In the 1989 biography Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, author Shaun Considine describes a story from The Hollywood Reporter published soon after filming began on 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
“There is no feud,” Bette Davis told the reporter. “We wouldn’t have one. A man and a woman yes, and I can give you a list, but never two women—they’d be too clever for that.” Of course, we know now that Davis was lying her teeth off. This interview was yet another Oscar-worthy performance from the actress who’d given us All About Eve’s Margo Channing and Now, Voyager’s Charlotte Vale.
The book, for which Considine interviewed both Davis and her mortal enemy Joan Crawford once each and whose “references are rather casually cited by scholarly standards,” is frequently more delicious than Ryan Murphy’s new FX show, and goes into considerable (if questionable) detail about the careers of Davis and Crawford before WHTBJ.
The two icons came from considerably different backgrounds–Davis from a well-to-do New England family, and Crawford (née Lucille LeSueur) from working-class Texans. (Considine describes her roots as “vague” and “inferior.”)
Their early experiences in Hollywood, before they were household names, were similarly dissimilar. Davis—who had studied drama, worked at a theatre on Cape Cod, and acted on Broadway in New York City—worked her way up the Hollywood ladder and into contracts with Universal and (more famously) Warner Brothers with relative ease. Crawford, on the other hand, had to do a little more hustling. After acquiring her stage name (“Joan Crawford” was chosen for her in a magazine contest), she also became known as something else: a “quid pro quo girl.”
“When asked if she ever had to sacrifice her virtue for roles via the proverbial casting couch, Crawford replied, ‘Well, it sure as hell beat the hard cold floor.’”
In no time they were both genuine stars eager to put their pasts behind them, and–as two beautiful and talented young women in Hollywood–their paths crossed both on- and off-camera. In 1933, they both had their eyes on a handsome young actor named Franchot Tone. He was handsome, smart, rich... and more interested in Crawford, much to Davis’s disappointment. Fortunately (for Davis, at least), the relationship didn’t last.
In 1937, Davis and Crawford competed for the onscreen affections of Clark Gable, as both of them “were in the running” for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. The actress with a better shot at landing the part, however, depends on whom you ask. Davis claimed “the book had been purchased for her,” while Crawford called that “just another of [Bette’s] fantasies.”
“Gone With the Wind was never bought for her by Warner’s,” Crawford once said. “I should know, because my studio, M-G-M, made the picture, and I was the first to be mentioned for the role.”
But if you ask a third party—like, say, director George Cukor (who worked on the film for two years before Victor Fleming was hired as his replacement), you’d discover that they both turned it down. “I don’t believe the film would have worked as well with either one,” he once said. “Gone With the Wind would not have become the classic it is today with Bette Davis or with Joan Crawford.”
Those three wholly different interpretations of Gone With the Wind’s casting process suggest this “divine” feud was a sort of coping mechanism for both stars, who had more in common—from their stunning good looks to their ruthlessness and showbiz acumen—than they’d ever admit publicly. Crawford was an easy target when Davis was frustrated about some indignity Hollywood had shown her, and Davis was the same for Crawford. In a way, they needed each other.
Once the ‘40s rolled around, their feud was still in full swing over movies like Humoresque and Mildred Pierce (the latter of which brought Crawford an Oscar). The gossip column from a 1946 issue of Motion Picture reads:
There’s a new First Lady out on the Warner lot these days, and she’s really getting the red carpet treatment. Name? Joan Crawford. Since her comeback all she has to do is ask and her wishes are granted. She walked off with the lead in Humoresque, right out under Bette Davis’ nose. Bette really wanted that part!
And here’s a line from the next month’s issue:
The hottest feud to hit these parts since they thought up Technicolor is the one between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis at Warner Brothers. Since Joan’s Oscar victory for Mildred Pierce, she’s been getting pretty much of anything she wants at the studio. All of which leaves Davis sizzling.
In 1950, a year they both starred in several huge hits (Davis had All About Eve while Crawford was in both The Damned Don’t Cry and Harriet Craig), the two were both invited to attend a Photoplay awards dinner. Unfortunately, only Davis showed.
At one point in the evening’s proceedings, waving her cigarette in the direction of an adjoining table, Davis asked, “Who is that little boy seated between Ann Blyth and Elizabeth Taylor? He keeps staring in my face!”
That was Joan Crawford’s nine-year-old son, Christopher, she was told. He was accepting the award that night for his mother.
“How sweet,” said Bette, “and where is Joan?”
“At home, ill,” the answer came.
“Oh,” said Bette, “something fatal, I hope.”
By the ‘60s, both women were living in New York (it wasn’t fatal after all) and in dire need of a Hollywood comeback. While starring (by which I mean occasionally showing up to perform) in The Night of the Iguana, a new Tennessee Williams play, someone knocked on Davis’s dressing room door. Recounts Considine:
There was a lady to see her, she was told.
“I don’t know any,” said Bette.
She strode to the door and pulled it open; standing there, dressed in sables and jewels, was an angel of mercy, a savior come to rescue her from this rotten play with an exciting new film project.
The woman in the doorway was Joan Crawford.
Feud airs Sundays on FX. You can buy Considine’s book here.