As a new eight-part series has started on BBC2 documenting the rivalry between Hollywood greats, Bette Davies and Joan Crawford, we look at the sensational story behind the programme of two catfight queens who went head to head.
Ding ding! Round one. Welcome into the ring two heavyweight Hollywood stars. Each at the top of the call list of every producer in town and both darlings of the public’s affection. One is MGM’s sex siren Joan Crawford, notorious for flirting, sleeping and marrying her way to the top. The other, Bette Davis, considers herself a serious ‘act-or’. Chalk and cheese, it’s clear this pair were never going to get on. But what no-one quite anticipated was the heights to which these girls would later go to take a strip out of each other.
The animosity began when Bette fell in love with her leading man, heartthrob Franchot Tone, in the 1935 film, Dangerous. As the pair began dating, she soon found herself smitten. But when the newly divorced Joan later set eyes on him, so was she.
The rumour goes that Joan invited Franchot for dinner, only to greet him in her solarium, wearing not a stitch. From there, Franchot returned to the set of Dangerous where Bette was filming with him, his face covered in Joan’s lipstick. Soon after, Joan and Franchot were engaged and later married. Although the marriage only lasted a couple of years, Bette never forgot that Joan had stolen her man.
In 1943, the rivalry between these golden girls stepped up a gear when they both signed to appear in a film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – a chilling story about two former film stars living a lonely existence in their Hollywood mansion.
Almost as soon as the director yelled ‘action’ on the opening take, these arch-rivals took every opportunity to take their co-star down a peg or two. For one particularly memorable scene, Bette, who had a history of back problems, had to drag Joan across the floor.
So Joan, of course, filled her pockets with the heaviest rocks she could find, coughing in the middle of the take so they’d be forced to do it again. Meanwhile, for a fight scene, where there was no chance of using a body double, Joan apparently hit Bette so hard she needed stitches.
Both would call the director nightly to complain about the other. Bette said of her co-star, who she called a shallow ‘mannequin’ with eyebrows like ‘African caterpillars’ (ouch!): “The best time I ever had with Joan was when I pushed her down some stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
The insults were far from one-sided as Joan once commented on her colleague’s whiter-than-white image, with more than a hint of sarcasm: “Poor Bette, she looks like she’s never had a happy day, or night, in her life.”
The crescendo of Bette and Joan’s catfight came, though, at the 1963 Oscars where Bette had been nominated for Best Actress in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Hotly tipped to win, she was poised at the side of the stage ready to collect her award.
But as the winner was called out, not only was she horrified to learn she hadn’t won, she was left flabbergasted when Joan pushed past her saying “Excuse me, I have an Oscar to collect,” as she walked into the spotlight, leaving Bette standing speechless in the wings. What Bette hadn’t realised is that Joan had conspired against her and arranged with several of the other nominated actress, who couldn’t be present, that she would collect the award on their behalf. It was the ultimate put-down.
After Baby Jane, Joan and Bette were signed to work together on one more film, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. But after just a few days of filming, Joan apparently feigned an illness and pulled out of the film, her role given to Olivia de Havilland.
To what extent Joan and Bette exaggerated or even caricatured their hatred of each other to fuel the gossip columns and power the frenzied rumour mill that surrounded their relationship, no-one really knows. But whether the animosity between them was truly genuine or hammed up for publicity, there’s no question that it gave rise to one of the juiciest and most gripping celebrity catfights of all time.
- Feud: Bette and Joan is on BBC2
- For more nostalgia, pick up a copy of Yours Retro