The box office appeal of the 1962 movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was the animosity between its stars. Joan Crawford (58) got the project started; Bette Davis (56) stole the show. According to Feud: Bette and Joan (now on BBC iPlayer), a serial about their rivalry, Joan told gossip columnists that Bette had a body odour problem. Bette described her co-star as a “mannequin” with eyebrows like two “African caterpillars”.
Hollywood discovered that the public would pay good money to watch former gods of the silver screen tear each other apart: specifically, the female gods. Male stars were never expected to undergo degradation for cash. It was always women who, when they hit a certain age, had to turn feral in the bitter fight over a tiny number of roles.
If Joan got a part, Bette didn’t – and when Bette was nominated for an Academy Award for Baby Jane, Crawford slipped into camp hysteria. Joan collected the Award on behalf of the eventual winner in a silver dress, with silver hair, trying to turn herself into a living Oscar. She looked rather more like a defrosted drag queen.
Feud: Bette and Joan is wonderful at illustrating the cruelties of old age, but also has something to say about the complex journey that gets us there. Bette’s youthful talents are widely remembered: she was a superb actress, perhaps the best of her generation. But Joan had been a genuine star, too, one that oozed a commanding sex appeal, and the slow loss of her status was a pitiful thing. In fact, for my money, her talent never entirely disappeared.
The critical consensus might have been that Baby Jane was Bette’s picture, but Joan’s performance, as the crippled prisoner of a mad sister, was better precisely because it was so much subtler and understated. Bette acts at full steam from her first shot. Joan’s character has a secret that she has to keep hidden until the final scene when, dying on a beach, she gives up the ghost. Bette’s character sighs: “You mean, all this time we could’ve been friends?”
In real life, the wound never healed. According to urban legend, upon hearing that Joan had passed away, Bette said: “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good. Joan Crawford is dead? Good.”
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