“You should only say good of the dead. Joan Crawford is dead. Good”. One of the memorable lines uttered by Bette Davis in the war between the 2 Hollywood icons. If people think that Madonna having a slight dig at Lady Gaga was shocking (I’m team Madonna all the way) then Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s battle was an epic.... of biblical proportions.
Now coming direct from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a new comedy/drama called Bette and Joan – The Final Curtain, and I’m going to guess that this hit new show gracing The Lowry stage - sees Davis on her deathbed having to confront her arch enemy will not be pulling any punches.
For those who don’t know about the rivalry (where have you been?) it’s really quite simple...... they hated each other! Bette Davis was the actor who gave mesmerising performances in her films such as Jezebel, Dangerous (both won her the Oscar) and the iconic All About Eve. Crawford was the pin up and MGM darling known for her lighter performances in Our Dancing Daughters, Grand Hotel and Mildred Pierce (for which she won an Oscar).
The rivalry seemed to start as all good rivalries start..... over a man. Davis had fallen head over heels for her Dangerous co star Franchot Tone but it was Crawford who would end up with him, the two announcing their engagement right after the movie wrapped. Davis hated her for it and also saw Crawford as rather unremarkable, a lightweight with nothing to offer other than a pretty face.... a movie star. “She slept with every male star at MGM, except Lassie.” Said Davis whilst Crawford retaliated with "Poor Bette, she looks like she’s never had a happy day, or night, in her life.”.....the gloves were off and for the next few decades the pair would take a swipe at each other whenever they got the chance.
Their careers hit the heights and the venom kept flying out of each other’s mouths, however when Crawford went from box office gold to box office poison and Davis saw her career slide, the two would make a decision that would cement their feud whilst revitalising their flagging careers. In 1962 the ageing starlets signed on to play sisters who hated each other in the camptastic thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? During the filming the ladies made it clear that they despised each other.
At the time Crawford was married to the CEO of Pepsi, so naturally Davis got a Coca Cola machine installed in her dressing room..... but that was just the start. In a scene where Davis has to kick Crawford she really did causing Crawford to retaliate by adding weights to her costume for a scene when Davis had to carry Crawford up the stairs.
Through all this though they were both described as the consummate professionals, turning up on time, knowing their line and giving great performances. The film would go on to be a hit putting both of them back in the spotlight and earned Davis an Oscar Nomination, Davis said of filming “The best time I ever had with Joan was when I pushed her down some stairs in Whatever happened to Baby Jane". However the Oscars would be their next battle ground.
Crawford was not nominated, however she was not going to take that lying down. Crawford came up with a plan. She called all the other actresses nominees offering to accept their awards on the night if they won. Strangely they agreed and so, when Oscar night rolled around, Davis and Crawford found themselves waiting side by side in the wings, with Bette certain that the prize was hers. To her horror it was Anne Bancroft who won and sure enough Crawford glided on the stage to collect the award. "I almost dropped dead!” gasped Bette “I was paralysed with shock. To deliberately upstage me like that- her behaviour was despicable.”
The two would carry on their rivalry for years to come "I wouldn't p**s on her if she was on fire." said Davis of Crawford, and this continued to the day they died leading to the legendary quote I started this article with.
It’s their talent, the presence and of course their feud that has kept their story alive, their quotes are spoken by drag performers around the world and countless documentaries try to get to the root of why these women hate each other. Whilst nobody can deny both were great talents (especially Davis who stood out in everything she did) both also became parodies of themselves towards the end.
They were bigger than life, and that’s why it’s so fitting that the theatre is a place that their story can be told. Bette and Joan – The Final Curtain is not the first show to try and capture the spirit of these screen icons but could possibly be the most successful at doing so. Bette and Joan starring Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi opened recently in the West End to mixed reviews and let’s not forget the disastrous musical adaption of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? that started life here in the UK and then died a death in the US.
The best way to tell their story is through humour and drama, after all that’s how they lived their lives, with raves from the Edinburgh Fringe including Whatsonstage.com it would appear that the icons of yesteryear now have a show that is befitting of them. I for one am thrilled to see this show, let’s just hope Bette and Joan are looking down (or up) and approving, thought it’s more likely the two will be far too busy feuding in the afterlife to notice. And for the record, my money is on Bette!
Bette and Joan - The Final Curtain is at the Lowry from 15 - 17 March.
- Craig Hepworth