Thursday 8 April 2010
Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud
"It seemed to me that each one coveted what the other possessed. Joan envied Bette's incredible talent, and Bette envied Joan's seductive glamour."
- George Cukor, Hollywood director
I have just finished reading a fantastically entertaining book about old Hollywood, called Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, by journalist Shaun Considine. The book, which I bought last week, was first published in 1989 and it has been in print ever since. It chronicles the forty year-long feud between two of the greatest stars Hollywood ever produced - Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Considine, a respected New York journalist, first became intrigued at the idea of doing a joint biography of the two women when he interviewed Bette Davis in April 1973. Somehow hearing that he had spoken to Davis about the only movie they had ever done together - the psychological thriller Whatever happened to Baby Jane?, Joan Crawford called Considine at home to give him her version of her relationship with "Miss Davis." Over the next sixteen years, whilst working on other projects, Considine interviewed hundreds of people who knew the two women and what is so brilliant about the book is that he often quotes disagreeing sources one after another. Unlike the sexually-explicit David Bret biography Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr or the viciously critical Bette Davis by Barbara Leaming, Shaun Considine's book isn't trying to push any one thesis or version of the actresses' lives, he's just trying to give us all the information and let the people involved tell it in their own words. It's like a cross between celebrity magazine, a newsreel and a history book. So I, naturally, loved it.
To fill people in on the general story, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were considered the Queens of Hollywood's Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s. Both commanded enormous salaries and lived a life of unprecedented luxury and glamour. With the rise of television in the late 1950s, they struggled, before both re-inventing themselves as Queens of expensive Horror and psychological thrillers in the 1960s. They were both (allegedly) born in the same year - 1908; they both won at least one Oscar; they were both married multiple times; they both adopted children; both struggled with alcoholism in their later years; both spoke their mind and both were not afraid of fighting back against the often cruel and vicious male studio bosses who controlled the lives and careers of everyone in the Hollywood at the time. And they both hated each other. "I have never been anywhere, all over the world," said Davis (above right), "where they haven't asked about Joan and me. I don't mind it. I find it interesting. But I have always wondered. What do people think they see in us together? After all, we had nothing in common."
Over the course of her six decade career, Bette Davis appeared in 121 movies, beginning with her performance in The Bad Sister in 1931 and finally ending with Wicked Stepmother in 1989. She won the Oscar for Best Actress twice - firstly for her role as an adulterous actress in Dangerous (1935) and then as a scheming Southern belle in Jezebel (1938.) She was nominated eight more times – for her performances in Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944), All About Eve (1950), The Star (1952) and Whatever happened to Baby Jane? (1962.) But lost to Ginger Rogers, Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Holliday, Shirley Booth and Anne Bancroft, respectively. Her performances as Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Virgin Queen (1955) and as the Empress Carlotta of Mexico in Juarez (1939) were also highly critically-acclaimed, by both critics and historians.
Joan Crawford appeared in 94 movies, 9 television movies and 5 short features, beginning with Lady of the Night in 1925 and ending with the abysmal horror movie Trog in 1970. (If rumour was to be believed, she had also starred in a number of porno flicks during her early careers in the 1920s, all copies of which she bought and destroyed when she became famous – except for a few copies of one called The Plumber, which is still owned by a private gentlemen’s fraternity in America.) Unlike Davis, who was nominated ten times for the Best Actress Oscar, Joan was nominated three times – for her title role in Mildred Pierce in 1945, which she won; for Possessed two years later (she lost to Loretta Young) and finally in 1952, the only year she and Bette were nominated at the same time, for her role as a Broadway playwright in Sudden Fear. Like Bette, Joan lost that year.
Despite Miss Davis’s best claims to the contrary, it’s not true that Joan and Bette never went after the same role. Like most of Hollywood, they both fought tooth and nail to get the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, a part which eventually went to the superb but relatively-unknown British actress, Vivien Leigh. (Davis never forgot the insult and vetoed having Vivien work alongside her in the Southern gothic thriller Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte 25 years later. Bette claimed that since Vivien was British she couldn’t possibly play a Southern woman effectively – ignoring the fact that by then, Vivien Leigh had played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and won the Oscar for both performances.) There was also a rumour - furiously denied by Davis - that she desperately wanted the part of troubled Manhattan socialite Helen Wright in the 1946 Humoresque, a part which this time, Joan did get.
The main argument of The Divine Feud and, most people who knew the two women, is that they were mutually jealous of one another. Although both, particularly Bette, would rather have died than admit it. Bette Davis was - and still is - considered one of the greatest movie actresses of all-time. Joan was - and still is - considered to have been the apotheosis of the movie star: she was always glamorous, always immaculately groomed and always the Star. (Left) In her entire career, she never once left the house looking sloppy - she always wore heels, jewellery, perfect make up and designer couture. And when the 1960s and 1970s dawned, she complained that the world would be a lot happier a place if people were just a little bit more glamorous and took more pride in their appearance. Girls in flats, jeans and boys with long hair and bell-bottoms disgusted her - it's hard to imagine what she would have thought of uggs and sweat pants. Let alone the rise of Indie chic!
The feud between Joan and Bette apparently began - in Bette's mind, at least - in 1933, when she was an aspiring movie actress and Joan Crawford was already one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. It's true that occasionally Joan had to play second fiddle to the likes of Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel or that she lost out on the title role in Marie-Antoinette to Norma Shearer, but she was unquestionably a very great star. Meanwhile, having paid her dues in a series of miserable, "crappy," movies, Bette had finally landed a part in a controversial movie called Ex-Lady, about a woman who feels free to have sex outside of marriage. Knowing the topic was going to infuriate the guardians of public morality, Bette was confident that this meant she and the movie would be plastered all across the week's papers in a storm of moral outrage - all of which would, of course, have led to the movie being a huge hit and its star, finally, becoming a big name in Hollywood. (Right.) On the day of the premiere, however, Ex-Lady got a paragraph-long review and the majority of every newspaper was devoted to the breaking story of Joan Crawford's divorce from her second husband - movie star and pin-up, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. And from that moment on, Bette apparently nurtured a cancerous jealousy of Joan Crawford and everything about her.
As the 1930s progressed, however, Bette's disappointment over Ex-Lady's lukewarm reception proved to be only a temporary setback. Whilst Joan focused exclusively on playing sexy, glamorous parts like a gutsy social-climber in Sadie McKee, a sexy socialite in No More Ladies or an adulterous, beautiful gold-digger in The Women, Bette focused on playing memorable, often unlikable, characters, which few actresses at the time wanted to do. Bit by bit, Crawford, "the Queen of MGM," began to hear more and more people gush about the unbelievable acting talent of young Miss Bette Davis - beginning with her daring performance as a vicious, amoral Cockney slut in Of Human Bondage. (Below.)
Fearing competition, perhaps, Joan went out of her way to befriend the new star and sent her gifts and scripts she thought they might be able to work on together. Bette, still jealous of Joan's earlier-established position and convinced of her own superiority, rudely rebuffed her and made fun of her overtures of peace. Ever the perfect movie star, Joan always gushed about Bette's talent in interviews, but got her own back by running off to New York to elope with the actor Franchot Tone, who Bette was madly in love with. (She divorced him three years later to marry actor, Philip Terry.)
One of the things that I enjoyed most about The Divine Feud is that it's packed full of gossip, without ever becoming sensationalist or distasteful. We learn all about the mysterious death of Bette's third husband, Arthur Farnsworth, in 1943, when he collapsed and hit his head on the side of a Los Angeles sidewalk. (Some said Bette had pushed him in a bad temper and the studio helped cover up the scandal.) We hear about Joan's numerous (and I mean, numerous!) love affairs with dozens, if not hundreds, of men - and, according to some of her friends, a few women as well. (Considine reports one of Joan's friends saying that the middle-aged Crawford had a one-night stand with the young Marilyn Monroe in 1950s. Considine doesn't comment on whether he thinks it's true or not, which I approved of - I personally found it a bit unconvincing, but who knows?) Crawford really wasn't a woman to let anything get in her way: once, deciding she wished to sleep with the impossibly handsome and equally gay Rock Hudson, Joan invited him over for a swim. When he was showering in her pool house after, she slipped into the shower naked, covered his eyes and said, "Don't worry, darling. Just imagine I'm Clark Gable."
The sheer unadulterated bitchiness of Davis and Crawford can, at times, be either frustratingly childish or an absolute joy to read. Once, when she was having an affair with a well-connected movie agent, Joan - who was stressed about her forthcoming role in Mildred Pierce and spent her evenings worrying about whether or not she would be good enough - apparently began to get on her lover's nerves. "Hey Joan!" he snapped in bed one evening. "I'm an agent, not an actor. I represent actors all day long, and at night I just want to unwind and be myself." Joan stared at him for a minute and then said: "You're so right, Joe. You are an agent, but you're also a bore. Now get out." Knowing of Crawford's promiscuity, Bette Davis acidly remarked: "The bitch had slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie."
Both women struggled with getting older in the 1960s and 1970s, but Joan (left) found it much harder to deal with, since her looks had always been her greatest preoccupation. (She spent hours every day on looking perfect and millions of dollars on clothes.) At least she never had to worry about money - in middle-age, she married the President of Pepsi Cola and, from then on, became the company's spokeswoman. She had an enormous salary even after her husband's death and could use the company jet any time she liked. Knowing of Crawford's position at Pepsi, Bette installed a Coco-Cola vending machine in the middle of the set of their movie together, Whatever happened to Baby Jane? A movie which centred on the lives of two fading movie stars, both sisters, who hate each other and are trapped in a vicious cycle of dysfunction. (Below)
Shortly after Joan's death in 1977, her eldest daughter, Christina, published an infamous autobiography called Mommie Dearest, in which she chronicled the years of physical abuse and alcoholic self-indulgence of life with her famous mother. (below left) The book was an international bestseller and destroyed the late Crawford's reputation as the pinnacle of movie star sophistication. The book was later made into an infamously melodramtic movie, starring Faye Dunaway as Joan and the sheer (unintentional) campness of the movie helped damage Christina Crawford's credibility, as did the fact that her two sisters, Cathy and Cindy, publicly criticised her and branded her a liar. Bette, still alive, revelled in every minute of the Mommie Dearest saga and gave an interview saying: "The book makes Joan out to be a monster, but one gets the feeling Christina couldn't have made it up, could she? I don't blame the daughter, don't blame her at all." Then, in 1985, Bette got the same treatment from her own daughter, B.D., who published My Mother's Keeper (right) - painting her mother to be a meglomaniacal, deceitful, vicious drunk. Maybe never physically abusive, but certainly bitchy, racist, cruel, manipulative and self-obssessed. Davis never spoke to her daughter again. Bette's son Michael, like Crawford's other two daughters, claimed his sister had been over-indulged by his mother as a child and turned into a jealous, spiteful liar.
By letting the people involved tell their own story, Shaun Considine captures all that was best and worst about Hollywood in its heyday. The result is that Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud is a clever, readable gem of a book, full of bitchy one-liners, attempts at sabotage, man-stealing, professional rivalry, glitz, glamour and tragedy. It is by turns moving, hilarious, enthralling and endlessly entertaining! On hearing of Davis's death, one of her old co-stars remarked of her and Crawford: "They don't make 'em like those old broads anymore!" And despite my better instincts, I can't help but feel that's a pity.