WHEN IN HER LAST meeting with journalists she was asked about love, Bette Davis was sincere and precise: “It has not been one of my great successes.” Just a few days later, on October 6, 1989, the actress died in the American hospital in Paris, at the age of 81. Davis had traveled from Los Angeles to Europe not only to receive at the San Sebastian Film Festival one more award in her award-winning career, but to literally die with her boots on, even if it was playing the role of herself on stage. from a distant country. How the documentary collects The last good-bye by Bette Davis (Pedro González Bermúdez, 2014), the iron determination and professionalism that the actress demonstrated during those days were overwhelming. She measured each public appearance, meticulously prepared every detail, and controlled with an iron fist something that worried her: to be photographed in a wheelchair. Sentenced for advanced cancer, she was a corpse, but nothing undermined her will, and the record that remains of that last breath only magnifies her legend.
Gesture is the heritage of the actors and hiding the sentence to a wheelchair is not a trivial detail when we talk about a classic Hollywood star. Joan Crawford, four years older than Davis, who died in 1977 at the age of 69, also from cancer, knew well the importance of those gestures that are often labeled as mere diva whims. Director George Cukor said of Crawford that she could be photographed from any angle, because she was always magnificent, although her greatest talent, the most mysterious of all, was the way she walked. “Crawford gets your attention just by moving. You don’t even need to open your mouth – you just have to walk. And it will be superb ”.
Crawford not only envied Davis, says a biographer, but had secretly been in love with her
When in San Sebastián they asked him about his co-star in What Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962), Davis preferred to turn his back on the truth: “By working together we disappointed the entire American press, who expected us to pull each other’s hair. None of that happened and we had a very friendly relationship ”. How the series collects Feud, which has brought the famous enmity between the two “beasts” back to the fore, this well-worn cliché responds to real events. The terrible manipulation to which the two stars were subjected by their bosses, led by the boss of the studio, Jack Warner, responded to a single and perverse purpose: divide and conquer. The two actresses gave much more publicity and therefore were much more profitable if their relationship was sold as a pathetic battle between two old glories. The cunning of both was of no use; they fell into the trap like girls and from the Aldrich film they lived to hate each other.
The 21 days of filming were enough to weave the series of misunderstandings that led to his famous hostility. The film, which marked Davis’s return to Warner, a study that he had taken to court to regain his freedom and to direct the course of his career, was the story of two sisters, grotesque former child prodigies, who live trapped in their twilight with a seedy Hollywood backdrop. A success that established the subgenre of old-stars-playing-roles-of-freaks.
What is not told in Feud, played by two huge Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, is what can be read in the black chronicle of Hollywood and in many biographies, especially those that save the talented and haughty Davis from the beautiful and ravenous Crawford. According to Charles Higham, author of Bette Davis Naked, Crawford not only envied his fellow poster, but had secretly been in love with her. “Bette was irritated by the fact that Joan had resumed her siege by sending her shoes, scarves and jewelry,” writes Higham. The supposed passion went back to when the two stars had first met at Warner; there Crawford had tried unsuccessfully to attract his colleague’s attention with gifts and dinner invitations that Davis turned down time and time again. Fed up with so many slights, fueled by dirty gossip that only wanted to provoke their rivalry, Crawford began to breed the seed of hatred.
During the filming of Baby Jane, and in the face of Davis’s new refusal, Crawford became unbearable and fussy, according to Higham. The past of The Witch Joan, as the filmmaker and writer Kenneth Anger called her in his well-known Hollywood Babylon chronicle, was tainted by a beginnings in which she had to do more than just porn to survive. Crawford reigned in the free and dissolute Hollywood of the 1920s, where no one, neither male nor female, resisted his charms. But with the arrival in the mid-1930s of the fearsome Hays code (by which film producers regulated the morally acceptable in a movie), the crystalline air of the Hollywood Hills became murky and unbreathable. There has been talk of the Sewing Circle, a secret lesbian club that included Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck and Crawford herself, but the truth is that each one weathered the storm as best it could. In Crawford’s case, the way to stifle his homosexuality was to seduce all possible men and, at the same time, build a family postcard of unbearable neatness with his four adopted children. Obsessed with her image, she protected herself with a shell of strident morality. When he became a widower of Alfred Steele, president of Pepsi-Cola, the star became part of the company’s board of directors, leading to his image-ad delirium.
Perhaps the funniest thing about the fight between Bette Davis and her is how the protagonist of The wolf (Davis) pissed off Mildred Pierce (Crawford) by inviting the whole team to drink the rival brand, Coca-Cola. Dirty war that led to its last consequences the day he organized a Coca-Cola party on the set of Lullaby for a Corpse (Aldrich, 1964). The film was intended to exploit the vein of What Happened to Baby Jane? gathering the enemies for the second time. But the idea was a disaster that ended with Crawford in bed and Olivia de Havilland, a friend of Davis, snatching the job. It was revenge for the unfortunate role of Crawford at the Oscars in 1962, where he did everything to steal the spotlight and boycott what would have been the third statuette of his nemesis. The Oscar was won by Anne Bancroft for The Miracle of Ana Sullivan, but it was picked up by Crawford, who volunteered to replace the winner, absent on Broadway. Davis never forgave him.
There was professional jealousy (the Academy had only recognized Bette Davis’s work on Baby Jane), but also the certainty that absolutely nothing could hurt her colleague more than running out of what she most coveted: a third Oscar. In a 1987 television interview, the elderly Davis confessed with her usual arrogance: “She was furious, she acted like an idiot, she made us lose a lot of money. I would have been the first person to win three Oscars. And besides, he deserved it. We were, as actresses and as women, very different ”.
She was also wrong about the latter, because the coincidences between them are not anecdotal: born under the sign of Aries, stubborn as mules, inveterate drinkers, married four times and, already converted into single mothers, incompetent when it comes to loving their children. stems. The revenge of Barbara D. Hyman, Davis’s first-born, and that of Christina Crawford, one of his adopted daughters, was the same: they gave their mothers two books where they revealed the ordeal that according to them had been their childhood. On Mommie Dearest (1978), Christina painted her mother as a drunken nympho, while in My Mother’s Keeper (1987), BD Hyman portrayed Davis as a selfish tyrant who ruined his life. When she traveled to San Sebastián accompanied by her secretary and several dozen trunks, she had already signed the will that excluded her daughter and her two grandchildren. Crawford did the same before he died: he disinherited his older children, Christina and Christopher.
The coincidences extend to fiction, to the two masterpieces that have fixed the modern myth of both actresses. On Naked eva (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), Davis played Margo Channing, a torrential actress in her maturity who discovers with dread how a sweet and servile upstart is capable of anything to supplant her. On Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), Crawford was Vienna, another woman of age and past who decides to throw her suitcases and build a game room in a town dominated by a jealous young woman and chieftain, in the shoes of the masterful Mercedes McCambridge, capable of all to snatch the barren desert throne from the stranger. Margo and Vienna were as much alike as Bette and Joan: two scarred goddesses, two warriors fed up with fighting, two women admired by young and old men, two beings threatened by a new order they faced, on and off screen, with nails and teeth.