The enmity between Davis and Crawford created one of the most famous celebrity feuds of all time.
Why did they hate each other so much? Well, it’s a long story.
Crawford was already a big star when Davis was making her first appearances in movies. Joan had slept her way to the top, and gone as far as marrying the legendary Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Davis was irritated by the way that the newspapers seemed so obsessed with Crawford’s love life, and she was especially put out the time that the studio had arranged a big publicity stunt for Davis’s new movie Ex-Lady only for Crawford to steal the headlines by announcing on the same day that she and Fairbanks were divorcing.
Bette had been jealous of Crawford’s affair with Clark Gable, on whom she had a crush, but it was Franchot Tone who the two really fell out over. Tone, who was dating Crawford, was Davis’s leading man in Dangerous. Davis fell in love with him, but he married Crawford.
Eventually, Davis became a huge star, overtaking Crawford. By the 1940s both stars were employed by the same studio, Warner Bros., where they had adjoining dressing rooms. Crawford did her best to win Davis over, sending a stream of flowers and gifts next door, but all were returned (with Davis making sneering remarks about “lesbian overtures”). The rivalry and bitchiness soon started to become obvious, and before long it was legendary. They bitched about each other’s appearance, love-lives, upbringing, careers, awards, and even each other’s children.
By 1962 though, their best years were behind them. Both had left Warner, and both were badly in need of a hit. Crawford went to see Davis, and pitched What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to her. After reading the novel, Davis was interested, and went to see the proposed director Robert Aldrich. She had only two questions for him: would she be playing Jane, and was Aldrich sleeping with Crawford? Assured on both points, the project was a go. It was during the filming of this movie that the feud reached its highest intensity.
Filming started well, both stars seemed happy, and they were polite in public. Before long though, they were at each other’s throats:
- When Crawford started sending little gifts and notes to the crew to win their affection, Davis sent her a note telling her to “GET OFF THE CRAP”.
- Both called the director nightly to complain about the other.
- Davis used to talk loudly about “that phony cunt” within Crawford’s earshot.
- For the scene where Jane beats Blanche, Crawford was concerned that Davis would actually hurt her, and asked for a body double. There was one close up however, that a double could not be used for. When this was filmed, Davis did clip Crawford’s head – Crawford screamed, and filming stopped. “I barely touched her” said Davis, unapologetic. Others claim that she left Crawford in need of stitches.
- The following week Crawford had her revenge. During the scene where Jane drags Blanche out of bed and across the room, Crawford, knowing that Davis suffered back problems, made herself as heavy as possible. “There is a way of making it easy on the actor who is doing the carrying” said director Aldrich, “but Crawford wanted Bette to suffer”. Some even say she wore a special lead weightlifter’s belt. She certainly spoiled at least one take by stopping to cough halfway through. When the filming was finished, Davis was screaming in agony, and Crawford strolled back to her dressing room.
- It was Davis, not Crawford who was nominated at the Oscars for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? the following year. Davis was the favourite to win, so as the nominations were read out she put out her cigarette and handed her purse to a friend, ready to go and collect the award. When the winner’s name was read out, she was surprised it was not her; however she was flabbergasted when Crawford pushed past her, saying “excuse me, I have an Oscar to collect” and stole her limelight again. What Davis did not know was that Crawford, as well as campaigning against her, had arranged with several of the other nominated actresses, who could not be present, that she would collect the award on their behalf.
Amazingly, a couple of years after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis and Crawford did actually agree to work together again, on Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. However, after a few days filming, during which Davis was even more poisonous than usual (she had not forgotten the Oscar night humiliation) Crawford feigned an illness and pulled out of the movie.
They never worked together again after that, and there were no more recorded encounters. Nevertheless, this famous Hollywood feud is still remembered today, as this sketch from the 2013 British TV show Psychobitches proves: