Blame It on Baby Jane?

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“Bette Davis was probably the only actress alive who was an absolutely fair match for mother[sic]…I don’t think it is possible to carry that amount of hostility for so many years without a secret admiration for an equal adversary.”

Christina Crawford, “Mommie Dearest”

The rivalry between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford was legendary and of almost cataclysmic proportions. Film critics and historians could have a field day conducting an extensive analysis as to why these two had such a tumultuous hatred for one another, and no discussion of Hollywood’s Golden Age would be complete without some mention of the enmity between these women. Leave it to Ryan Murphy to once again bring this topic into the forefront after 55 years.

In Feud: Bette and Joan, powerhouse actresses Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon take on roles that seem tailor made for them: that of two older actresses scampering to keep their royal status in the court of Tinseltown. The finale for this limited series aired this past weekend, and I’ve enjoyed the first installment of this new anthology.

In the cutthroat world of Old Hollywood, with advanced ages placing their careers virtually in the toilet, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford teamed up to star in 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.  Touted as a B-movie depicting former actress sisters reclusively living together (the more successful sister now confined to a wheelchair, the other a long discarded child star with a questionable mental condition), this ingenious casting came at a time when both these ladies were expected to pack it in. They were older ladies clutching onto their fleeting fame and career with both hands, scraping and digging their nails in furiously; clawing anyone that tried to get in the way, like jungle cats guarding their territory.

Assuming the film was in its initial development in 1961, Joan Crawford was approximately 58 years of age, Bette Davis was aged 54. Back then, once an actor reached a certain number of years, you weren’t a bankable star anymore. It was time to throw in the towel and step aside for the fresh meat. While Davis and Crawford continued to be overly ambitious, the transition into roles they were expected to take (that of a dowager or older maternal type) seemed to be done out of necessity rather than choice. Not only were they trying to stay afloat in an industry where youth trumps talent and tosses aside aging stars like they were tossing out the trash, but they were fighting against each other tooth and nail to get whatever part they could. Such viciousness ended up creating a war zone with their weapons of choice put out front and center in the trade papers and gossip columns.

When it comes to casting, one can try very hard to suspend one’s disbelief, but the actors’ transformation wasn’t as polished as it could have been. Susan Sarandon didn’t quite nail the clipped New England accent that Bette Davis was famous for, but at least she attempted Davis’ big eyed gaze. As for Lange, I was half expecting the stereotypical “Mommie Dearest” to come flying out in a rage. Jessica Lange played Crawford as someone so methodical and calculated, so image conscious and controlled that absolutely no vulnerability was evident, at the surface anyway.

Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones donned blonde wigs to portray fellow starlets Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland (who’s still a force to be reckoned with at 100). As supporting players, their portrayals were decent, but they didn’t quite embody the essence of these ladies of a bygone era. Interestingly enough, de Havilland’s own well-publicized issues with her sister, Joan Fontaine, were glossed over in one episode. Joan’s stalwart German housekeeper (Jackie Hoffman) and director Robert Aldrich’s creatively stifled script assistant (Alison Wright) served as grounding influences to the over the top personalities of the leads, while simultaneously trying to pound the truth into their heads.

The female-centric ensemble may stand as the focus, but the Hollywood Boys Club still pulled the strings. Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) was trying to keep his own career afloat while battling again his power hungry lead actresses and power hungry, ball busting studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci). Neither of them were expecting these ladies to shakeup the set, let alone try to shake the patriarchal studio system.

While Baby Jane was a roaring success, and further cemented these women as Hollywood icons, it’s safe to say that the relationships with their children suffered. Bette Davis’ daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) is a minor character in this series, depicting her having a small part in Baby Jane, yet only two of Crawford’s four children are shown on screen.  Both B.D. Hyman and Christina Crawford wrote scathing books about their mother’s allegedly tyrannical ways, and with Christina Crawford’s 1978 tome long being credited as the first “celebrity darkside tell-all”, is it coincidence that she’s barely mentioned in the series (except in the finale’s coda)? Was she consulted during production at any point? Did both of them decline any involvement with the production process?

Overall, this series gave us another perspective of what happens when two larger than life personalities try hard as hell to cling onto a shred of their former glory in an industry that no use for them anymore.  The lights of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford shone brightly for decades, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to share the spotlight with the one person who could understand them better than anyone in the world.

As for my personal observation about both the fictional and real Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, do I agree that their characters were deeply flawed and may have suffered deep seated emotional issues? Yes. Did they work way too much for their own good and had difficulty with personal connections? Without a doubt.  Do I believe that they both had a problem with alcohol? Positively.  When all is said and done, their chemistry and talent was undeniable. Their mutual hatred was volcanic. Bette and Joan were two sides of the same coin; two thorny vines forever intertwined.  Formidable opponents who could have banded together and ruled over a theatrical empire rivaling Alexander the Great’s, but each had a stubbornness, vanity, and ego that prevented them from achieving what should have been an idyllic goal: solidarity.

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