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Movie Marathon Idea: Hollywood Rivals – Bette and Joan

May 29, 2012

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were two of the greatest actresses and icons to rise out of the early Hollywood studio system.  Bette Davis, long-considered the more classically trained, educated stage actress, was the queen of Warner Brothers in the 30s and 40s.  Joan Crawford was her polar opposite:  a hard-scrabble gal who rose up from poverty to become one of the most iconic flappers in the silent films of the 20s, and finally the star and grand dame of MGM in the 30s and 40s.  Their mutual disdain for each other is the stuff of Hollywood legend, with many of their fans taking sides and extolling  the virtues of each actress with passion.

Personally, I happen to be a huge fan of both women for very different reasons.  Bette is an absolute firecracker on film.  Her big, expressive eyes and unusual beauty are captivating.  She has an innate sense of dramatic timing and most biographies present her as a volatile genius who used her talent and her sharp wit to her best advantage.  Despite a series of failed marriages, Bette was always looking for love both on and off-screen.

Joan, on the other hand,  was a smooth power player who used her dark and seductive look and knowledge of lighting and camera angles to highlight her casual acting style.  She was known for being a the Hollywood legend few men could turn down (and she went through quite a few).  While not as classically trained as Bette, Crawford was every inch the movie star and her acting talents are in many ways equal to Davis’.  Contrary to the legacy left by the horrific portrayal of her in Mommie Dearest, most of her close friends and co-workers adored her; she knew the names of almost every crew member on every film she ever made, and was known for bestowing gifts and financial assistance to many of her nearest and “dearest” in their times of need.

Here are Bette and Joan’s finest performances.

BETTE:  Jezebel (1938)

A year before the release of Gone With the Wind, Bette starred in William Wyler’s tale of a Southern belle driven to the point of madness by the man who got away.  Davis stars as Julie Marsden, a sheltered maid of New Orleans who is engaged to the honest and attractive banker, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda).   Full of her own importance, Julie tries to shock society by wearing a scarlet red dress to the debutante ball, where the young maidens are strictly forbidden to wear any color other than virginal white.  Pres escorts her nobly, but is dismayed by her whim and her disrespectful airs.  He breaks off the engagement, returning a year later with a Northern wife in tow.  Julie, devastated, attempts to lure Pres back with her now fading charms, but is foiled at every turn by her own arrogance.   In the end, Pres is quarantined on an island with a fatal case of yellow fever and Julie must decide whether she will make the ultimate sacrifice to be with the man she loves.  Bette gives a powerhouse of a performance, all eyes and spitfire.  Thanks to masterful direction by Wyler (it’s rumored the two were having a scandalous affair during filming), she shines in every scene, illustrating Julie’s intelligence and passion despite her obvious flaws.

JOAN:  Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan’s great Oscar triumph would come at the end of a long struggle for Joan to regain her box office clout.  Recently dumped by MGM, the studio that groomed her and supported her throughout the 20s and 30s, Joan had to screen test and claw her way to winning the role that would end up being her most lucrative and her most lauded.   Joan stars as the title character, who in the beginning of the film ditches her unfaithful husband and the life of a housewife to work as a waitress to support her two girls, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay.   The ungrateful Veda is dismayed to find her mother sinking to a working class job.  Veda has her eye on wealth and fame, although she lacks any moral compass or talent to make this a reality.    Out of love for her daughters, Mildred marries the feckless but charming Monty Beragon, who gives her the society status Veda craves.  Mildred also finds financial success by opening a chain of chicken dinner restaurants throughout California.   In the end, however, Mildred’s blindness regarding Veda’s true nature becomes her undoing.  Joan gives the best work of her career as Mildred, a woman who is calm and sophisticated on the surface, but bursting with passion and drive underneath.   Her scenes with Blyth are masterpieces to behold, with both going for broke.   Joan would win her one and only Oscar for the role.

BETTE AND JOAN:  Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

The two great rivals would finally work together after years of trading barbs in 1962’s psychological horror film about two sisters who are both aging actresses.  Jane (Bette Davis) was at the peak of her career in the silent era of vaudeville films, when she was a pint size diva.  Blanche (Joan Crawford), rises to fame as Jane’s career is at an end, playing sophisticated adult beauties.   After a car accident robs Blanche of her mobility, Jane must become her sister’s caretaker.  Jane is an alcoholic basket case who resents her sister to the point of abuse.  Much of film shows Jane’s descent into jealousy-inspired dementia.  Blanche’s life hangs in the balance as Jane’s mind games become more and more fatalistic.  Although Bette would earn the most praise (and another Oscar nomination) as the showier Jane,  Crawford’s understated and mesmerizing portrayal of Blanche at times outshines her, especially in the final scene.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 5, 2012 6:44 pm

    I agree with what you say. I like them both for different reasons as well. This is a very well-written article about two of the greatest women to grace the screen.

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