Entertaining, funny, full of memorable quotes, and an irresistible insider’s view of the Hollywood of the studio era.

Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud - Shaun Considine

The original version of this book was published in 1989, but a newly revised version was published in 2017. It contains a couple of new chapters (including a fascinating one about the new cover picture and its story), and a number of pictures from a photo shoot that took place during the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I had never read the original but I am familiar with both actresses and have watched some of their movies (although I didn’t know either of their stories in detail).

This is a fascinating book. It contains information about the lives and the careers of both actresses (including detailed references to the original sources, when the quotes or events narrated where not directly conveyed to the writer but came from other books or interviews), and it uses as sources conversations with the actresses, with co-workers, family members, employees, and also their own autobiographies, and those written about them by others. These two women, from very different origins and whose childhoods were miles apart but who somehow ended up working in the same industry, reached the pinnacle of their careers and became rivals, in the business and in their personal lives. Although I would not say that the book solves the mystery (the two women would at times deny that there was any rivalry between them, and even when they admitted it existed, they never gave a rational explanation for it), it does offer an interesting picture of both of these women, working in a very competitive industry, trying to ensure they got their due and maintained their status. If Joan Crawford was more focused on being a film star (and cultivated that image with her dresses, jewellery, glamour, and self-promotion), Bette Davis always claimed to being the more talented and professional actress of the two (even if the book shares moments when Davis acknowledged her admiration for her rival’s acting skills, although never to her face). Joan Crawford was a consummate self-promoter and public relations (it’s impossible not to think how well she would have fared in today’s Social Media-dominated environment), and created her own persona (perhaps because she did not have a strong sense of identity due to her unhappy childhood), while Davis seemed more sure of herself, and did not always take herself so seriously (although she could be vicious and was not a good sport when she felt threatened). They both managed to do well in an industry dominated by men, and that must have taken a very special kind of person (and personality).

Apart from the captivating lives of the actresses (and there is a bit of everything: promiscuity, terrible family relationships [the daughters of both actresses wrote less-than-complimentary books about their mothers], suspicious deaths, scandals, heavy alcohol use, loneliness, desperation, lost opportunities, adultery, abandonment, bitching…), the book creates an absorbing picture of Hollywood and how the industry changed over the years. The two actresses, who were there from almost the very beginning, reached the height of their careers when the big studios ruled over American cinema, and the book illustrates this well, as both actresses were on long-term contracts with one of the big studios of the era (Crawford with M.G.M and Davis with Warner Bros). We learn, first-hand, what the system was like, both for beginners and for established stars, and experience the changes that came with the end of the studios monopoly, that caught them at a difficult age (good parts for actresses of a certain age have always been scarce), and what those changes meant for them and for the industry at large.

There are plenty of anecdotes, and we read a lot about other people in the industry, about the movies they acted on, and their interaction with others. The book is easy to read, alternates chapters about the two stars, it is full of quotes and lets the stars (and those around them) speak for themselves, with little interference from the author. Although Considine talks about the process of creating the book and he clarifies facts when he thinks he has to (always using his research), the book is not heavy on analysis, it is very amusing and entertaining, and despite the odd repetition of some material (mostly, I imagine, in the additional chapters) if flows well and it feels shorter than it is.

The book might not contain lots of brand-new information for dedicated fans of both stars (although, as mentioned, the author does include his own research and his conversations with the actresses), but it is a treasure trove for those of us who have watched some of their movies but don’t know a lot about them. It is also a very entertaining way of getting an insider’s view of the Hollywood of their time, far easier and lighter than reading historical or business accounts. Furthermore, it is impossible to read this book and not think about recent events and issues of gender-politics that are much more openly discussed these days.

The book is full of memorable quotes and I laughed out loud many times. Although Davis is the sharpest wit, Crawford can hold her own…

‘Sex was God’s joke on human beings,’ said Bette Davis in her memoirs, which led Joan Crawford to suggest, ‘I think the joke’s on her.’

‘Joan always cries a lot,’ said Davis. ‘Her tear ducts must be very close to her bladder.’

‘Guilty? Bette Davis? Don’t be foolish,’ said George Cukor. ‘She is a star, and all stars learn how to cultivate one very important asset early in their career: a very short memory. They remember only what they want to remember.’

I recommend this book to Hollywood aficionados, to fans of both stars, and in general, to people interested in stardom, the movies, and the old Hollywood. Full of juicy gossip, great quotes, newly recovered photographs, and movie anecdotes, there isn’t a dull moment in this book.

(I know there is a recent TV series called Feuds, and the first season is based on this book, with Susan Sarandon playing Bette Davis and Jessica Lange playing Joan Crawford. I have not watched it but I’m very curious about it).