Joan Crawford and Bette Davis

As I wrapped up recording an episode of my podcast that I do with my friend Nick, anxiety enveloped me. I remembered a hundred things that I hadn’t said, that needed to be said, that both these incredible actresses deserve to have said about them.
Regardless of who your favourite is, they are both equally deserving of praise. They were both consummate professionals who dedicated their entire lives to their craft. This may be why they found it so hard to retire, to stop working. They were workaholics extraordinaire, driven by their own ambition to achieve greatness and perhaps to redefine it.
We’ve just commemorated 43 years since Joan Crawford’s passing and here we are, still talking about her feud with Bette Davis. In the TV show Feud, written by Ryan Murphy, a fictionalised version of Olivia de Havilland talks about a feud being about pain. While this might be true, one would expect in the case of this particular ‘feud’ that the pain should be directed at Hollywood itself, not at each other. Perhaps it was. Or perhaps this was even a made-believe feud that had the media enthralled, just to highlight this pain.
Where might this pain have stemmed from? Injustice suffered during the studio system. We know that both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had problems with their respective studios, MGM and Warner Bros. They didn’t get the support they needed and deserved at the time they needed it. Bette might have won her first Oscar for a film done with Warner, but it was a consolation win for a much better performance that she did when she was on loan with RKO – Of Human Bondage. Joan Crawford’s career at MGM was heading into oblivion after a series of poor films that did not fit Crawford’s star persona.
One must remember that back in the 1930s and 1940s films were mostly about stars. The job of the studios was to find the right story to fit in with the right star. This was mainly since each star was a type, a type that audiences could identify with. Thus, the studios were after a star vehicle, a story that would be fit for a Gable, a Harlow or a Crawford. Despite Crawford being Crawford, a luminous presence on the screen, she could act. She was able to bring her fierceness to every character she portrayed. She was also able to attract the audience sympathy, who despite not always able to identify themselves with her (as she was always a star both on and off screen), they were always able to understand the hard work she would put into her roles.
Davis’ star vehicle was late to form. A glimpse of what made her a star might have been seen in The Cabin in the Cotton. Of Human Bondage garnered her a write-in nomination for an Oscar after a nationwide indignation at her not being originally included caused an uproar (which is extremely well documented in Be Kind Rewind’s video). One would have expected that following Of Human Bondage people and, more importantly, Warner Bros studio would understand what Bette Davis’ star persona was and give her better parts. This would not be so and Bette Davis, just like Joan Crawford would fight studios for better roles for most of her career.
Perhaps this is the pain and this is the feud that the media should have focused on all these years ago. Crawford and Davis weren’t friends, their dislike of each other perhaps stemming from their being such different characters in real life, with different upbringings. In most of her interviews, Bette Davis comes across as someone very straightforward, who doesn’t mince her words and who always speaks her mind, at the risk of being rude. Joan Crawford, on the other hand, appears as the picture of diplomacy and politeness, very calculating and always very stylish. It evens begs the question: who was Joan Crawford in reality, if she ever existed? I believe Lucille LeSueur was dead and buried the moment Joan got her new name and a contract with MGM, so we might never know who she could have been if she hadn’t been Joan Crawford.
Their mutual pain of having spent their lives fighting for their careers, never satisfied with their lot, always trying to prove something more, to reach the next level and the one after that, is nicely illustrated in the show Feud, which, despite taking too many liberties with the material, succeeds in presenting us with a more personal view on these two remarkable women.  All this time they could have even been friends, if only Hedda, i.e. the media, hadn’t stuck her nose in!

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