If there was a Mount Rushmore of Hollywood leading ladies, it would be occupied by the uneroded visages of Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis. Between the four of them, they earned 29 Academy Award nominations (only Stanwyck never won a competitive Oscar) and dominated female roles in American movies for over three decades. They personified the Golden Age of the movies, an era that couldn’t have existed without them.
Crawford and Davis, notorious rivals and tempestuous talents, have the spotlight turned on them once again with the Northwest Film Center’s series “Bette & Joan,” which begins on Friday, July 8, and continues intermittently through the end of August. Anyone interested in classic screen acting, pop-cultural depictions of American femininity, or the simple joys of full-throated melodrama would be advised to mark their calendars. When they say they don’t make ‘em like they used to, this is what they’re talking about. And with Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange cast as Davis and Crawford in the upcoming FX series “Feud,” the timing couldn’t be better to get acquainted with two of Hollywood’s most divided divas.
Crawford embodied the Horatio Alger-esque idea of achieving success through relentless perseverance. “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star,” a contemporary screenwriter noted. To call her Oklahoman origins modest would be an understatement, but she found work as a traveling chorus girl and eventually made her way to Broadway and then, in 1925, Hollywood.
It took until the early 1930s, and the sound era, for Crawford’s career to take off, but something about her made the rags-to-riches women she played resonate strongly with Depression-era audiences. While Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo offered exoticism, Carole Lombard exuded comedic approachability, and Jean Harlow oozed sex, Crawford embodied a willful intensity. Her characters weren’t usually in it to be liked, but to make their way in a world set against them at every turn—and the epitome of those women came with her Oscar-winning turn in 1945’s “Mildred Pierce,” a role that Crawford only got after Bette Davis turned it down. (The process repeated itself two years later when Davis withdrew from “Possession” and Crawford earned an Oscar nomination after taking her place.)
Davis’s background was more secure, though she, like Crawford, came from a broken home. She arrived in Hollywood, accompanied by her mother, in 1930, and made her film debut the following year. It was her smoldering appearance in the 1934 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” that made her a star. (That film, as well as Crawford’s 1931 version of “Posssessed,” are two pre-Code films that would be in this series in a perfect world.)
Both actresses, like many female stars, felt the fickleness of executives and audiences alike over the course of their careers. It seems like you were never really somebody in 1930s Hollywood until somebody else labeled you “box-office poison.” Neither Davis nor Crawford, thought, ever took these slights lying down. These ladies had more comebacks than most actors have starring roles. It’s their off-screen backbone that makes them feminist figures at least as much as the sometimes boundary-pushing roles they played.
Early in her career, Crawford’s relentless self-promotion helped to vault her into MGM’s upper ranks, and during the 1950s she refused to surrender the seat on the board of directors of Pepsi she inherited from her husband. Davis, dissatisfied with the roles she was given, challenged her contract with Warner Brothers in the 1930s. She lost her case, but it was one of the first cracks in the exploitive edifice within which Hollywood legally corralled its stars. Later, she became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (though she resigned in disgust after two weeks) and founded the Hollywood Canteen, which allowed service members to hobnob with movie stars during World War II.
These intense personas both ended up curdling in later decades to some degree. Like so many stars of her era, Davis never knew when to sail into the sunset, appearing in a succession of films almost absurdly unworthy of her talents (“Burnt Offerings,” “The Watcher in the Woods,” etc.). Crawford retired from film acting after one major turkey, 1970’s “Trog,” but her personal reputation took an enormous hit following the publication of her daughter Christina’s memoir “Mommie Dearest,” replete with allegations of horrendous child abuse, and the ensuing camp classic film starring Faye Dunaway. Both book and film, perhaps mercifully, were released after Crawford’s 1977 death.
Inevitable decline, fought against every step of the way, only enhances the iconic status of these legends. “Dangerous.” “Possessed.” “Jezebel.” Titles like these were worn like badges of honor, with a pride that has endeared both Bette and Joan to queer and feminist scholars, activists, and fans.
The Film Center’s series proceeds chronologically, which is always a welcome approach in surveys such as this one. The first weekend features, on Friday, July 8, 1932’s star-studded “Grand Hotel,” which serves as a time capsule of sorts for the heyday of MGM’s early glory years. Crawford appears alongside Garbo, Wallace Beery, and a couple of Barrymores, in a location-based ensemble piece that inspired the films of Robert Altman and Wes Anderson as well as countless 70s disaster movies. “Dangerous,” the 1935 film that earned Davis her first Oscar, screens on Sunday, July 10. In it, she plays (not for the last time) a faded star, driven to despair and drink by ill fortune. An architect (Franchot Tone, a frequent Davis co-star) whom she once inspired decides to rescue her from ignominy, resulting in a love triangle between the two of them and his unsuspecting fiancé.
In upcoming weeks, the series includes milestone roles from each star’s early (“The Women,” “Dark Victory”) and later (“All About Eve,” “Johnny Guitar”) careers. A couple of rarities worth seeking out are 1947’s “Daisy Kenyon,” with Crawford in a refreshingly mature romantic drama, and 1949’s “Beyond the Forest,” the critical and box-office failure that marked the end of Davis’ lengthy relationship with Warner Brothers. It’s worth noting that every title will be screened on 35mm, the way God intended, with the sole exception being Crawford’s 1952 Technicolor noir “Sudden Fear.” (That one comes in a brand-new digital restoration.)
The whole ball of wax concludes, of course, with 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” which finally got these two titans on the same screen at the same time. (They both cameoed as themselves in 1944’s “Hollywood Canteen,” but never shared the screen.) A harrowing thriller, a quasi-camp masterpiece, and an examination of Hollywood’s faded glory every bit as curdled as “Sunset Blvd.,” it’s a fitting finale to this ambitious program that inevitably only manages to scrape the surface of these titanic talents.
(“Bette & Joan” runs from Friday, July 8, to Sunday, August 28, at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium.)