Drama queens: Why Joan Crawford and Bette Davis make for great theatre

Drama queens: They blazed a trail for today's working women – and they fought like wildcats. That's why Joan Crawford and Bette Davis make for great theatre

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UPDATED:

22:31 GMT, 16 March 2012

Half a century has passed since the film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane was made, yet the appeal of its two female stars is still so great that my West End play about them, Bette And Joan, starring Greta Scacchi and Anita Dobson, is about to go on a national tour. The iconic actresses – Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – still resonate with women today.

Although neither would have described themselves as such, they were feminists. For most of their marriages (they had four apiece!) each was the breadwinner, trying to have it all: career, children and husband.

Bette won two Oscars and 11 nominations and was ahead of her time in tackling themes such as marital conflict, surrogacy, abortion and even murder. Watching those films of the 30s and 40s taught me how to write, because although I often saw the screen version first, I would turn to the book after. However, it was not until five years ago – after drama school and a career as an actor – that I embarked on my first play.

Reviving the legends: Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi play Joan and Bette in the West End show

Reviving the legends: Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi play Joan and Bette in the West End show

Bette was my subject in the one-hander Whatever Happened To The Cotton Dress Girl starring Paula Wilcox. The producer, Ann Pinnington, who I had met through our mutual friend Anita Dobson, suggested it would make a ‘cracking’ two-hander bringing Davis and Joan Crawford together. She was right.

Two years later Bette And Joan was born. I am especially proud of it because it is making it acceptable for a female actress over 40 to play the lead in a drama. I’m fascinated by strong women and older women tend to have led more interesting lives. I’m sure the fact that my parents divorced when I was a child and my mother – an amazing woman – raised my sister and I, has a lot to do with that.

The stories about Bette and her nemesis Joan are the stuff of legend. During filming of Baby Jane it was reported that Crawford tied weights to herself when Davis had to lift her, because Bette had recently broken her back. In another scene Bette’s stiletto heel made contact with Joan’s skull when Bette had to kick her across the floor. And when the two were paired up for another film, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Bette ordered all the Pepsi dispensers on the set be replaced with Coca-Cola ones, because she couldn’t stand the taste of Pepsi. (Joan was on the Pepsi board because she had once been married to its president).

Not the best of friends: Joan and Betty were renowned for their on set feuds

Not the best of friends: Davis and Crawford were renowned for their on set feuds

The feud ran so deep that Crawford was eventually replaced in that film by Olivia de Haviland, but not before stating that Bette had driven her to having a breakdown. And it was said that when Bette was nominated for an Oscar for Baby Jane, and Joan wasn’t, Joan campaigned against her, even telling other nominees if they couldn’t attend the ceremony she’d be delighted to collect on their behalf.

My play deals with much of this, but
it was never my intention to create a catalogue of anecdotes. I was more
interested in the position of older actresses in Hollywood at that time
and the similarities between the two women, however strongly Bette
disputed the fact, saying, ‘We had absolutely nothing in common!’

Both
were born at about the same time, although Bette insisted Joan was four
years older; both had married four times; both adopted children; both
had complicated relationships with their mothers; both had been
abandoned by their fathers; both were the breadwinners in most of their
marriages and both fell from favour with the industry that created them
at exactly the same time.

But the key thing they had in common was their
devotion to work. And this, not men – despite the fact both were once
in love with the actor Franchot Tone – is what led to the strife between
them.

In 1943 Crawford left her studio MGM and joined Warner Bros, where Davis had been undisputed queen bee for a decade. Bette was irked when Joan went after some of the roles she wanted, such as the lead in Mildred Pierce, which won Crawford her only Oscar. When Bette was on maternity leave, Crawford gave two of her finest performances, in roles clearly intended for Davis, in Humoresque and Possessed. In time they were released from their contracts but the feud simmered through the Fifties, Davis famously commenting, ‘I play bitches because I am not a bitch; that’s why Miss Crawford plays ladies.’

At war: During filming of Baby Jane, it was reported that Crawford tied weights to herself when Davis had to lift her to make the task more painful for her

At war: During filming of Baby Jane, it was reported that Crawford tied weights to herself when Davis had to lift her to make the task more painful for her

She took further revenge on Joan by playing a pampered movie star on the skids in 1952’s The Star, imbuing the role with so many of Crawford’s characteristics no one was in any doubt over the inspiration.

When it came to the casting of my Bette and Joan, I was delighted two formidable performers took the challenge. And it’s inevitable I’m asked how Greta and Anita get on. My answer is always the same: would I be asked this if I’d written a play with two male leads Probably not.

Bette & Joan will be touring the UK from 14 March. Visit www.bettejoantheshow.co.uk