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Film

Exploring the legendary feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis are routinely named among the greatest on-screen presences in the history of Hollywood. While most celebrity feuds today are fought on social media platforms, the conflicts between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis became iconic due to the widely read gossip columns of their time.

According to some commentators, their feud actually began back in 1933 when Davis had managed to get her name featured above the film’s (Ex-Lady) title for the first time. However, her thunder was stolen by Crawford because she publicly announced that she was divorcing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. which ensured that Davis’ project got almost no publicity in comparison.

Things were further exacerbated when Crawford married Davis’ co-star Franchot Tone in 1935 even though Davis had fallen in love with him. Reflecting on the incident and how it fuelled their feud even more, Davis revealed in a 1987 interview that she considered Crawford’s marriage to Tone to be unforgivable: “I have never forgiven her for that, and never will.”

According to Davis, Crawford deliberately manipulated Tone only because she saw how invested Davis was. When Davis delivered her first Oscar-winning performance in Dangerous, Crawford refused to congratulate her and only said this when Tone called her out on being rude: “Dear Bette! What a lovely frock.”

Later, in 1943, Crawford tried to take their relationship in a different direction by moving to Warner Bros asking for the dressing room right next to Davis. She attempted to make her forget about their past by sending her numerous gifts and flowers but Davis was not ready to forgive Crawford for her behaviour and returned them all.

While Davis had basked in Oscar glory previously, it was Crawford’s turn to shine after a hiatus that lasted almost two years. Davis was presented with the opportunity to star in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce but she passed on it and the role went to Crawford who ended up winning her first and only Oscar for Best Actress.

This wasn’t a solitary incident since Crawford took other leading parts meant for Davis, including her role in Possessed. According to many reports, Davis refused to sign onto a project which explored the lives of female inmates opposite Crawford and called it a “a dyke movie” but Crawford’s friends claimed that she had a homoerotic interest in Davis.

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Davis managed to make another interesting contribution to the feud by working on the 1952 film The Star where she played the role of a washed-up actress who could not let go of the fading glamour. It was reportedly based on Crawford because she helped the screenwriter’s daughter marry the man she wanted to.

Despite their feud, they did get together for their only collaboration in Robert Aldrich’s seminal horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and it was Crawford who convinced Davis to sign onto the project. However, this collaboration ended up providing much more momentum to their ongoing conflict.

Even though Crawford had requested for Davis’ body double in scenes that featured physical abuse, there was one scene where a double could not be used. Davis took advantage of the opportunity and hit Crawford and, while she claimed that she did not use any force at all, other sources reported that the strike was hard enough to split Crawford’s head open.

Retaliating against Davis’ hit, Crawford got back at Davis by increasing her weight through various objects such as rocks before a scene where Davis was supposed to drag her body around. Crawford had planned this quite deliberately since she knew Davis had back problems and the added weight would cause great discomfort.

In the Oscars race following the film, Crawford launched a campaign against Davis’ win and thought of various ways of getting onto the stage. She publicly claimed that she hoped that Davis would win but she actually surprised her by accepting Anne Bancroft’s Best Actress Award right in front of Davis.

Davis said: “When Miss Crawford wasn’t nominated, she immediately got herself booked on the Oscar show to present the best director award. Then she flew to New York and deliberately campaigned against me. She told people not to vote for me. She also called up the other nominees and told them she would accept their statue if they couldn’t show up at the ceremonies.”

Warner Bros tried to make a “spiritual sequel” of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? featuring Davis and Crawford together but Crawford stopped showing up a few days after filming began. In the years that followed, many popular projects explored the legacy of their legendary feud. For those who are familiar with this extensive background, Aldrich’s masterpiece works on multiple levels.

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