The career-long feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis is the stuff of cinematic legend, blending seamlessly with the schlocky pleasures of their only film together, 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Its tale of deranged sibling rivalry between two faded child stars and the stories dogging its production have made it a lurid career epitaph for two very different actresses, forged in the white heat of a Hollywood that would eventually leave them behind.
In Bette and Joan, Anton Burge explores Davis’s and Crawford’s fractious relationship through the lens of a single day in Baby Jane’s fraught production; culminating at the end of the first half in an incident inspired by the infamous rumour that Crawford had weighed herself down with stones to make it impossible for her nemesis to lift her out of her character’s wheelchair.
Bill Alexander’s production – which sees Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi reprise their roles from last year’s run at the Arts Theatre – thrusts Crawford’s and Davis’s dressing rooms together, foregrounding the pair’s differences. Filled with extravagant floral arrangements, her costumes hidden behind a screen and the seats covered in plastic, Crawford’s has the unreal sheen of a set. In contrast, Davis’s is bare and messy, with a curly yellow wig dumped unceremoniously on a mannequin.
Dobson is deliciously venomous as Crawford, speaking in a carefully modulated purr that becomes a mix of velvet and steel when a hapless assistant fails to adjust the temperature of her room quickly enough. Wrinkling her nose in distaste at Davis’s coarseness, she brings to life Burge’s vision of Crawford as someone who considers her greatest role to be herself: Lucille Fay LeSueur, who ran away from a broken home, changed her name and became A Star.
Meanwhile, Scacchi (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Davis) has a ball as the foul-mouthed New Englander, stomping around the stage with fag in hand. But behind the sneering dismissal of Crawford as a “movie star” rather than a proper actress who takes risks, we catch a glimpse of Davis the outsider, toughened but not made invulnerable by her difference to the polished beauties churned out by the Warner Bros machine.
Not that Davis is the martyr of the piece; when she quips that Crawford has slept with everyone at MGM “except Lassie”, it’s a laugh-out-loud moment. And in their (too brief) scenes together – they spend most of the play addressing the audience rather than each other – Scacchi and Dobson take Burge’s bitingly funny script and run with it, delivering their characters’ sly put-downs with a combination of mischievous innocence and smug disdain.
So it might sound odd to suggest that the play’s success at making us laugh is also its shortcoming. But too often, and too easily, Burge turns away from the complex to fall back on the familiar. This is a shame because there’s such a lot bubbling under the surface here. From Crawford’s hatred of the new breed of sexualised starlet embodied by Marilyn Monroe to Davis’s forlorn observation that post-war America had no room for strong women on screen, Hollywood’s history is written in their flagging fortunes. They’re on a B-movie back lot because it’s the only place left to them.
Occasionally, a shard of genuine emotion breaks through the celluloid carapaces Davis and Crawford wear to succeed in an industry previously dominated by the all-powerful “Father Jack” and “Papa Mayer”. Scacchi’s quiet pain during a telephone call from Davis’s demanding mother is one of the rare moments when Alexander allows the audience to fall silent. But neither he nor Burge seem keen to let this go on for long, as the characters return to hissing quotable insults at each other and winking at us.
Don’t be fooled by the aerial view of Warner Bros projected above the stage, the private dressing rooms or the play’s confessional structure. By and large, Bette and Joan won’t make you look at old Hollywood through new eyes. This Davis and Crawford are as much inspired by the grotesques in Baby Jane as anything else and reflect the countless biographies and bilious tell-all memoirs that have cemented the legend of their real-life counterparts.
The gods and monsters of the Golden Age of cinema are intoxicating, their feuds and grudges increasingly entrenched as modern myths with each salacious re-telling. This production, with its razor-sharp dialogue, vivid performances and jokes about Rock Hudson, is hugely entertaining for precisely that reason. But what it dances around and never quite gets to grips with is what Davis and Crawford were like when the cameras stopped rolling. You’ll laugh, but if you go expecting to see more than the dazzle of the silver screen you may be disappointed.