Imagine with me if you can saving up your spare coins for a long time, heading off to an anniversary or birthday dinner at The Brown Derby, one of old Hollywood’s most celebrated restaurants. All of a sudden flash bulbs start going off, waiters stand at attention, and in walks Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or better still, both of them.
These moments in time actually occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, and the new FX miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan” does a great job chronicling what was no doubt Hollywood’s Golden Age. From the two mega-stars who apparently couldn’t stand each other conspiring to have a co-star fired simply for being too young and too pretty, to them jockeying for position with their director and famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, the ruthlessness behind the glamour comes to light in this series.
Who knows if it’s factually accurate, but I would be willing to bet it is emotionally right on script. Davis won two Academy Awards to one for Crawford. Together, they were nominated for 15 of the Oscar statues, and that’s quite an accomplishment in the days before Meryl Streep.
As both of their careers waned and traditional leading roles were going to younger women, these two powerhouses came together to do something quite different, a horror movie which has become a camp classic, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” In the FX series, Susan Sarandon offers a tour de force performance as the bravado-filled, yet still vulnerable Davis. Jessica Lange, long one of the actresses I revere most, is more appropriately understated as Crawford, but just as manipulative and determined to survive. From all accounts, Crawford never felt properly acknowledged and appreciated for her talents, while Davis didn’t seem to suffer from any lack of confidence in her craft.
Watching these two highly skilled actresses descend into the characters of two highly skilled actresses, fighting for their lives and for top billing on a movie set, gives some insight into what it must have been like for women in Hollywood of that era, used by studios and the men who dominated them to appeal to audiences and pad bank accounts only to be treated as disposable when a wrinkle appeared, either on their faces or in their box office draw.
Davis was both reviled and celebrated so well in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” made famous in 1981 by Kim Carnes, and who hasn’t seen a rerun of “Mommie Dearest” which portrayed Crawford as the stereotype of an abusive, or at least neglectful mother?
I don’t hold either of them up as Mother Teresa-like examples of goodness, but as Shakespeare says in “King Lear,” I bet they were no less sinned against than sinning. From the Bard of Avon to my favorite Country Queen, perhaps Tammy Wynette summed them up best: “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.”
Hard, yes, but in the case of these two extraordinary Hollywood lives, I bet it was entirely worth the effort—most days.
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