Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day: Celebrating My Favorite Women on Film

Since today is International Women's Day, I'd like to do a total gladiator champion death-match between the two queens of cinema and movie stardom that ever cemented what it was like to be a female on screen. I'm speaking of course of the grand dames of old Hollywood: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, rivals, bitter enemies, evil bitches both of them, and fabulous as all fuck. Each brought their own reverence into the spirit of womanhood and shoved everyone else aside so she was the only one left standing; proclaiming, 'I'm queen here, bitches. Now get me a large scotch.'
Let's have a clean fight ladies...who am I kidding it's going to be an all out glorious blood-bath, so let's not stand on ceremony and start the show. 

In this corner, weighing in at 105 pounds, she's the queen of shop-girls, a superbitch on the set and at home. Her daughter might despise her, but we can't get enough of that that my-way-or-the-highway attitude. She hates wire hangers, but she loves her some married men. The former Lucille Fay LeSuer, Miss Joaaaaaaaaaan Crawwwwwwwwford!

And in the other corner, right out of the blue-blooded east coast, coming in at 120 pounds, but sometimes more, with legit D-cups and a crazy-large pair of peepers, she's been married and divorced four times, and loved every minute of it. Don't get in her way or she'll go Of Human Bondage on your ass. It's the First Lady of Film and the Fifth Warner Brother, but don't call her that to her face or she'll throw her drink at you, Miss Bette Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaavis!

Ladies, let's have a good fight, no slapping, no biting, no hair-pulling, and no scratching, no backstabbing, no manipulating, and definitely no attitude...yeah right.

These two queen bees would have a life-long battle for all to see in both their public lives onscreen and their private lives at home. Always one-upping each other, they were destined to be competition from the word go. For two women that were constantly contending against one-another, it's almost astounding at how fundamentally different they were.

both had how shall we say it delicately, a plain jane past. This is Joan at 15 before the glossy glitz of the MGM style machine took hold of her aesthetic.
Let's review. Crawford was poor white trash from San Antonio, Texas who moved to New York and developed a reputation as  fast and loose party-girl whom F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the term 'Flapper' for. She packed her bags for Hollywood when she was 19 and came to MGM as a dance extra for hire. In the next 5 years she transitioned from floozie to bona fide leading lady, and became her studio's hottest commodity next to Clark Gable. That same studio would betray her when she was labeled box office poison around the early 1940's and dumped her like a stray dog. But she had her revenge when she stooped to audition for MGM rival Warner Bros. hot new property Mildred Peirce (1945). But guess who was at Warner at the time and didn't like that one bit?

If you can believe it, this is Davis at 19...not 90.
Davis came from an upper-middle class family from bumblefuck Massachusetts, with a determined starry-eyed stage-mom that chose Bette over her sister to be the cash cow of the family. She didn't exactly look like a knockout, so began training as a 'serious actress' of the stage. She moved to Hollywood at 19 with mommers and scored mere extra work also until some genius casting agent fished her head shot out of the garbage and handed it to John Cromwell who was getting ready to direct Of Human Bondage. From then on Jack Warner latched on to Mrs. Ruth Elizabeth Davis and milked her career for close to 15 years, but he had no idea Ms. Davis had a pair of cast iron testicles and no one was going to tell her what she could and couldn't do. Becoming a royal pain in Warner's ass, also in the late 1940's, Davis splintered from her home studio and became one of the first high-ranking movie stars to fly solo without a studio deal. 

Crawford and Davis both in they're 50's in the climactic art-imitating-life showdown circus that was the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
The friction between  Crawford and Davis goes far deeper than just competition over film roles, and started decades before when Davis first started appearing on the scene playing tough and independent young ladies with a gritty realism; a role Crawford had been honing for quite some time at that point, but her boss Louis B. Mayer never gave her quite enough of a punch in the parts she played quite like Davis got. Ironically, Crawford always seemed softer, quieter, and more subservient in comparison with Davis' fiery and staunch personalities. 
A masculine, tougher Joan Crawford emerges in the 40's, none so better illustrated than her character of Mildred Peirce, with the exception of Johnny Guitar of course.
Both were 'resurrected from the dead', as Davis once put it, after each had been divorced from her respective studio family, Crawford with Mildred Peirce (1945) for which she won the Academy Award, and Davis 5 years later in All About Eve (1950) both characters at odds with their age and subsequent place in the world while leading extraordinary lives of both extreme success and failure, and coping with the societal and personal struggles of being a woman with power.

The quintessential Bette Davis role was as Margot Channing in All About Eve (1950) who was pretty much an amalgam of Davis herself, the tough exterior, but vulnerable core, arrogant and loud, but tender and romantic; a woman that does everything in excess, drink, perform, and love.
Backtracking for a moment: when both hit their mid-30 mark and started settling down and having kids (in Crawford's case adopting kids...well in all fairness, buying kids off the black market because adoption services all over the country saw that she was too crazy to be a candidate) anyway! The competition only intensified, when Hollywood leach and supercunt Louella Parsons, a devoted slave of William Randolph Hearst, and basically the inventor of the tabloid reported that Bette Davis' newborn daughter B.D. was the most beautiful baby the world had ever seen, Joan promptly showed up to a press conference the next month with not one but two newly adopted babies. That's just one example.
Joan and her daughter Christina pose for one of the millions of publicity stills they did together under Joan's supervision. Many people including Christina herself would later say that she had children for the sole purpose of publicity. Christina would later go on to publish the infamous Hollywood exposé Mommie Dearest (1979) in which she accused her mother of daily physical and mental abuse as well as cruel and unusual punishment, which all might have been true for all we know, whether you agree with it or not, it's undeniable that this is the primary thing associated with Joan Crawford in a contemporary context.
Strangely, or perhaps not strangely at all, both BD and Crawford's daughter Christina later wrote scathing tell-alls against their mothers alleging all kinds of abuse and mistreatment. Christina's of course being the more famous of the two, and one has to wonder if that competitive air between Crawford and Davis transitioned into a competition between their daughters. 

Bette Davis with daughter and mini-me BD Hyman on her wedding day. (Bette let her marry when she was only 16 by the way). BD's memoir about her mother (titled My Mother's Keeper) was, unlike Christina's, published while Bette was still alive, and had such an affect on the elder Davis that it caused her to have a second heart attack. Needless to say Davis later severed all ties with her daughter. and I for one like to think of BD as an ungrateful bitch. but that's just me.
I can tell you're getting bored and/or lost at this point, so I'll just leave it at the following: 

Both Davis and Crawford created a female persona of unfathomable standards back in Hollywood's golden era. They were absolute consummate professionals of their craft and each defined what it was to be a star, what it was to be powerful, and what it was to be a woman. Both exuded qualities of extreme toughness and yet raw vulnerability, and every woman working in Hollywood right now owes those two a debt of gratitude. 

Honorable mentions would of course include Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, and Katherine Hepburn, but when I think of a female movie star, I think either Crawford or Davis, and I usually think of both at the same time, because even though each had very different technique, style, and aesthetic, there's no winner to me. They are both just an inch above the rest.

If you want to see their bitchfight truly culminate, you have to check out Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), where they basically play themselves in the autumn of their lives; former child actresses, now completely discarded, still at odds with each other and ready to destroy one another...quite literally. In a nutshell Bette has to take care of sister Joan because earlier she had injured her enough to cripple her so out of guilt becomes almost her servant, resents it, cooks her a dead rat. Then there's drinking, bondage, and gruesome fighting. It's absolutely fantastic.

Below are some clips from both Crawford and Davis that I thought you might enjoy, more for people that are getting a crash course in the two. If you know your shit you can skip over them. Actually don't, watch regardless.

Unlike Bette, Joan got her start in silent film. Before she was everyone's favorite shop-girl, she was the wild and flirtatious nightclub dancer, this is way before she polished the 'Crawford persona' and developed her trademark, which is why she looks so different. She's considered 'the ultimate movie star' because she covers the entire spectrum; started out as a chorus girl, moved up to the flapper of the silent era, then transitioned successfully into sound. After which crested for a bit, and made a huge comeback in her 40's, a battle year for any actress. She was the personification of resilience.

Bette in her big break as Mildred Rogers the sluttish cockney waitress that ruins an idealistic young man (Leslie Howard) in Of Human Bondage (1934) (based on the classic novel by W. Somerset Maugham). She later said her career had two periods: before-Maugham and after-Maugham. 

The trailer for that classic bitch movie The Women (dir. George Cukor, 1939) where Joan is the villain but somehow comes out everyone's favorite.

 Bette Davis was actually the frontrunner for the wildly contested and coveted role of Scarlet O'Hara, but what kept her from eventually landing the role, which Warner Bros. was slated to give her was that she had only the year before done a part very similar to it, that of the lovelorn Southern Belle Julie in Jezebel (1938), for which she won her second Oscar.

Crawford made many films with the other giant MGM star at the time Clark Gable, with whom she had a longstanding passionate affair. This is one of my favorites, Strange Cargo (1940) a lot of the roles they played back in those days were along the same lines, but it's awesome to see those two commanding personalities duke it out. It's something I never tire of.

A very Crawford Christmas. A radio broadcast Crawford did with her children in 1949 which wreaks of being staged to the point where it's almost ridiculous. Christina Crawford would later cite how much she hated Christmas because of how stifling and  unspontaneous the whole affair would be.

Bette Davis in perhaps her best role as uber-bitch Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1941) directed by long-time collaborator and some-time lover William Wyler. No one has yet pulled off being so deliciously evil.

 Joan Crawford parodies herself and her onscreen persona (particularly the kind she culminated with Mildred Peirce) for It's a Great Feeling (1949)

The infamous 'lunch' scene from the ubiquitous camp opus Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) When tensions between sisters Blanche (Crawford) and Baby Jane (Davis) come to a disgusting head. 

An old and wise, cynical, profound, and courageous Davis reflects. 

Joan in a wonderfully ridiculous outfit in her last televised interview reminisces about her golden years in the industry and about the great loves of her life: Gable and Tracey.

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