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21 July 2015

Thinking about Bette and Joan (Part one of two)

They had so much in common, yet were so different. They both began their Hollywood careers as almost unrecognizable ingenues, with marcelled hair, red pouty lips and enormous blue eyes. 
Joan started earlier, being a few years older. But Bette matched her determination and vigor. They both worked long and hard at their craft, day in and day out; they both gained the reputation of being complete professionals, always on time and always prepared. They both became important earners for their studios, starring in films that brought in millions.

After years of being, in the studio's eyes, a reliable cash cow, Joan's career faltered -- MGM, always slow to digest new ideas, found it difficult to find appropriate vehicles for her. She had begun as a "modern" jazz-dancing ingĂ©nue, morphed into an working girl, and then into a glamorous  career woman\wife. But in about 1944, they ran out of ideas. Finally, in what must have been a major trauma for her, they let her go, and she left the lot where she had worked so hard, succeeded so well, and brought so much profit to her employers

There followed one of the major triumphs of her working life; or any actress' working life, really. She signed with Warner Brothers and won the title role in Mildred Pierce, a bestseller by James M. Cain. And she won it  by testing for it, as if she were an inexperienced newcomer. Mildred Pierce is an ambitious woman, a female entrepreneur, and the mother of a grown daughter. She is neither an innocent nor hardened -- she is a recognizable person (except for her remarkable beauty). Crawford seized the role with both hands, despite tension between her and director Michael Curtiz; her performance won her an Academy Award. (Author James M. Cain loved her portrayal of his character.) Her career at Warner Brothers went on to include many excellent roles and fine performances, including Humoresque, Harriet Craig, and The Damned Don't Cry, to name a few. Indeed, I think it can be said that at this stage in her career Joan pioneered a new genre of adult female drama -- that is, the adventures and romances of grown-up women, not teenagers or girls. She didn't retire modestly to "mother" parts (though she certainly played mothers); in her films she was the main focus of the story, whatever the character's age or social situation.When you think about it, this was pretty new; Kay Francis had done a few of such roles but her career was fading as Crawford's was reborn.

It's worthwhile pausing for a moment to consider where exactly Joan Crawford came from. Bluntly,  her background was what used to be called "white trash." Her father left the family when she was a young child; her mother literally took in washing. Her mother preferred her brother to her and apparently provided little support. Crawford -- then, of course, Lucille LeSeur -- spent most of her teen years doing menial work, with little time or priority for schooling and little parental guidance. She felt this very keenly when she began to meet people from more fortunate social backgrounds.

Luckily for her, she was physically healthy and extremely determined. And she loved to dance. She actually wanted to be a dancer, but in later years frankly admitted that she just wasn't good enough. It was the twenties, however, and dancing was very much in vogue -- and enthusiasm counted for a lot. She was good enough -- and pretty enough -- to get a chance for a screen test, and become one of so many hundreds of pretty girls who swarmed the studios. What set Joan -- or Lucille, as she still was -- apart was, first, her beauty ; onscreen the lovely lines  of her bone structure were clear, and made her face very expressive. The second thing she had going for her was sheer will. She would and could do whatever it took to succeed, whether it was strenuous  early morning runs to lose weight, having her teeth capped -- all at once, or adventures on the casting couch. Eager girls were seen as fair game by directors, agents, executives, and anyone else who could promise work if she would "be nice." Joan was an ambitious teenager on her own; she had no mentor or family to protect her. She made her own way.

Joan Crawford created herself. The familiar image, the elegant, high-fashion figure and carriage, the classically beautiful face, the low-pitched, cultured speaking voice, were all her own design, so to speak. The alto tone of her voice and clarity of pronunciation were achieved on her own, through imagination and hard work, owing nothing to her Texas background. Those who consider her presentation of herself a bit over-gracious might consider where she came from and what she was trying to escape.

Bette Davis' background was entirely different, in ways that might have had some bearing on their reported mutual antipathy. Her old New England family was not wealthy but certainly middle-class, and proud of its heritage and tradition. Bette, too, experienced her fathers virtual desertion during her childhood. But her mother, Ruth, was extremely supportive of her ambitions. She was first interested in dance, but soon her interest switched to acting. She attended a private boarding school, and after graduation her mother moved the family to New York in support of her acting career. Bette was able to attend a professional acting academy and audition for work in the theater, which she soon attained. Her performance in a Broadway play called Broken Dishes got her a screen test, which got her a studio contract, and the family were off to Hollywood; her mother went with her as a chaperone.

Notice the differences here? No one doubts that Bette Davis was extraordinarily talented and became a great actress, and no one doubts that she worked extremely hard with great dedication. But she also had a lot of help and support. Not only that, but her education fitted her to understand the context of roles she played, from Regina in The Little Foxes to Miss Moffat in The Corn Is Green. Joan, on the other hand, recalled reading scripts with a dictionary in her hand, because she didn't understand so many of the words. Bette, however, had a reasonable liberal arts education, had studied history and literature, and was familiar with modern and classic plays. If she hadn't had that education and support I'm sure she would have succeeded anyway; but the fact is, she did have it. 


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