Bette Davis vs Joan Crawford: The Greatest Star War

40+ years of stone-cold hatred.

Today’s movie stars ain’t got shit. If the stories are to be believed, the stars of Hollywood past lived harder, fought tougher, and died younger than their modern counterparts. Not to glamourise any of that stuff - I like actors having long and fruitful careers - but quietly forging a respectable career doesn’t make for good gossip, which for some is the true lifeblood of Hollywood.

While there have been plenty of well-publicised on-set spats involving cast and/or crew, no disagreement between movie stars was more dramatic or long-lasting than that of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Two all-timers of Hollywood’s golden age, their personalities were too big to exist in the same universe without causing fireworks. Their animosity towards each other combined deep personal and professional loathing into a decades-long feud - and generated one of cinema’s greatest thrillers in the process.

The story that’s come together over the years begins in 1935. Davis, an up-and-coming star, won an Academy Award for her performance in Dangerous (though it was considered a consolation prize for not winning for Of Human Bondage the year before - they did that even then!), but the Oscar wasn’t that film’s lasting impression on her. Bette fell in love with co-star Franchot Tone, “professionally and privately,” but Tone had eyes for another.

The other? Joan Crawford, star of cinema both silent and sound, described by F. Scott Fitzgerald as “the best example of the flapper.” Crawford had recently divorced Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and between her stardom and her legendary sexuality, Tone was smitten. Davis later spoke of her jealousy at Crawford’s seduction of her co-star, saying “she did it coldly, deliberately, and with complete ruthlessness.” Even though Crawford and Tone’s marriage would only last a few short years, the damage was done, and a rift formed between two women who held their grudges deeply.

Davis was just a few years younger than Crawford, and both were highly-regarded, highly famous actors, which meant they were frequently up for the same roles. Each despised the other professionally. Davis saw Crawford as a “mannequin” in comparison to her serious acting ability, and famously accused her of casting-couch career advancement, saying “she slept with every male star at MGM - except Lassie.” Crawford, on the other hand, responded by straight-up poaching Davis’ roles.

After Davis turned down the lead role in 1945’s Mildred Pearce, Warner Brothers cast Crawford, and though director Michael Curtiz initially clashed with the idea of “directing a has-been,” it eventually became an enduring hit, and won Crawford an Oscar for her trouble. At that stage, Davis already had two Oscars, but that couldn’t have taken the sting out of it. Crawford would again take a role written for Davis in Possessed (1947), as Davis was on maternity leave, and again win an Academy Award nomination for it. The two actors were intended to co-star in a women-in-prison drama later released as Caged, but Davis refused to share the screen with Crawford, calling the film a “dyke movie,” possibly in reference to its story but more likely in reference to Crawford’s rumoured bisexuality. 

The feud reached boiling point in 1962, when both actors were aging and desperate for work. Crawford pitched What Ever Happened To Baby Jane to Davis directly, which Davis agreed to do only when assured that director Robert Aldrich (of The Dirty Dozen, Kiss Me Deadly, and Emperor of the North) was not sleeping with her nemesis. The production of the film was fraught with tension and incident, and like all the best gossip, it’s hard to tell what actually happened. Both actors are said to have complained about the other, Davis allegedly calling Crawford a “phony cunt” and responding to her attempts to befriend the crew by sending her a note saying “get off the crap.”

Things escalated from there. Crawford was, at the time, on Pepsi Cola’s board of directors, following the death of her fourth husband, Pepsi CEO Alfred Steele. Davis had a Coke machine installed in her dressing room purely out of spite (and would later organise a Coke-filled photo shoot with the entire cast of their second film together, out of which Crawford subsequently dropped). In one scene, in which Davis’ character beats Crawford’s, Crawford claimed Davis had truly struck her (some versions of the story say she needed stitches). In another, Davis, who had back problems, had to drag Crawford across the set. Aldrich said that “Crawford wanted Bette to suffer,” and played as dead as possible, while others claim Crawford wore a lead belt or put rocks in her pockets.

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane was a critical and financial success. It’s a terrific movie, and a perfect medium through which to view the relationship between Davis and Crawford. They play sisters, both formerly in show business, whose rivalry drove one of them into a wheelchair and the other to drink, and who live together in a constant state of animosity. The bilious hatred onscreen isn’t faked - it’s one of the angriest movies around, constantly teetering on the edge of sanity. It’s hard to say if it’d even be as good without its leads’ predispositions towards destroying one another. Though both actors are magnetic in the picture, Davis was the one nominated for the Oscar, and her refusal to acknowledge Crawford’s contributions to the film are alleged to have inspired Crawford’s most brazen act of retribution.

As Davis was the Oscar favourite for her performance in Baby Jane, Crawford allegedly campaigned hard against her, and observing that a few other nominees were unable to attend the ceremony, arranged to collect their awards in their stead, should they win. When an absent Anne Bancroft’s name was read out on Oscar night, Crawford went up to accept it on her behalf, whispering to Davis that she “[had] an Oscar to collect.” Davis decried Crawford’s behaviour as not just petty but unprofessional, as they both would have profited financially from the additional box office Davis’ Oscar win would have spurred.

Davis remained bitter towards Crawford until their final years. When Franchot Tone was on his death bed with lung cancer, Crawford went to care for him, despite having been separated for many years. Davis said later that “even when the poor bastard was dying, that bitch wouldn’t let him go.” She never forgave Crawford for taking the man she loved, and when Crawford died in 1977, Davis’ response was amazingly bitter: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

Looking back over the decades-long fight, it’s hard to discount the similarities between the two stars. They went through similar career ups and downs; both had four marriages, with three ending in divorce and one in death; both had multiple brushes with Academy Awards. They also had troubled relationships with their children. Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina would later paint her as a selfish alcoholic in her book (and later movie) Mommie Dearest, while Davis’ daughter B.D. Hyman called her mother “a mean-spirited, wildly neurotic, profane and pugnacious boozer” in My Mother’s Keeper. Crawford and Davis alike disinherited their daughters.

As with any seriously juicy star gossip, it’s hard to say exactly how much of the Davis-Crawford feud really happened. It’s a story that’s grown with time, added to by hearsay, exaggeration, and outright fiction - some, no doubt, from the concerned parties themselves. There’s a lot of “allegedlies” in there, but that’s part of the story’s appeal. It’s the kind of story that feels like it needs to be prefaced with “did you hear…” and concluded with “...that’s what I heard, anyway.” But the bright side - for audiences, at least - is that we got What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? out of it. Go watch it. It’s as great as the story that surrounds it.