Pity the poor actor that attempted to upstage Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. Yet in the FX television series Feud: Bette and Joan, the brightest spotlight sometimes shines upon Mamacita, Crawford's housekeeper, companion, and no-nonsense guidance counselor. The writers give her some of the best lines, and Jackie Hoffman—the actress portraying her—delivers them perfectly. Audiences seem to have responded enthusiastically. Copies of Crawford's My Way of Life, in which Mamacita makes frequent appearances, are in high demand and priced accordingly.
“Time is the only critic.”
--James M. Cain, Mildred Pierece
Guess who has checked into the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood? None other than Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. For our kiosk there, Nick Harvill Libraries curated a selection of books about the two Hollywood grandes dames. They are displayed in the vestibule window to the left as one enters the hotel. The display coincided with Ryan Murphy's well-received and much talked about television series Feud: Bette and Joan. Unlike the series, however, the display is still going, and the books replenished as they sell.
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?) has returned to 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
"Shhh, baby. Close your eyes and pretend I’m Clark Gable."
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
“Every time I see her face, I think of the hell she put me through on Jezebel."
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
“Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, we even believed our own publicity. Nobody has ever walked with shoes on my white rugs ever since the publicity department told the press that I didn’t allow people to wear shoes on my white rugs.”
One of the major injustices of Joan Crawford's Mommie Dearest image is that it transformed an complicated woman into a cartoon that 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 summed up 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 the well-regarded Feud: Bette and Joan to counter the sensationalism of Mommie Dearest and move the needle of public perception.
Vincent Sherman: Director, Husband, Lover
"As a human being, Joan Crawford is a great actress."
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."
“The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.”
--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
“My sister has decided to become an actress too. It has ruined the close-knittedness of our family life.”
--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?
Thanks to Jared Kushner's official position in his father-in-law's administration, the subject of nepotism has been in the news. One legendary adherent of this practice was original Hollywood mogul Carl Laemmle. He placed countless relatives on the payroll at Universal Studios.
One cannot condemn nepotism based upon the example of Carl Laemmle. The results were sometimes good. One cousin whom Laemmle imported from Europe was failed haberdasher William Wyler. He became one of Hollywood's great directors, and was Bette Davis's favorite. Fourteen actors, including Davis, won Academy Awards for their performances in his films. Moreover, had not Laemmle employed Wyler and the other Laemmele relations, they likely would have been trapped by the dark clouds then forming in Europe and perished in the Holocaust.
Note: William Wyler became a great success not at Universal Studios, but after he departed and began collaborating with Samuel Goldwyn.
“Actresses hate playing murderesses more than anything. … But I’ve never worried about my image being dented. In fact, I’d like to kill right now.”
--Bette Davis, Bette: The Life of Bette Davis
The Ryan Murphy-produced anthology series Feud, whose first season will concern Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, premieres in early 2017. See also: Bette & Joan, The Divine Feud.
Image Credit: Warner Brothers
There was more than one cold war in the 20th Century. Both were a clash of egos and extremely volatile. Figuratively speaking, there was the risk that each might go nuclear. Yet only one was mostly fought in the press and involved stockpiles of witty repartee. It began in the 1930s when Bette Davis became a formidable rival to the established star Joan Crawford. Davis rebuffed Crawford's phony offer of friendship, declaring herself an actress and Crawford merely a star.
Ironically the early 1960s saw their fortunes inextricably linked with the comeback vehicle in which they co-starred, the hugely successful Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? They played nice initially. After the first week of filming, they both attended a small dinner at Hedda Hopper's in which they offered fulsome praise to the other. [Who says Crawford could not act?] However, they were in open battle by the end of the film, as Shaun Considine amusingly relates in his marvelous book Bette & Joan, The Divine Feud.
In spite of this animosity, they were convinced by the huge office of Baby Jane to re-team for Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. They both arrived on location in Baton Rouge and even posed for a publicity still before Crawford thought better of it and checked herself into the hospital instead. Olivia de Havilland reluctantly took over the role.
It is not that this book is rare (it was published in 1989). It is that it is such fun. The book's reasonable price point makes it the perfect gift to offer a host or hostess in lieu of a typical bottle of wine.
"I think that Bette Davis would probably be burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with a power which can find no ordinary outlet."
--E Arnot Robertson, Mother Goddam, The Story of the Career of Bette Davis
A description of a book signing event for Bette Davis in 1987:
"I [had a book] hand signed by BETTE DAVIS at B. Dalton Booksellers on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, CA in person. It was the only book signing "tour" that Ms. Davis conducted. . . . The occasion was one I will truly never forget. Many folks brought her roses and she was smoking her Viceroy cigarettes during the signing. She was also drinking from a crystal wine glass a nice red wine. Approximately 400 people attended and I was about 10th in line. Ms. Davis shook my hand and said "You are so sweet" when I told her that her movies meant a lot to me as a fan. She wore a black dress with a nice black and lace hat."
A copy of This 'N That signed by Bette Davis is available here.