As Sarandon and Lange are set to play Davis and Crawford, Ashley Davies pays tribute to the Bechdel-test-pleasing, camp-as-biscuits and woozily demented two-header.
Last week film fans cackled with delight after it emerged that the irresistibly intriguing saga of bad blood between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford was finally to be dramatised by someone who could do it justice.
Ryan Murphy, who brought out the slinky, sensuous, sinister best in Jessica Lange for American Horror Story, is working on a series called Feud, the first episode of which will tap into the mammoth talents of Lange and Susan Sarandon to explore the spiky hatred that existed between these goddesses from the golden age of Hollywood. It’s due to air next year and promises to be amazing.
There are different versions of who wronged whom and why, but what is clear is that these superstars were energetic and creative rivals on a number of levels. Davis has been depicted as having been furiously jealous of Crawford for getting men, parts and attention that she wanted, and sought to undermine and insult her at every opportunity. Davis was straightforward while bad-mouthing Crawford – she is said to have referred to her, within earshot, as “that phony cunt” – while Crawford often used more elegant and subtle techniques to undermine her mucky-mouthed rival.
One delicious by-product of their feud is What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which came about in 1962 after Crawford read the book of the same name by Henry Farrell and approached Davis with the idea. The movie was to revive both of their flagging careers while simultaneously lighting a fire under the contempt that had simmered between them for so many years. It was a genius move by a woman who knew the power of publicity and reputation.
And while it stands alone as a darkly entertaining piece of cinema, a forerunner in the horribly named ‘hag horror’ subgenre, the context of their relationship makes it all the more intoxicating.
“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is Hitchcockian at times in its woozy dementedness, particularly when Jane gets rid of Blanche’s only lifeline and source of safety, the cleaning lady.”
Davis plays Baby Jane Hudson, a former vaudevillian child star, all tatty ringlets, trowelled-on boozer’s makeup – heavily made-up eyes and a heart-shaped beauty spot on her sagging cheek – and tragic remnants of beauty. She lives with her sister, Blanche, who had been a plain, put-upon child while spoilt Baby Jane exploited her own youthful showbiz success, but whose acting career eclipsed her own in adulthood.
At the peak of Blanche’s Hollywood glory, she is disabled by a car, driven, it seems, by a pissed and pissed-off Baby Jane, and now, in their later years, the bitter drunk must look after her martyred sister. (Both women were only in their 50s when the film was made but both, particularly Davis, look a lot older.)
With the wheelchair-using Blanche trapped upstairs in her bedroom, utterly reliant on her bad-tempered, lonely drunk of a sister for care, it is Hitchcockian at times in its woozy dementedness, particularly when Jane gets rid of Blanche’s only lifeline and source of safety, the cleaning lady.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? deals with several timeless themes beyond vicious sibling rivalry: a desperate yearning for lost youth, loneliness, alcoholism, concepts of memory, the hollow, disposable nature of celebrity, perceptions of talent, guilt, the impact of parental guidance and the division of familial financial assets. It also happens to pass the Bechdel test, which is pretty amazing for a film made in the 1960s.
In what turned out to be a magnificently but accidental form of method acting, Davis and Crawford made each other’s lives miserable while on set. Davis had a bad back at the time, and Crawford deliberately made herself heavy in a scene that required her co-star to lift her up. And Crawford did everything she could to curry favour with the crew in the hope that they would favour her.
The whole shebang, on screen and behind the scenes, is scary and sad and wonderfully camp and I bloody love it.4063 Views
Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.