In an interview done after Joan Crawford’s death in 1979, Bette Davis was asked whether she had made any enemies during her time in Hollywood.
“Enemies?” Davis is said to have replied, “I have no enemies. Who?”
“Joan Crawford,” the reporter suggested.
“Miss Crawford and I weren’t enemies,” the seemingly innocent Davis replied. “We made one picture together. We didn’t know each other at all.”
Long before the likes of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, there was another star war far greater than the one George Lucas ever envisioned. And now it’s getting a TV anthology series thanks to Ryan Murphy.
News broke late last week that Murphy is in pre-production for a television series called Feud exploring, unsurprisingly, famous feuds. One of Feud’s eight-episode seasons will be devoted to the infamous rivalry between two queens of the silver screen: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
Murphy has recruited modern Hollywood screen icons Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange to play Davis and Crawford, respectively. But with all the talk of this feud—when and how did it actually begin? So infamous is their rivalry that even now the origin stories vary far and wide, bordering almost on conspiratorial.
On the rift, one writer claims it was caused by Crawford’s apparent sexual attraction to Davis. A dubious claim, since the same writer alleges that Crawford held “sexual magnetism” over the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, and even Marilyn Monroe.
Another theory—somewhat more believable—is that the star warfare started because of Crawford’s marriage to second husband Franchot Tone, a man who was reportedly the “love of Davis’s life.” Davis starred opposite Tone in 1935’s Dangerous and soon carried a torch for the Hollywood hunk.
“She took him from me,” Davis allegedly admitted to English gossip journalist Michael Thorton. “She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness. I have never forgiven her for that and never will.”
Their mutual dislike appeared to take a seismic turn when Crawford married Tone, much to Davis’s heartache.
Since Davis had trained in theater and regarded herself as an actress first and foremost, she supposedly viewed Crawford contemptuously, believing Crawford had succeeded in her career thanks to her sex appeal. But since the pair both became known as “box office poison”—unbankable stars with movies failing to make money at the box office—in their career, that Crawford “outdid” Davis because of her sex appeal is doubtful at best.
It was Davis’s first win at the Academy Awards that ostensibly forever hardened the animosity between the pair. When Davis’s name was read as the winner for Best Actress at the 8th Academy Awards, her co-star Tone leaped to his feet and congratulated Davis on her walk up to the stage. Crawford, his then-wife, remained seated until she reportedly walked over and offered Davis, “Dear Bette! What a lovely frock.”
Soon enough, three decades passed and Davis and Crawford pursued their own respective careers. But like most women ageing in Hollywood, the parts starting drying up and the remaining roles were unappealing—including those as washed-up former greats now teetering on the edge.
The long-buried animosity between the pair seemed to resurface in the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The black-and-white thriller tells the story of former child star Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) who supposedly crippled her Hollywood starlet sister Blanche (Crawford) in a car accident. The film thus provided ample fodder to the rumors that Davis and Crawford loathed each other, and the allegations made about their behavior on set only seem to confirm this.
As the widow to the former CEO of Pepsi-Cola, Crawford apparently pushed for Pepsi product-placement in Baby Jane as one of the conditions of her contract. To antagonize her, Davis had Coca-Cola machines installed on the film’s set. The petty back-and-forth between Crawford and Davis only grew worse. When in one scene Davis’s character had to kick her sister, Davis kicked too hard and cut Crawford’s skull open. To retaliate, Crawford placed weights in her pockets so that Davis would strain her back dragging Crawford’s limp body in the same scene.
The stories from the film’s production have now entered Hollywood myth as one of the cattiest on-set fights between starlets in movie history. (Sorry, Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger.) Then, of course, there was the shade Crawford threw when she accepted Anne Bancroft’s Oscar for Best Actress, the year Davis was also nominated in the same category for Baby Jane. And then there are the stories about the battle that brewed between them over the film’s “sequel,” Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte, which eventually saw Crawford leave the production.
Ironically enough, the two Hollywood icons were later tied together in the popular imagination thanks to their daughters’ scandalous memoirs about living with their famous mothers. Crawford’s daughter released her exposé Mommie Dearest—now best-remembered for Faye Dunaway’s camp incarnation of Crawford in the film adaptation—alleging child abuse and mistreatment by her mother.
Davis’s daughter B.D. also released a memoir some years later, claiming that it was hell growing up as a daughter of the great Bette Davis. Crawford exacted revenge by removing Christina completely from her will; Davis never spoke to her daughter after the book’s release.
But Murphy’s TV series is not the first investigation into the infamous feud. The rivalry has received a number of gossipy book treatments, including one apparently “researched” for fourteen years called The Divine Feud. There has also been a stage production called Bette & Joan, which fictionalized the behind-the-scenes rivalry between the stars.
The origins of how their feud first started—and ended, if it ever did—are still the stuff of Hollywood legend and may never have a clear answer. Maybe Ryan Murphy can offer a more straightforward account to the infamous feud, one forever immortalized in the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? about two ageing stars who hate each other.
Talk about life imitating art.
Nathan Smith is an arts and culture writer. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Forbes. Nathan tweets at @nathansmithr.