WEIRDLAND: Feud, Bette Davis' Lonely Life, Aldrich's Baby Jane

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Feud, Bette Davis' Lonely Life, Aldrich's Baby Jane

Olivia de Havilland, the recipient of two Oscars, for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), filed a lawsuit against the FX network and Ryan Murphy Productions over her portrayal by Catherine Zeta-Jones in last year’s docudrama Feud: Bette and Joan, about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, a day before she turned 101. It was also just a few weeks after the Queen bestowed upon de Havilland, whose equally famous and estranged sister Joan Fontaine died in 2013, the title of dame for her services to drama. The last time de Havilland had a case before the California Court of Appeals was in 1944. Risking her career, she sued Warner Brothers to get out of her contract, which she had signed in 1936, and won. 

“When Feud was first being publicised, but before it went on the air, I was interested to see how it would portray my dear friend Bette Davis,” de Havilland wrote in an email. “Then friends and family started getting in touch with me, informing me that my identity was actually being represented on the programme. No one from Fox had contacted me about this to ask my permission, to request my input, or to see how I felt about it. When I then learned that the Olivia de Havilland character called my sister Joan ‘a bitch’ and gossiped about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s personal and private relationship, I was deeply offended.” The FX network says that de Havilland’s consent was not needed, because Feud falls squarely under protected speech around fictional works in the public interest. Additionally, it contends that her portrayal is positive. “She is portrayed as a wise, respectful friend and counsellor to Bette Davis, and a Hollywood icon with a unique perspective on the past.” Source:

'Feud' is a wildly overused Hollywood word. Did Bette Davis and Joan Crawford ever feud during the filming of Baby Jane? No! Joan Crawford and me got along famously much to the huge disappointment of the Hollywood press. Until we were cast as the costars of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I knew Miss Crawford only slightly. Our paths had seldom crossed, even though for three years we had adjoining dressing rooms at Warners. For reasons known only to herself, when she came to Warner Bros. from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer she had asked for one next to mine. We did not compete for parts since we were opposing types of actresses. In truth, I did not know her any better after the film was completed. Twenty years after we had worked together, and years after her death, we are still a team in the public’s mind. Joan was a pro. She was always punctual, always knew her lines. I will always thank her for giving me the opportunity to play the part of “Baby Jane” Hudson. 

The budget of Whatever happened to Baby Jane was under a million dollars—small by any standards. Before 1960 there were no thirty-million-dollar films. Then came a new and absolutely stupid age of megabucks, in which stars received salaries that once would have financed the costliest epic. Joan and I agreed to accept salaries of $50,000, far below our usual standards. Baby Jane was one of my favorite parts. During our first week of shooting, Henry Farrell visited the set and said, “My God, you look just exactly as I pictured Baby Jane.” Compliments from authors always mean the most to me. When I danced on the beach in the famous scene that ends the film, and my face seemed to glow as I twirled up to the ice cream stand, people swore I had changed my makeup. I had not changed a thing. I changed inwardly and it reflected on my face. I was nominated for an Oscar for my performance. Joan did everything she could possibly think of to keep me from winning. She campaigned openly in New York, contacting all the Oscar nominees who were in plays in New York that year. She offered to accept their Oscars if they won and were unable to attend the ceremony. She also contacted all the members of the Academy who lived in New York, requesting that they vote for one of the nominees then on Broadway.

Leaving aside the fact that I felt I deserved to win, the rule of thumb was that an Oscar winner usually added at least a million dollars to the box-office receipts of a film. Since Joan had a percentage of the movie, how Medean, how foolish she was to work against my winning. I was the actress and she was the big Movie Star. There is a need for both in this profession, but, my dear, at times the woman could be insane! For an actor, the Old Hollywood had one distinct advantage: the contract system, as much as we may have felt abused by it. With the contract system you made one picture right after another. It might take ten years, but with a little luck along the way you could become a star. You had to contend with a good share of inferior scripts in the beginning, but in spite of this the public gradually got to know you. There is no continuity to careers anymore. They no longer write scripts for actors, they just cast them. Reading a newspaper today you will see huge ads for films you never heard of, starring young players you have heard of even less. The world’s problems are wars, drugs, crime, political corruption—all the ills that involve men much more than women.

"Hollywood expected an  eruption when Joan Crawford and Bette Davis got together for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But it turned out to be love in bloom," Hedda Hopper wrote in her column. Joan Crawford was famous for developing 'meaningful' relationships with either her male star or director. She felt these relationships gave her power, and there is no doubt in my mind they did. I have known men who consider it a test of manhood to show no more feeling than a Greek statue. I have often advised young women to beware of a man who never cries. When I was nineteen, I was proposed to by a student at Yale with the proviso that I give up my desire to have a career as an actress. He put a ring on my finger. I wore it for four or five days, then returned it, telling him it would be impossible for me to comply with his request. I never wanted to be a man. I always felt like a woman. I had no penis envy. I have loved it all and would relish living almost all of it over again. On my tombstone it should be written: “She did it the hard way.” That is an accurate description of my life and my career.  —The Lonely Life (ekindle, 2017) by Bette Davis

Watch the final scene at the beach, wherein Crawford’s Blanche ‘admits’ to Davis’s Baby Jane that Jane was not responsible for the accident that crippled Blanche, but Blanche was. Concomitant with the raves accorded Davis’s Jane in that moment is the assumption that Blanche is telling the truth about how she got crippled. But we never see the two women’s faces during the accident scene that precedes the film’s credits. And, as Blanche describes things, it’s simply not a plausible scenario. She claims that she drove the car, wanting to crush Jane, and that the impact, after the drunken Jane got out of the way, snapped her spine. That’s hardly likely from a crash of several feet at a few miles per hour. Less likely is the claim that, with a severed spine, Blanche crawled out of the car to sit by the fence, after a dazed Jane ran away, to frame her sister. It simply is not a real possibility, even given ‘movie magic.’ More likely is that Blanche, after years of her sister’s abuse, is trying to get the final knife in her sister, as she believes she is dying, and thus trying to plant a final guilt of wasting her own life in Jane’s mind. Also, she may very well be looking to save her own skin, and believing that an ‘admission’ will buy her a reprieve. Either interpretation, though, makes more sense than the usual implausible one. Aside from the implausibility of a newly paralyzed woman having the strength and mind to pull herself from a wreck to frame her sister, there is a certain dissonance between Crawford's words and her facial expression in her final scene. Source:

As David Cochran notes in America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era, the role of the grotesque formed a key part of an American post-war critical modernism that attacked the institutional values of a repressive culture. Aldrich uses this form in a manner intended to destabilise normal audience perceptions as seen in Jane’s haggish, grotesque persona and Blanche’s depiction as a victimised post-Griffith heroine. For most of the film Jane appears to be the monstrous grotesque “other” until the climax reveals who is the actual monster but in a manner defying conventional audience identification and rendering any official moral judgment hypocritical. As Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene I. Miller recognise in The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich: “Despite appearances, despite unexpected revelations, we can never take absolute sides with either Blanche or Jane. They are both villains, and they are both victims. By the film’s end, to condemn either would be an act of supreme hypocrisy.” Source: 

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