From April 13 - 15, 2017, at the Egyptian Theatre, fhe American Cinematheque is hopping on the bandwagon of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s legendary (and now televised) bitter feud on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? In 1962, Baby Jane was a risky, slightly degrading move for both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, aging mega-stars finding that good roles for women over 50 were fewer and farther between than they had hoped. But it worked. And by “worked,” I mean it introduced a whole new generation of movie fans to these two actresses, making them household names well into the 21st century. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is renowned as a “hag horror” movie – campy, ridiculous, exploitative films that put once-beloved aging actresses in cheap thrillers, throwing their good names around drive-ins like used tissue paper. Films like Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, What's the Matter With Helen?, and Die! Die! My Darling (among many others) exist merely to parody the amazing careers of the actresses playing the (often psychotic) older female roles.
What stands out in all of them, and in particular in Baby Jane, is the actresses’ unflinching effort to put in a great performance. Despite the plot, or the dialogue, or the silliness of it all, both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were consummate professionals, never once giving less than 100% in every scene. It’s the continuing dignity of these two actresses in the face of an undignified film that elevates Baby Jane from just another cheap horror film to an almost cathartic, self-referential melodrama; a nightmare version of the real Bette Davis’ lost fame and of Joan Crawford’s legless career that would run no more. The irony of two aging actresses playing crazy, aging, forgotten actresses was not lost on Bette and Joan; both were smart, witty women who couldn’t have possibly missed that they were being made fun of. As professionals, however, they reserved their hatred for one another on the set, which is where their “feud” comes in. “The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” said Bette Davis. And of Davis, Crawford said, “Sure, she stole some of my big scenes, but the funny thing is, when I see the movie again, she stole them because she looked like a parody of herself, and I still looked like something of a star." Despite Joan’s opinion, Davis was the one nominated for an Oscar for her role as Baby Jane Hudson.
On Friday the 14th, Bette Davis stars in the aptly named The Star, from 1952, a full ten years before her turn as Baby Jane Hudson. Like in All About Eve, which is screening Saturday the 15th, Davis plays an actress whose career has seen better days. An alcoholic, suffering from ennui and a general malaise and a lack of career options, Davis turns to a beachy Sterling Hayden, a failed actor who now works as a boat mechanic. In All About Eve (1950), Davis makes a startlingly good Margo Channing, a theatre actress feeling increasingly threatened by her young admirer. Davis was always able to reach deep inside herself and pull out some genuine insecurities and fears for her roles, even in the early days of her career. The harsh, bitter, thick-skinned caricature most film lovers have of Davis stems not from her performances, but mainly from hand-picked interview quotes in her old age. Davis was able to craft shockingly vulnerable onscreen women, troubled and even helpless. Her rare mix of power and openness makes her performances in The Star and All About Eve so fascinating; she had to draw on all of her real-life qualms about becoming an aging has-been to make these films as good as they are.
Crawford’s films Johnny Guitar (1954) and Mildred Pierce (1945) show her as a mature, troubled lady rather than the flirtatious girl she’d been playing in mostly romantic comedies up until 1945. Crawford’s Vienna, a saloon-owner in the old west, furrows her brow and wears pants, putting up with no man’s bullshit in a setting when women couldn’t even vote in the United States. Yet Vienna’s struggles against the venomous Mercedes McCambride and her old lover Johnny (Sterling Hayden again) are enough to make her come crashing down emotionally at any moment. Crawford’s nuanced performance is chilly but relatable. She’s even more relatable as the unappreciated Mildred Pierce, a woman struggling to support her ungrateful daughter Veda in the face of divorce and near-poverty. Playing the mother of a teenage daughter was a perilous choice for any actress in 1945; admitting you could be old enough to have one could practically end a woman’s acting career. That film, like everything Crawford did, was a calculated choice and carefully chosen project. Mildred Pierce won Crawford an Oscar and set her on track to have a flourishing career through her late 50s, when all the hag horror started. Crawford always kept a quiet aloofness about her, unlike Davis, in every role she played, as if she were secretly protecting her character from pain, even through Baby Jane. The iconic image of Crawford screaming about coat hangers in the biopic Mommie Dearest isn’t really a fair one; there is so much more to Crawford’s extensive career besides being insane in the middle of the night.
Bette Davis’s personality was fire, Joan Crawford’s was ice. Of course they hated each other. They were also two sides of the same coin: two aging actresses starring in a really silly film about two aging actresses losing their minds in a crumbling Hollywood manse. Both had known amazing careers as young women in the 1930s, both made admirable transitions to challenging roles in the 1940s and 50s, and both ended up playing demented old women in a string of thrillers banking on their star power. Two such very different women having such similar career trajectories and ending up in the same questionable movie must have seen one another as a symbol of everything they hated about their own lives and careers at that point. It wasn’t so much of a feud as it was an affinity, and they both wanted to get as far away as possible from it. Instead, much to what I am sure would be their deep dissatisfaction, they’re forever together, remembered more for their performances in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? than the majority of their other films.
The American Cinematheque’s series "Bette vs. Joan" takes place from April 13-15, 2017 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
Thursday, April 13 – 7:30 PM What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Friday, April 14 – 7:30 PM Double Feature: The Star (1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954)
Saturday, April 15 – 7:30 PM Double Feature: All About Eve (1950) and Mildred Pierce (1945)
Heidi Honeycutt is the programmer of the “Rack Focus” series at the American Cinematheque, including the women directors’ genre film festival Etheria Film Night (@EtheriaFN). When she’s not doing that, she’s writing for film magazines, watching pre-code talkies, and wearing sweatpants.