Fred Astaire and Gingers Rodgers, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, Paul Newman and Robert Redford: Hollywood cinema is filled with examples of memorable star pairings, with one talent drawing the best out of the other.
But there’s also something to be said for acting duos famed for their disharmony, where the magnetism of their performances together is based not on how each component attracts the other, but rather the tension caused when they repel.
One of the most notorious cases of two Hollywood icons known for despising each other is Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, whose fall-out is the subject of the FX TV drama Feud. Yet when they worked together for the first (and subsequently only) time in their careers, the result was the gloriously camp, deliciously nasty melodrama that is 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Both play exaggerated versions of the screen personas they had respectively cultivated during the height of their fame several decades earlier. Davis is the titular Baby Jane, a former child star who has grown into a grotesque uber-bitch who jealously torments her sister and wheelchair-bound housemate, Blanche (played by Crawford), out of jealousy for her more prolonged success in show business. This mirrors Davis’ own envy of Crawford, which stemmed from the latter’s marriage to the actor Franchot Tone.
As Blanche, Crawford adopts the familiar guise of a dignified woman who remains stoic in the face of suffering, which reaches absurd degrees when she is left almost comatose after her mentally deteriorating sister shuts her off from the outside world and starves her of food.
Each appears to revel in the opportunity to get one over on the other. Upon being approached to star in the film alongside Crawford, Davis agreed only on the condition that she would play Baby Jane, presumably to ensure she would be the one dishing out the unpleasantness, from scornful one-liners to actual physical attacks. And in Crawford’s quietly judgmental glances, you can sense not just her character’s disgust but also the actor’s own condemnation of Davis’ vanity-free, shamelessly over-the-top performance.
Inevitably, tensions boiled over when the cameras stopped rolling. Davis was apparently overzealous during a scene in which she strikes Crawford; Crawford was purposefully difficult during a scene which required her to drag Davis around; and the pair constantly exchanged insults – passive aggressively in Crawford’s case and downright active aggressively in Davis’. Things became even more strained between them when Davis was nominated for an Oscar, prompting the snubbed Crawford to arrange that she would accept the award on behalf of absent nominee Anne Bancroft should her name be read out, while simultaneously revelling in her rival’s rejection.
It’s this tense anti-chemistry that is so smartly exploited in the film. These were two huge yet strikingly different movie stars: Davis came from an esteemed theatre background and relished unflattering, gritty roles, whereas Crawford embraced her status as an otherworldly Hollywood icon and sex symbol. To bring out and exacerbate these contrasts, director Robert Aldrich conspires to make them as awkwardly and diametrically opposed as possible, with Davis dressed in all-white and Crawford formally clad in all-black.
Davis speaks uncouthly where Crawford speaks with prim properness. And while Davis exudes a restless energy, Crawford remains mostly static in her wheelchair. There’s isn’t a two-hander designed to play out in perfect synchronicity like Astaire and Rogers, but one rendered equally irresistible because of the genuine friction at its heart.
There is so much to discuss thematically in relation to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – the astute, cynical satire of the dangerous elevation of child stars, for instance, is typically scathing from a director skilled at doubling down on the dark-side of Hollywood tropes. Or the playful, tongue-in-cheek appropriation of the sexist cliche of the spent, hysterical state which glamorous actresses fall into as they get older. And at the centre of all this is a plot that is never less than gripping.
Above all, though, it is the bitter feud between the film’s legendary leads that means it stands out to this day as a feisty, fun melodrama of female rivalry.
Published 9 Mar 2017
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