Bette and Joan’s Top 5 “Feud” Dramas

  By Maureen Lee Lenker

By Maureen Lee Lenker

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – are two larger-than-life Hollywood icons who became synonymous with the glamour and out-sized behavior of Hollywood’s golden age.  Their roles as powerful, hard-nosed women in female-driven pictures would lead them to be in comparison and competition with each other at the peak of their success.

Today their status as legendary “drama queens” has often-times resigned them to unfortunate caricature -- their movie stardom reduced to their distinctive voice, faces, and acting styles. And for some their notorious feud has eclipsed their individual fame -- forever linked to each other by their only film together, the grand guignol horror-show that is “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962).   This link is poised to grow stronger with the March 5th debut of Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series “Feud” on FX which chronicles the saga of Crawford and Davis in an eight-part series.  Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon will step into the shoes of Crawford and Davis respectively.

Many believe the feud was exaggerated particularly to heighten the narrative of the hatred between the two sisters they portray in “Baby Jane.”  The women refused to discuss their spats publicly and were all smiles when asked about it in interviews, but it’s undeniable the two possessed hostile feelings for each other.  Their personal and professional jealousy waxed and waned throughout their long careers.  Bette Davis was never lacking for a sharp quip about her rival; she once jibed, “Crawford slept with every male co-star at MGM--except Lassie!”  And yet, Crawford often won the public battles without ever uttering a harsh word against Davis.  

On the eve of the debut of FX’s “Feud” and its dramatization of the clash of two Hollywood icons, we present the five major moments in the Bette and Joan feud.

1.   Franchot Tone

The venom between Bette and Joan traces to a 1935 love triangle involving Franchot Tone. Tone was Davis’ co-star in Dangerous and she had a history of starting love affairs with her leading men and directors.  To her mind, Tone would be no exception and she started pursuing him, inviting him to her trailer for long talks.  

Meanwhile Crawford was newly divorced and invited Tone over to her house for dinner supposedly even greeting him naked in her solarium. They began a relationship and Tone would leave the set every day to have lunch with Joan, only to return to work with Bette while his face was covered with (Crawford’s) lipstick.  Tone and Crawford got engaged while he was still shooting Dangerous with Davis.

Crawford asserted that Tone was never interested in the famously sexually aggressive Bette Davis, saying, “He thought Bette was a good actress but he never thought of her as a woman.” Davis had another story though insisting that Crawford stole Tone from her, starting a lifelong grudge.  In a 1987 interview with Michael Thorton, Davis asserted, “She took him from me. She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness."  Whether or not Tone was ever interested in Davis and stolen away by Crawford, we’ll never know -- but it was the first shot fired in a feud that would span the rest of their lives.


2.  Career Jealousy

From the start the two were already pitted against each other professionally with Davis getting her start in Hollywood after Crawford was an established star.  

Though Franchot Tone had launched personal jealousy, their mutual dislike would reach new levels when Crawford was released from her MGM contract and started a new chapter of her career at Warner Brothers in 1943.  At that time, Davis was the reigning queen of the Warner lot but that didn’t stop Crawford from requesting the dressing room next to Davis.  Crawford reportedly sent numerous gifts next door (flowers, cards, chocolates), all of which were returned.  Davis also insisted that she be given priority for starring roles - this worked against her in 1945 when she passed on Mildred Pierce, with which Crawford would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress!  The movie and the award revitalized Crawford’s career.  And two years later, Crawford would star in another Oscar-nominated role originally intended for Davis with Possessed (1947).

Davis always had great disdain for Crawford’s glamour girl persona, famously saying, “Miss Crawford is a movie star, and I am an actress.”  Davis considered herself a serious actress trained in the theatre, while she regarded Crawford with her chorus girl background as a “mannequin” with “African caterpillar” eyebrows.  While Davis was famous for going overboard to ensure realism in her roles if they called for her to look haggard, old, injured, or ugly, Crawford took the opposite tact, famously saying, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”  This would prove to be a point of contention years later on “Baby Jane.”  Davis transformed herself into a make-up caked horror show, while Crawford resisted any attempts to make her look less glamorous.  Davis chafed at this, saying, “Blanche was a cripple. She never left the house or saw anybody, yet Crawford made her appear as if she lived in Elizabeth Arden's beauty salon."


3.  On-Set Hijinks

That brings us to the set of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” -- the only collaboration between the two actresses and the arena for their most famous battles.  The women were at a low point in their careers, out of work, over 50, and struggling to stay relevant under Hollywood’s ageism.  Crawford approached Davis with the project while Davis was appearing on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana.  After confirming that the director, Robert Aldrich wasn’t sleeping with Crawford, and therefore likely to give her more close-ups, Davis agreed to the idea.  This was the start of a battle of wills off-screen while they sought to portray a more openly horrific battle of jealousy and resentment on-screen.  It started with petty gestures -- Davis had a Coca-Cola machine installed in her dressing room as a dig at Crawford, who was on the Pepsi board of directors.  Crawford sent Davis a series of small gifts until Davis requested she cease and desist, writing a note that read, “I do not have time to go out and shop.”  They each called their director to rant about the other for hours at night.

Eventually, the drama escalated to physical violence with Crawford often requesting a body double because she so feared Davis.  One scene involving a close-up could not be shot with a double and Crawford had her fears confirmed when Davis hit her hard in the head.  Some reports said the damage was serious enough to require stitches, while Davis insisted, “I barely touched her.”  Crawford retaliated in kind in a scene where Davis had to drag her across a room.  Full aware that Davis had back problems, Crawford made herself heavier (some reports say she wore a weightlifter’s lead belt; others say she filled her pockets with stones) and purposefully flubbed takes until Davis was in agony.  The shoot was riddled with these incidents and it so upset Crawford that she would back out of a spiritual sequel to the film in 1964.  Olivia de Havilland would take her place opposite Davis in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.


4.  Baby Jane Oscars

“Baby Jane” returned Davis and Crawford to the limelight, earning them rave reviews and widespread acclaim.  Yet, Crawford complained that Davis’ showy, out-sized performance upstaged her quieter work.  The Academy Awards backed up her complaint, nominating Davis for Best Actress and their co-star Victor Buono for Best Supporting Actor, but ignoring Crawford’s work.  Crawford wouldn’t stand for this and campaigned hard against Davis, who became the easy favorite for the Oscar that year.  Enraged and aware that several other nominated actresses could not attend the ceremony, Crawford found a way to put herself in competition with Davis anyway.  She called each of the other nominees and offered to accept the award on their behalf as a supposed gesture of goodwill.  Thus, when Davis lost the Oscar to Anne Bancroft, she was forced to watch as Crawford took to the stage to accept it and posed for photographs with the other winners!

Not nominated herself, Crawford stole the Oscar out from under Davis’ nose to pay her back for upstaging her.  Nothing like taking the Oscars’ stage when you’re not even nominated to rub it in your nemesis’ face!


5.  Bette Eulogizes Joan

As one can imagine, the 1963 Oscar debacle pretty well put the final nail in the coffin that was Bette and Joan’s relationship.  The two never worked together again and were known to despise each other.  Crawford passed away in 1977, over ten years before Davis.  With Joan’s death, Bette got the last word, commenting, “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”  It is now impossible to find a source for this quip, so it’s possibly it’s an apocryphal quote, but either way, it’s a fitting end to a feud that spanned five decades between two of classic Hollywood’s greatest actresses.

While their feud and their delicious cattiness towards each other has become a part of their Hollywood mythos, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were each stars in their own right -- consummate professionals who delivered a long list of unforgettable performances.  Revel in their drama with “Feud,” but be sure to check out their early work to understand the magnificent talent and tortured souls behind the backstabbing bitchery.

Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent, Chillin’ with Larry Magen

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.