When Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and gave Joan Crawford no credit for the success of the picture, their feud went into overdrive.
You can find any number of YouTube interviews of a late-in-life Bette Davis bitterly decrying that Crawford actively campaigned against her winning the Oscar, even though a Davis win would’ve led to financial gain for both. If Davis had won, she would’ve been the first male or female to win three best acting awards, a title she wanted desperately and never got over not achieving.
To rub salt in Davis’ wound, Crawford accepted the Oscar onstage on behalf of the absent winner, Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker) and couldn’t keep the smug grin off her face.
So when director Robert Aldrich brought the two divas together again for Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the stage was set for an epic clash. Though they played entirely different characters, it was clear Aldrich was trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time with his Southern gothic horror story of one cousin abusing the other.
On paper, it made sense. Bette Davis would star as Charlotte Hollis, a haggard and possibly insane spinster who decades ago chopped off her married lover’s head with a meat cleaver when he broke off their relationship. Davis relished the role, once again making herself as ugly as possible, and cackling and carrying on throughout the film as only she can.
Joan began filming as Miriam Deering, Charlotte’s once poor cousin who has made good and returns as a sleek and sophisticated career woman to persuade Charlotte that she must move out of her childhood home as the county is tearing it down to make room for a new bridge and roadway.
(For months after I first saw this film, no one could come into my front yard without my yelling “get off my property” in my best Bette Davis impersonation.)
Alas, a Joan and Bette redux was not to be. After Davis harassed her, stole scenes, and just generally did everything she could to make Crawford’s life on set hell, Crawford began missing work and eventually ended up in the hospital.
Was she truly ill or did she fake it to get out of her commitment?
Only Joan Crawford knows for sure.
With much of the filming already complete and rapidly going over budget, Aldrich was desperate for a replacement. Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Barbara Stanwyck had no interest.
Vivien Leigh rejected the role saying, “I can just about stand to look at Joan Crawford at six in the morning on a southern plantation, but I couldn’t possibly look at Bette Davis.”
In the end, Aldrich persuaded Olivia de Havilland to take over for Crawford.
Crawford, who was technically fired, shaded de Havilland from her hospital room saying, “I’m glad for Olivia—she needed the part.”
De Havilland was one of the few women Davis got along with onscreen and off, due almost completely to de Havilland’s admiration of Davis’ work and patience onset. She was perhaps even better than Crawford, as her reputation as sweet and guileless Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind only made the film all the more satisfying when Miriam turns out to be the evil cousin, and Davis’ outrageous but ultimately harmless Charlotte is redeemed.
Just before she Bewitched the world as Samantha’s mother Endora, Agnes Moorhead did an Oscar-nominated turn in the film as Velma, Charlotte’s crusty housekeeper who is onto Miriam from the jump. Some of the best scenes in the film involve Velma glaring at Miriam and sarcastically imitating her highfalutin ways.
Though entertaining in an outlandish, macabre sort of way, Sweet Charlotte is not as good a film as Baby Jane. The plot is a little nuttier, Davis’ portrayal of a woman going crazy is even more over the top, and the gore, while tame by today’s standards, was eye-raising in 1964.
The twist at the end of Baby Jane—that Blanche (Crawford) was driving the car the night she was paralyzed, not a drunken Jane (Davis), as Jane always believed, leads to Jane asking, “You mean all this time we could’ve been friends?” and gives the film an unexpected poignancy. With a different twist of fate, could Crawford and Davis have been friends, just like Blanche and Jane?
There’s no similar flourish at the end of Sweet Charlotte. Miriam’s motives are simple greed, and she deliberately sets out to make Charlotte believe she is going insane. Charlotte realizes the truth, kills Miriam and makes peace with moving out of the house.
Baby Jane and Charlotte spawned an entire raft of knock-offs, including Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972), Whatever Happened, to Aunt Alice? (1969), Dear Dead Delilah (1972), and Die! Die! My Darling (1965), campy films that Barbara Stanwyck dismissed as “about grandmothers who eat their children.”
You can have yourself a grand old time watching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
But as Hollywood almost never remembers, sometimes it’s best to quit while you’re ahead.
- Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
- Considine, Shaun. Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud
- Madsen, Axel. Stanwyck
- Sikov, Ed. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis
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