neither had the career she once had.  They still had their fans but their films were not the shiny pennies of their pasts.  Joan did most anything she could because she had a lavish lifestyle she needed to keep up.  Bette had slipped so far that she would put an ad in the trade papers asking for employment.  Never in a million years would Joan Crawford do that.

In 1961 Davis was appearing on Broadway in Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana and who should show up back stage to pay her respects?  Yep, you guessed it.  Crawford told Davis that she had found a property she wanted the two of them to do together.  They would play former movie stars who now live together in disharmony.  Davis was speechless for probably the first time in her life.

After she'd read a rough draft of the script, Davis called the director and told him a couple of things.  One was that she would only play the title star and that, of course, meant top billing.  The other thing she told director Robert Aldrich was that she knew Crawford made it a practice to sleep with her directors (Joan made 1956s Autumn Leaves with him) but if they did that during this film, she, Davis, would quit.  She said it would place her in an unfair position and there would be none of that.

It's been said they got on amicably while making What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.  Davis said she put up with Joan's ways and that they were polite to one another.  She thought it helped that the two characters were not loving sisters.  She also added that there were never two actresses more different in every way. 

If there was any feud of any note, it occurred around the time Baby Jane was released.  It may have started when Davis appeared on The Tonight Show talking about how difficult it was to get financing for a film that would star two old broads.  Shortly after, she received a perfumed note from Crawford telling her to not refer to her as an old broad again.

What did make it into the public consciousness is when Crawford was asked what it was like working with Davis and she replied sweetly that it was a challenge.  Davis said... that bitch

Then the gates of hell must have opened when the Academy Award nominations came out and Davis was among the five nominees for best actress and Crawford was not.  Hell hath no fury...  Friends said that Crawford was incensed at the attention Davis garnered from getting the nomination.   The movie had generated talk about both actresses and now it was only Davis.  Ruthless Joan was about to make an appearance.

She contacted the other four nominees, Katharine Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page and Lee Remick, and told them that she would be only too happy to accept the award for them should they not be able to be there in person.  Crawford added that she was already going to be a presenter (for best director).  When it turned out that absent Anne Bancroft won (for The Miracle Worker), Crawford flounced on stage and cooed and gooed over the win for somebody who so obviously deserved it.  (Actually, she did.)  She continued her antics back stage with the other winners while Davis fumed in her dressing room.

It wasn't over yet.  But almost.

Director Aldrich contacted the two effantes terribles and asked them to costar in What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte.  He only completed hap when Bette said no, she wouldn't work with Crawford again.  One could hardly blame her but Aldrich was adamant.  Their negotiating point became the title.  Aldrich saw it as a smart move as a takeoff on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and while Davis agreed, she hated it.  There was a song in it called Hush... Hugh, Sweet Charlotte and she thought it would serve as a better title.  Aldrich said he would do it but Crawford comes with the package.  Davis hated it when she was outfoxed. 

Davis had no intention of being nice to Crawford this time around.  She was ready for battle.  I have always thought part of the problem Davis had was the roles themselves compared to the ones in Jane.  In that film Davis had the upper hand and Crawford played the weaker role.  In Charlotte it would be reversed and I suspect with her newly-minted animosity for her costar, Davis didn't like that.  Reel and real was too closely aligned for her tastes.

Crawford showed up on the Louisiana location and likely sniffed the air for signs of fractiousness.  And she found them.  So she got sick, went home, went to bed, and never returned.  Davis got her old Warners buddy, Olivia de Havilland, the part of the scheming Miriam

In later years both actresses said they were always asked in interviews about the great feud and neither much cared for that.  What are we, spat Davis, a team

Next posting:
A good 40s film

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