Bette Davis was the first person to receive 10 Oscar nominations, win twice for Best Actress. She was the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, and the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It makes sense, then, that Bette Davis had an air of entitlement. After all, she was one of the most accomplished female actresses in Hollywood history.
As for Joan Crawford, she was called one of the greatest female stars of classic Hollywood cinema. She also won an Oscar and starred in numerous memorable roles. But what sticks out most in people’s memories, regarding both these starlets, is their decades-long feud. This is the story of the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – a feud that lasted for the entirety of one of their lives.
She and Miss D
Kathryn Sermak met Bette Davis when Sermak was just 22 years old. She went in a job interview for a position as the 77-year-old’s new secretary. Fast forward about four decades to when Sermak wrote a book about their relationship and what Davis had taught her over the years. Her book, Miss D & Me, reveals insights into Davis’ life outside of the movie industry.
The book is also a tribute to the woman who taught her everything – this coming from a self-proclaimed “naive Catholic 22-year-old” who landed a job working for one of the world’s greatest film stars. In a rather sweet way, Bette will always be Miss D to Sermak. One thing she learned from Davis was to change her name. Inspired by Davis, who changed her name from Ruth Elizabeth Davis, Catherine changed her own to Kathryn. In fact, Davis encouraged her to do it.
Attention to Detail
The night before her 1979 job interview, Sermak read Davis’ autobiography, The Lonely Life, in which the actress detailed her need for perfection, even when she was as a child. You see, Davis was very focused on details. When she would go to the circus as a young girl, the elephants would walk down this carpet to the ring, but the carpet was all crooked.
She couldn’t focus on the performance – “the carpet infuriated her.” The documented attention to detail is what helped her score the job with Davis. She assured her that she would be able to cook the three-minute egg she requested every morning. But beyond her perfectionist streak, Sermak learned a lot more than she ever expected from the aging Hollywood actress.
A Woman in a Man’s World
Bette Davis was a woman in a man’s world, and her smoking and drinking were what legends are made of. In those days, especially strong and confident men were given respect. But if women were the same, they got rejected. Davis, on the other hand, had confidence. It’s the reason all her attorneys left, apparently, because she caught everything.
Davis was a quarreler who stood up for herself in between the catfights and feuds. As Sermak put it, “Miss D was always the first to admit when she was wrong. That’s what a strong person does.” Right or wrong, she knew how men and women work. “She loved men, absolutely, but she was supportive of women.”
The Epic Battle: Davis vs. Crawford
She might have supported women in general, but Davis’ relationship with Joan Crawford wasn’t anything close to supportive. The rivalry between the silver-screen icons is legendary. Their decades-long battle, involving both professional and personal resentments, was only fueled by an industry that, sadly, loved to see its women tear each other apart.
Much of their back-and-forth bickering played out in the tabloids. For the record, Crawford was always less hostile than Davis, who could deliver a harsh “burn” against her rival: “Crawford slept with every male star at MGM—except Lassie.” Ouch. So what was it all about? And how did it even begin? Here’s a timeline of what really happened…
1933: The Beginning
In a nutshell: Crawford’s divorce overshadowed Davis’ starring role.
Crawford began her film career before Davis did (Crawford’s first onscreen appearance was in 1925, whereas Davis’ was in 1931). That said, Crawford was already an established movie star by the time Davis came to Hollywood in 1930. The first public incident of tension between the two was precipitated by Crawford outshining Davis – something that became a recurring theme.
1933 was a pivotal year in Davis’ still-budding career as she was the first to feature her name above the title. Warner Bros. planned an entire publicity campaign to announce Davis’s new phase of stardom. That is until Crawford stole her thunder.
The Beef Is Born
Crawford announced, on the very same day that Davis was to get her publicity, that she was divorcing her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The result: Davis only got a little blurb in The New York Times’ Review section. Crawford, on the other hand, received several pages of news. It didn’t take long for other newspapers to follow suit, too. And, thus, the beef was born.
It was a sting that Davis never forgot, even 52 years later. In a 1987 interview with journalist Michael Thorton, Davis said, “I have never forgiven her for that, and never will.” That defining moment in her lifelong hatred of Crawford was only the beginning.
1935: “Stealing” Her Man
In a nutshell: Crawford married the actor Davis loved.
In 1935, Davis starred in the movie Dangerous and became smitten with her co-star Franchot Tone. “I fell in love with Franchot, professionally and privately,” she later admitted. “Everything about him reflected his elegance, from his name to his manners.” You know what’s coming next, though…
Unfortunately for Davis, Crawford got to him first. The couple announced their engagement during the filming of Dangerous. “He was madly in love with her,” Davis said. She saw the two meet each day for lunch. He would then return to the set, “his face covered in lipstick.” According to Davis, he was just glad this famous starlet was in love with him.
There’s No Shade Like Hollywood Shade
Davis, as you can imagine and understand, was jealous. And she admitted it. Crawford, meanwhile, stated that Tone “thought Bette was a good actress, but he never thought of her as a woman.” The remarks each woman said about the other were sometimes as cold as ice, but it didn’t stop them from throwing shade.
If you had asked Davis, she would have flatly told you, “She took him from me,” which is what she told Thorton in that 1987 interview. She described how Crawford stole him “coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness.” She may not have won the man, but Davis did win an Oscar for her performance in Dangerous. But, in her eyes, Crawford still managed to outdo her.
1936: The Oscars Snub
In a nutshell: Crawford was unimpressed with Davis’ Oscar win.
At the Oscars ceremony that year, Davis, who never anticipated winning, wore a plain navy dress (which was actually an old costume) to the ceremony. Apparently, it was to snub Jack Warner, who forced her to come to the ceremony in protest to the formation of the Screen Actors Guild. But then, Davis’ name was read out loud as the winner.
Legend has it that Franchot Tone got up to embrace her, while his wife, Crawford, refused to move and kept her back to Davis. Tone called her out for being rude, which is when Crawford turned to Davis and said cheekily, “Dear Bette! What a lovely frock.” (Can you imagine the memes that would be made if it happened today?)
1943: The Attempt at a Truce
In a nutshell: Crawford tried, unsuccessfully, to broker a truce.
It was in 1943 that Crawford moved from MGM studios to their rival Warner Bros., where Davis was already a veteran. Crawford demanded the dressing room next to Davis’s and reportedly sent her numerous gifts and flowers. It was a bid to win Davis over and basically call for a truce.
But each and every gift was sent right back to Crawford. Davis was in no frame of mind to make amends. It was a bad year for Davis, whose husband Arthur Farnsworth collapsed and died two days later. Highly distressed, Davis tried to withdraw from her next film, Mr. Skeffington, in 1944. But Jack Warner, who stopped production after Farnsworth’s death, managed to convince her to continue.
1945: The Leftover Role
In a nutshell: Crawford took Davis’ leftovers and won the Oscar.
Crawford had her heart set on the main role in the film Mildred Pierce and ended up getting her wish. But it was only because Davis, who was the studio’s first choice, turned the role down. Crawford won her first and only Oscar (which she accepted in her bed) for her role as Mildred Pierce.
Two years later, Crawford took another lead role that was originally intended for Davis. She starred in the film Possessed and earned an Oscar nomination for it. Despite Davis’ infamous insult, “Miss Crawford is a movie star, and I am an actress,” it was becoming clear that Crawford was “catching up,” and that the industry saw more common ground between the two than Davis would have liked to admit.
1950: The Rumors
In a nutshell: Davis thought Crawford was in love with her.
Given the comparisons, the jabs, and the obvious feud, it’s no surprise that there were a handful of producers who were keen on getting Davis and Crawford on screen together. Warner Bros. wanted the movie Caged to be a joint Davis/Crawford project, but Davis refused to sign on with Crawford.
She allegedly called Crawford something too offensive for today’s standards. (The word she used rhymes with “bike”). This quip led to another wrinkle in their feud. You see, Crawford had relationships with both men and women. And, since it was public knowledge, some people suspected that perhaps Crawford was harboring some interest in Davis. In that way…
In That Way…
According to Crawford’s friend and confidante Jerry Asher, Crawford herself was quoted as saying, “Franchot isn’t interested in Davis, but I wouldn’t mind giving her a poke if I was in the right mood.” She finished it off by saying, “Wouldn’t that be funny?” Asher admitted that he was never really sure whether Crawford was serious or not.
He did feel, however, that his friend was “attracted to Bette’s vitality and energy… Bette was always convinced, due to her ego, that Joan had the hots for her, and that’s one reason why she was always so antagonistic and called her a phony.” Maybe it was Davis herself who started the rumors that Crawford was into her… in that way.
1952: The Vengeful Role
In a nutshell: Davis played Crawford onscreen.
The film The Star was written by Crawford’s old friend Katherine Albert. Word on the street was that Albert wrote the script in retaliation for their falling-out. (Looks like female feuds were quite trendy back then). Davis was intentionally cast in the lead role, as a washed-up actress clinging to her fading star power.
Considering her “frenemy” wrote it, the role was deemed to be a rather thinly veiled, very unflattering depiction of Crawford. As you can imagine, it didn’t take a lot to convince Davis to accept the role. She was even nominated for an Oscar for the role.
1962: Their Only Movie Together
In a nutshell: The women unite and fight, in what happened to be their first and only film together.
It was Crawford who convinced Davis to sign onto the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? a horror story about a crippled actress (Crawford) who was terrorized by her disturbed sister (Davis). The film became an unexpected box office success and, to some extent, was the comeback both actresses desperately needed.
But the movie was mostly remembered as a powerful and public document of their real-life rivalry. Apparently, Davis only agreed to the role on two conditions: that she play Jane and that director Robert Aldrich promise her that he wasn’t sleeping with Crawford. “It wasn’t that I cared about his private life, or hers either,” Davis said. She just “didn’t want him favoring her with more close-ups.”
What Happened to Baby Jane?
It was on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? that the most legendary events of their feud took place. At the time, Crawford was on Pepsi’s board of directors (her late husband, Alfred Steele, was an executive). So, Davis went ahead and had a Coca-Cola machine installed in her dressing room – you know, just to spite her.
In one scene of the film, where Jane (Davis) beats Blanche (Crawford), Crawford requested a body double because she didn’t trust Davis not to hurt her. And it wasn’t just in her head. There was a close-up in which a body double couldn’t be used, and Davis hit her aggressively in the head.
Revenge on the Set
Reports claim that it was hard enough to require stitches. But according to Davis, she “barely touched her.” Don’t you worry about Crawford, though; she got her back. During the filming of another scene, in which Jane drags Blanche out of her bed and across the room, Crawford knew exactly what to do.
Knowing that Davis suffered from back problems, Crawford purposely made herself as heavy as possible. According to numerous reports, she either filled her pockets with rocks, wore a weightlifter’s belt, or made herself heavier with simple deadweight. Regardless of which was true, she deliberately ruined several takes. As a result, Davis had to drag her around repeatedly until she was in agony.
1963: The “On Her Behalf” Oscar
In a nutshell: Davis got the nomination, but Crawford took the stage.
The filming wrapped on Baby Jane, but you could still cut the tension with a knife. The rivalry was only fueled by the Academy, which opted to give Davis the Oscar nod (along with supporting actor Victor Buono), leaving Crawford on the bench, so to speak.
Nonetheless, Crawford, the fan-favorite for that year’s Best Actress trophy, made sure to get onstage at any cost. Since many actors weren’t able to attend the ceremony that year, Crawford offered to collect an award on their behalf. And so, when an absent Anne Bancroft was called, Crawford accepted the Oscar. Davis watched it all go down in shock.
1964: Ditching the Sequel
In a nutshell: Crawford ditched her next project with Davis.
Warner Bros. was hoping to replicate the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (hate sells after all), and so they commissioned a sequel called Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It would see Davis and Crawford reuniting on screen, but as a different pair of women. This time, they were to be locked in a different story of psychological warfare.
Crawford agreed, but then dropped out after a week and a half of shooting. She said that it was because she was unwell, but the truth is that she was still furious about the humiliation of Baby Jane and didn’t want to be upstaged by Davis again. The director reportedly went to the extent of hiring a private detective to track Crawford’s movements, but he still wasn’t able to get her back to the set. They ultimately had to recast her, with Olivia de Havilland taking Crawford’s place.
1977: The End
In a nutshell: Davis got snarky after Crawford’s death.
Clearly, the two feuded for so long and with such hate that it only ended when one of them died. Following Crawford’s death in May 1977, Davis was quoted as having said: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” Wow.
Keep in mind, this is a quote that turns out to be almost impossible to verify. So you should probably take it with a pinch of salt. And I guess it would depend on whether you’re a fan of Davis’ or Crawford’s. Team Davis would most likely say that it’s too harsh of a line to say out loud. But who knows…
One Angry Daughter
The lifelong enemies actually had a lot in common, even their ungrateful daughters. With age, Davis eventually softened towards Crawford. She even came to her late enemy’s defense after the publication of the book Mommie Dearest, an unflattering memoir by Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina. The book chronicled her mother’s alleged abuse towards her.
“I was not Miss Crawford’s biggest fan,” Davis admitted, “but, wisecracks to the contrary, I did and still do respect her talent. What she did not deserve was that detestable book written by her daughter… To do something like that to someone who saved you from the orphanage, foster homes, who knows what. If she didn’t like the person who chose to be her mother, she was grown up and could choose her own life.”
Two Angry Daughters
Davis also admitted that she felt very sorry for Crawford, but she knew she wouldn’t have appreciated her pity, “because that’s the last thing she would have wanted, anyone being sorry for her, especially me.” It turns out that Davis’ own daughter did something like what Christina Crawford did. In 1985, Davis’ daughter, B.D. Hyman published a book called My Mother’s Keeper.
In it, she described her mother as a selfish, emotionally abusive alcoholic. This book, however, was much more disputed than the account of Crawford in Mommie Dearest. The public reaction was actually sympathetic toward Davis. Hyman’s adopted brother disagreed with the book’s publication so strongly that he even went to the lengths of disowning his sister.