Blog Archive

26 July 2015

Thinking About Bette and Joan, part 2

When Bette Davis arrived in Hollywood, a proper New England young lady with her mother in tow, the likelihood of her becoming the prey of the studio lotharios was pretty remote. For one thing, she was considered highbrow, not sexy; and for another, as she freely explained in later life, she actually was an innocent virgin. 
By this stage in her life, Joan Crawford could certainly not say the same. Myrna Loy was a lifelong friend of Joan's; they worked together as bit players at MGM. In her memoir, Myrna recounts a sad and disturbing story -- Joan (or Lucille, as she still was) came back to their dressing room and dropped to the floor, sobbing. She had been manhandled by a producer and couldn't refuse. Myrna said that she herself wasn't considered that attractive, being tall and thin, but that they just couldn't keep their hands off Joan.
Who knows what else happened? This was a teenage girl, beautiful but unprotected. There is no way to know. But whatever it was must have increased her determination to achieve a position where she could never be pushed around or told what to do again. Of course, many people say that to themselves; but Joan could do it.
Bette could do it, too. That slight, innocent little blond who got off the train in Los Angeles had hidden depths that no one could begin to guess at. And she, too, created herself; the familiar, mature (in the best sense of the word) Davis persona -- seen in Dark Victory, Now Voyager, Jezebel, Old Acquaintance, Watch On the Rhine, The Letter, All This and Heaven Too, Juarez -- the unique, clear voice, the brisk gestures, the steady gaze, all were her own creations, unique to her.
Bette resisted the glamour treatment
Bette soon proved what a powerful actress she was, and after a pretty brief (though I'm sure it didn't seem that way to her) apprenticeship playing "the girl" supporting stars like James Cagney, she began to build a series of very strong characterizations that really have not been equaled. She is really superb in Dangerous, for example, as a self-destructive stage star (based on Jeanne Eagles), as the horrible Mildred in Of Human Bondage, as the abused call-girl in Marked Woman. Soon she was the Queen of the lot at Warner Bros., even though the studio kept trying to fob her off with what she considered sub-standard material.
Apparently they thought they were dealing with just another uppity actress; but what they actually had was a tiger. There was not much Bette wouldn't do in defense of her art and her career. After winning an Academy  Award in 1936 for a brilliant performance in Dangerous, her dissatisfaction with the studio's offerings boiled over, and she
Good roles finally arrived -- The Letter
declared publicly that she was on strike, refused to report for work, and was prepared to go to court. She did; and although eventually she lost her case, Warner Bros were willing to do better by her. A string of her greatest roles followed her return to work.
In the early 1930s. MGM did their best for Joan Crawford. Framed by luxuriant dark hair, her face grew lovelier and more photogenic each year, and needed vey little adornment. The great costume designer Adrian solved the problem of her too-broad shoulders by inventing the padded-shoulder look that became such a hallmark of 1940s fashion. She became what Edith Head described as a naturally great model, with a basic understanding of how to wear and present clothes. This seems trivial now but was an extremely important factor in her popularity; much of her devoted audience consisted of young women who went to the movies to see glamor and romance. They soon knew that's what they would get with a Joan Crawford picture.
Joan took to glamour like a duck to water
Bette had no respect for that kind of stardom.  She had had to endure being painted, crimped, and gowned during her apprenticeship at the studio; but she strongly preferred to dress as her character would dress, from the frills and furbelows of Fannie Skeffington to the jodhpurs and riding boots of Maggie in The Great Lie. She didn't object to playing a character who looked, in her opinion, awful, like Empress Carlotta in Juarez (though many people actually thought she looked quite beautiful in the black wig she hated so much), or one who was unapologetically older than she was, like Miss Moffat in The Corn Is Green (one of her greatest performances).
I think that at this stage in her career no power on earth would have induced Joan to play a character like Miss Moffat. She would willingly play a shop assistant, a stenographer, or a parlormaid, but they would be an elegant and lovely shop assistant, stenographer, etc. Her choices at MGM had narrowed because of that studio's love of glamor and rather rigid ideas about women's roles. Great parts for women at MGM tended to be wives, or queens, or Broadway stars, or ingenues. Joan's persona didn't really fit anymore
Joan proved she could act -- Humoresque
Upon her arrival at Warner Bros, however, new worlds opened up for her as an adult female. She could be a businesswoman, a mother, a journalist, a nurse, a fashion model, a much-married society lady -- she actually opened the way for much more varied women's roles, at least for the same woman. This was something Bette insisted on, too; it was in fact another thing they had in common, though I'm sure neither of them saw it that way!
The origins of their mutual antipathy are unclear. There was no reason for professional rivalry, as it's extremely unlikely that they would have been considered for the same part. Can we see Bette as Helen in Humoresque, or Joan as Charlotte Vail in Now Voyager? No, really not. On the other hand, behind the scenes there were apparently skirmishes over men. And when one is the Queen of the Lot, one really wants to be the ONLY Queen of the Lot.  
And it must be noted that when they did work together, finally, on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a project that was important to both of them, they were consummate professionals, with no hi-jinks of any kind. They finished the shooting in three weeks and both gave excellent performances. The film was a huge success, leading to calls for more pairings. However, since they did dislike each other heartily, working together had been a strain, and it would have been pretty unpleasant to get locked into some kind of partnership. So it's understandable that they never starred together again. 
I even think they admired each other in certain ways. Joan praised Bette as an actress, and I remember Bette saying one thing she envied about Joan was her beauty.  And each complimented the other on her working habits -- on time, prepared, and ready, 
Joan and Bette share a joke on the set of Baby Jane
To me it seems that they both succeeded on their own terms. Bette wanted to be, and was, respected as a serious actress; she worked almost until her very last years; her reputation remained high throughout her life, and it has not faded now. Joan essentially retired when illness began to interfere with her work, but was genuinely touched -- and amazed -- by the continuing appreciation she got from fans. She could hardly keep back tears when she received a huge ovation at an "Evening With…" retrospective at Town Hall in New York a few years before her death. When she spoke of her work in interviews after her retirement it was with modesty and gratitude. It's ironic that they could never share what they truly had in common as stars and as actresses -- commitment. They were both always entirely present onscreen; you could rely on Bette -- or Joan -- to live up to their roles as movie stars. They always gave their best.

No comments:

Post a Comment

(Feel free to add your comments!)