Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Both names bring to mind the soft black-and-white era of the ‘30s, glamour, fame, and romance. Two women who were stubborn and inspired and incredibly gifted. Two icons that are almost always mentioned in the same breath due to their tumultuous enmity. Legend has it that their epic feud began over a man, Franchot Tone. Tone played Bette’s lead opposite in Dangerous, the first film for which she received an Oscar. Both she and Joan are rumoured to have loved him, but when Joan nailed him down in marriage, it was at a time when Bette’s career was waning and Joan’s beginning to wax. As if heartbreak wasn’t enough.
But just like every relationship, Bette’s and Joan’s was much more complicated than it seemed. Their feud is so legendary that it’s hard to distinguish what is fact or fiction, particularly given that the story varies widely depending on who you ask and how exciting they find the retelling. One thing is clear: Bette was always much more vocal and biting about their battle – especially in her sharp-tongued later years – while Joan carried it until her death within her signature, ice queen persona.
As different as their coping mechanisms might have been, the two had a lot in common. Joan and Bette were of Hollywood’s golden age, but for distinctly different reasons.
Joan was a trendsetter, renowned for her shoulder pads, fierce eyebrows and nail varnish. She perfected the shop-girl role from weepy romantics to stern delivery. Joan Crawford was the Hollywood’s quintessential flapper who her career with dance. She was famously vain, committed to maintaining a believable illusion of glamour at all times, even dressing to the nines to get cigarettes at the corner store. She lived by her famous quote, “If you want the girl next door, go next door.” She was a queen. Joan had a tenacity and a perfectionist’s dedication to her craft. Having left school after 5th grade, she spent her early years looking up words in the dictionary to make sure she was pronouncing them right on set.
Bette, never one to be typecast (but almost always a dramatic and enthusiastic smoker) was the first leading lady to take on the “bitch heroine” that, according to her, other female stars were not willing to do at that time. She reveled in yelling at her male counterparts, slapping them, challenging them, espousing truths and wisecracks in her signature idiosyncratic way. She spent considerable effort reinventing herself through the years, always looking for a challenge, a complex role, or a meaningful character.
Both of these women were aging starlets who had paved the way for others. Both actively challenged their superiors, took strikes, negotiated for deals and took a strong hand in deciding which way their career went. A feud is certainly not the most interesting thing about two formidable forces in Hollywood who aimed for and succeeded at reinventing themselves and making it to their deaths. Bette knew she had something special and wanted the opportunity to show it; Joan knew she was committed and called upon, and she wanted to prove it.
They would come together on screen only once, in 1962 for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. Bette was 54 and Joan around 60 (nobody really knows her real birthdate, which is perfectly and poetically in keeping with her broader legacy). The film was marketed as a chiller at a time when censorship in Hollywood was changing. Films and adaptations from that era and onward (for instance Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) got away with a lot more than their predecessors, and cinema was building to an incredible peak as the restrictions were loosened. Baby Jane had several scenes that were terrifying in their time, and the movie was wildly successful, reaching critical acclaim (including 5 Academy Award nominations and a win for Black & White Costume Design) .
The classic film starred the women as sisters hanging onto the shreds of earlier fame. Bette Davis is the titular Jane, who desperately clings to her childhood success and is charged with caring for her elder sister. Blanche (Crawford) is confined to a wheelchair after a weak moment of violent revenge. Blanche was a successful actress before the accident, and she pines for the limelight as well in her own quiet, adoring way. It’s immediately clear something is wrong with Jane, and as she slowly descends into madness, she takes out her childhood jealousy and guilt by torturing her sister and manipulating the world around her. This story eventually inspired a horror subgenre referred to as “psycho-biddy,” in which aging characters turn into monsters and terrorize those in their wake. Notable entries in this genre including Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Mommy Dearest (a movie based on Crawford’s real-life daughter’s reports of her tyrannical motherhood).
It’s important to note that, at this time, it was nearly unheard of for aging stars to return to the silver screen with such meaty roles, and with the ones that Baby Jane provided, both Davis and Crawford took the opportunity to enjoy their much-deserved return to fame after several years living somewhat off the radar. The fact that they opened the gates for other women in the age bracket to obtain roles is just another example of their ambition and value to the industry.
Bette Davis was always a first-rate character actor who started on the stage, a woman who took pleasure in the grotesque, looking as ugly as the character required. And so it is with this film. She throws herself into Jane with a perfectly hilarious deadpan delivery masking a looming presence of terror. When she’s in the room, you can’t help but hold your breath, pinned by that unpredictable tension of someone who is losing their grip on reality, someone who, worse yet, is aware of the spiral. Davis conveys this madness with pointed accuracy, drawing sympathy for her character much the same way Psycho earned sympathy with Norman Bates in the same era. A villain with cause for empathy is nothing new today, but at this time, it was a newer concept, and, in fairness, it has always a tough role to pull off without being pathetic. Bette was not afraid to look unattractive or to laugh at herself, and few screen actors before or after had the flexibility to switch back and forth between personas, to play a buzzing drunk, and to absolutely tear into the material and her costar when required. At the height of her character’s madness, you still see the scared child inside of her. It is a triumph. While her Oscar nomination is unequivocally deserved, Davis would claim that Crawford did everything in her power to keep the award from her out of jealousy that she was not nominated herself.
Crawford, in comparison, was a restrained, straight actor who committed to roles in her own, less extravagant way. From her silent film days onward, she became a Hollywood legend. As Blanche, she uses her glistening, wet eyes and her set straight mouth as the understated canvas to accept Bette’s wild colours. Beyond performance, Crawford carries a history makes her performance as a still-beautiful aging starlet all the more convincing. She remained physically committed to the wheelchair required of her character, going against her vanity, allowing herself to look “bad” on camera in ways she would have refused in days past and taking on what had to be a strenuous workout in the process. Her depth is hidden if her talent is underused. She draws sympathy for the awful situation she’s in, of course, but Bette ultimately steals every scene.
That considered, let’s hold hands and enter some rocky territory. Dedication and success is not the only thing that links Davis and Crawford. They share a tumultuous romantic past, in the form of several marriages and maybe a debilitating desire for security. Fierce Bette wanted to remain free but be dominated by directors and men (she could never respect a man who was afraid to yell and push back) when Joan was more concerned about financial security and image. In their personal lives, both maintained a complex balance between dominance and submission. It is extremely disorienting as a bold, independent woman to have a sort of pull towards traditional roles or expectations regarding men– or rather, more likely a specific man (doubly so if he’s taken)– and both of them felt that disorientation despite their independent drive.
It’s likely that the type of relationship they wanted was difficult to define for them, especially in that time. It’s no wonder both of them flitted through weak and failing marriages while wearing boxing gloves at the studio. It is well-known that Bette indulged a bit of slut-shaming of Joan for “sleeping with everyone in the studio except Lassie,” even as their romantic encounters actually mirrored each other’s a lot more than either willing to admit. As much as we love to look back at the dazzling lives of these two women and indulgently mythologize their petty conflicts, we can also learn from them, decades later.
Today it’s generally agreed that these types of battles are frowned upon, not only in real life but as tropes in film and television. Girl codes are simple only in idiomatic expression. “Chicks before dicks” is shockingly much easier said than done, no matter how much you believe it, and in 2017 we’re still actively fighting slut-shaming in an effort to give women the same bodily autonomy and respect as men have who engage with a number of sexual partners. It bears repeating, Davis and Crawford’s fight wasn’t all about men, though many gatekeepers of public record would have you believe that. It certainly helped with publicity for the film. But, when at the end of the script Jane turns to Blanche in exhaustion and says, “You mean we could have been friends all this time?,” it’s resonant that Crawford and Davis could have landed at this very same spot. It’s hard not to consider what a friendship between these two would have been like, what secrets they’d share. If either of them could have put aside their pride and anger they could have connected in their similarities. But then we wouldn’t have these searing stories and this wonderful production of Baby Jane.
While being a stage for their conflict to shine, the movie is also terrifically fun and pretty good filmmaking. Director Robert Aldrich bent towards a euro experimental film at times with incredible lighting and cinematography. He knew how to frame his subjects to glean the most from their performance, low angles and menacing shadows to exaggerate the lines in Bette’s face and filming from above when she’s to appear youthful. A gorgeous shot of her rummaging through the liquor cabinet comes to mind, or her framed in the doorway performing a number in front of the mirror, she steps into the light to witness her ghoulish visage as if for the first time. The photography is unforgiving and unflattering at times, angelic and clean in others. That makes it even more effective as an examination the dark side of being discarded by Hollywood, and of impending madness and captivity. Baby Jane was meant to be a commercial success and it was, but it also landed itself into that sweet camp spot that makes it cathartic and fun as hell to watch. Fans of the subgenre hail this as one of the best, most classic examples of camp, and it’s true that several signature lines are seared into the memory for dramatic re-enactment (Jane yelling, “But ya ARE in the chair, Blanche, YA ARE!” comes to mind) but the film was meant to appeal to the mass audience and it was a success – interviewees recount their intense fear at the imagery and content of Baby Jane – particularly the rat revealed on a silver dinner tray. “That was scary in 1962!” (Charles Busch and John Epperson say, on the 2005 commentary track) but any real scares have long been lost in our rapid advancement to more grandiose examples of horror. Nowadays the movie is most appreciated for its campy comedic value and it thoroughly satisfies those looking for that fix. Hearing rumours of lowbrow pranks pulled on each other while filming only sweetens the deal: allegedly Bette Davis installed a Coca-Cola machine on set (Joan was married to the CEO of Pepsi-Cola at the time) and Joan stuffed her pockets with rocks or wore weights any time she was to be lugged around by Davis. A favourite scene is one where Jane, having learned her sister has cut her off from the liquor store delivery, impersonates Blanche on the phone. The way her body language changes while she mimes Joan’s pre-recorded dialogue and then snaps back into her character like a bullwhip is an absolute riot. You can tell she’s mimicked Joan before and takes great pleasure in tormenting her on screen.
Nobody knows for sure how much the feud really affected the set (Aldrich says not at all), but the story seems to have a life of its own and it’s fast on its way to becoming a monster. Recent rumours even suggested Joan wrote a letter to Robert Aldrich complaining of Bette’s body odor while filming, and Bette has been famously quoted after Joan’s death “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good . . . Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” Ouch. It’s the kind of fight we love to watch even if it’s not in good conscience, the kind of fight we don’t want to be in but revel in witnessing. Watching a glamorous Hollywood catfight is the sort of sedative that works better than it should, but it’s also not entirely unrealistic. The aging woman in Hollywood has always been a hot button issue. There is still a lack of meaningful roles and women are still being discarded by show business at an alarming rate. That’s why, even through skepticism, some are excited about Ryan Murphy’s FX show Feud, a television series retelling of the filming of Baby Jane. The show stars the impeccable casting of Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and was released on March 5th. Murphy certainly seems to have found a sweet spot: a fascinating story that continues to grow into its legendary status, and one that brings a sort of glee the more you learn about it. I can only hope that it’s as true to the characters as it is their mythology. If Murphy can do that, if he can let their incredible and respectable body of work and their respective work ethics have a voice within the dramatic chaos, then the rest is fair game. And we can pick a side, sit back, and enjoy.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures