--James M. Cain, Mildred Pierece
Books by or about these two fascinating women have long been on the shelves at NHL, but the research for this display took us to an entirely new level. We loved the series and feel it did much to enhance the image of Bette Davis and even more importantly, to repair that of Joan Crawford. At long last, Crawford's wire hangers have returned to the closet where they belong. And, Christina's infamous axe (to grind?) is on hiatus in the gardening shed.
In researching these two women, NHL made some discoveries for which there simply was not room in the television series. Both led full and fascinating lives, connecting to a variety of other 20th Century notables, and they left a voluminous written and digital record.
rock, paper, scissors
Feud: Bette and Joan did not play up the camp element, which was a wise and refreshing choice. Had they opted to do so, however, one hilarious scene might have sprung from Joan Crawford's cougar phase. In the fifties, Crawford seduced—as if they were fish in a barrel—the young men signed to contract by Universal Studios. She had been forewarned that strapping Rock Hudson's romantic interests went another direction, but Crawford invited him over for a swim anyway. Afterwards, when Rock was showering in her pool house, the lights suddenly went out and he felt a naked Joan Crawford pressed against him. "Shhh, baby. Close your eyes and pretend I’m Clark Gable,” Joan allegedly purred. [via Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud.]
Feud: Bette Davis Versus Baby Jane Fonda
It turns out that Joan Crawford was not the only Hollywood star with whom Bette Davis feuded. In fact, there is a two-time Oscar winner still living that was also the subject of Bette's ire. No, the answer is not Olivia de Havilland. She was too terrified of Davis to quarrel with her, and besides, she had a feud with her sister Joan Fontaine already going. Jane Fonda, though an infant, inspired Davis's wrath. Her father Henry Fonda was co-starring with Davis in the year Jane was born, and Fonda halted production so that he could travel to New York to attend Jane's birth. “Every time I see her face, I think of the hell she put me through on Jezebel,” hissed Bette.
Conversations with Joan Crawford
One of the major injustices of Joan Crawford's Mommie Dearest image is that it transformed an enormously complicated woman into a cartoon. That Joan lacked self-awareness. The opposite was actually true. However, one would be forgiven for not recognizing that from either of Crawford's two autobiographical books. They are by the movie star Joan. Conversations with Joan Crawford, however, featured professional Joan. The book transcribes a series of interviews conducted over a two-decade period in which Crawford candidly and intelligently appraised Hollywood, her role in it, and the cost to her personal life. She comes across as witty, introspective, and literate.
When the book's interviewer asked about her rumored drinking problem, Joan was forthright and willing to return the volley. “Yes, I have a drinking problem. You know I have a drinking problem, and maybe you have, too—you’ve matched me drink for drink for years,” she cleverly replied. When asked what she would do different in life if given the chance to do it over again, she retorted, “My God, what an awful question. At the moment I don’t think I’d have given you all these damned interviews.”
Conversations with Joan Crawford is filled with such gems. It makes one believe that Joan might have been equally successful had she been studio mogul. She certainly had the drive and the knowledge of the business. The conundrum is that this book has been around nearly as long as daughter Christina's Mommie Dearest. Alas, actual truth and the public perception thereof are two different beasts. It took a cultural behemoth like Feud: Bette and Joan to counter the sensationalism of Mommie Dearest and move the needle of public perception.
Vincent Sherman: Director, Husband, Lover
Everyone expects Hollywood stars to misbehave. As such, perhaps the most astonishing revelation in director Vincent Sherman's Studio Affairs, My Life as a Film Director is the saintliness of his longtime wife. She placidly remained on the sidelines as her husband carried on torrid affairs with his leading ladies, including, first, Bette Davis, and then, Joan Crawford. With Crawford, they were on and off for years. He even engaged in a tryst with her in her hospital room at Cedars Sinai when she was faking illness in order to avoid filming Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.
Sherman sums up the differences between his two paramours as well and as succinctly as anyone ever has:
"In life and onscreen, Bette was simple, forthright, honest, and unaffected. The moment she began playing a role, she became actorish and theatrical. Joan, on the other hand, was simple, forthright, honest and unaffected when playing a role, but in life she was exactly the opposite: actorish, theatrical, and affected."
--Bette Davis, in a Open Letter to Her Daughter B.D. Hyman
Feud: Bette and Joan steered clear of Christina Crawford's tell-all Mommie Dearest. However, in a strange way, that book became yet another link between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It was a best-selling juggernaut, whetting the publishing world's appetite for more "bad parent" Hollywood memes. Without doubt, Bette Davis was not the perfect mother, but the gravitational pull of Christina Crawford's book guaranteed that Bette was portrayed as a bad parent in her daughter B.D. Hyman's My Mother's Keeper. Crawford had advance word about Christina's tell-all but died prior to its publication. Davis was alive but in ill-health when My Mother's Keeper was released. She never spoke to her daughter again and published a book of her own refuting the charges.
Feud: Olivia and Joan
--Olivia de Havilland
The casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones as Bette Davis's friend Olivia de Havilland leaves one wondering whether Zeta-Jones might return in a future Feud season, dramatizing de Havilland's lifelong feud with her sister Joan Fontaine. The material is certainly there. Check out the NHL post, "A Tale of Two Sisters: Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine." One snag might be Zeta-Jones's age. The halcyon years in the de Havilland/Fontaine contretemps occurred when the sisters were in early adulthood. Should the part be recast? Are there any actresses in the younger age category with the ability to portray someone of de Havilland's sophistication?