Though her feud with Joan Crawford gets all the press today, Bette Davis’ earliest and perhaps most intense rivalry was with actress Miriam Hopkins.
Their mutual loathing began back east, where they met doing summer stock theater. Legend is that they were oil and water from the first, competitive women in a competitive field destined to clash wills.
In the theater world, Hopkins was a bigger star than Davis, and she made it to Hollywood first. In fact, Jezebel started out life as a doomed play with Miriam Hopkins playing the leading role. It closed to poor reviews after only thirty-two performances, a flop by any measure.
Hopkins jointly owned the play’s rights and sold it to Warner Brothers under the belief (which WB’s Walter McEwen strongly implied or outright lied) that she would reprise her role. But the role, as we know, went to Bette Davis.
Davis winning an Oscar for her role was salt in Miriam’s wound. She was reportedly inconsolable and wracked with jealousy.
So the stage was set for a clash of the titans when Davis and Hopkins were cast opposite one another in The Old Maid, an excellent melodrama that is often overlooked because it was made in the same year as Davis’ Dark Victory.
Based on Edith Wharton’s novel, Hopkins and Davis play cousins in love with the same man. When Delia (Hopkins) jilts him for a wealthier man, Charlotte (Davis) comforts him with a night of passion that lands her unmarried and pregnant. Worse, he goes and get himself killed in the Civil War before he can make an honest woman of her. Charlotte opens an orphanage and hides her daughter Tina in plain sight among the war orphans.
Only Delia knows the truth, and eventually adopts Tina and raises her as her own child. Forced to pose as aunt to her only child, the sacrifice turns Charlotte old and bitter and strains her relationship with Delia. On the eve of Tina’s marriage, Charlotte plans to tell her daughter the truth, but refrains in a moment of maternal self-sacrifice, knowing it will shatter Tina’s happiness.
The antics onset leaked into the newspapers. On the first day of filming, Hopkins reportedly showed up wearing a replica of one of Davis’ Jezebel costumes, apparently to make Davis “blow her stack.”
Each was constantly trying to upstage the other, running to director Edmund Goulding with suggestions and complaints. Hopkins would hold her cigarette at an angle to purposely block Davis’ face from the camera, or refuse to engage when Davis was speaking her lines and the camera was off her.
In her memoir The Lonely Life, Davis insists she kept her temper despite Hopkins’ deliberate attempts to provoke it. On-set, at least. Bette admits that she, “…went home every night and screamed at everybody.”
Some of Hopkins’ provocation was justified. She was jealous of Davis’ success, but she also knew Davis was having an affair with her husband, director Anatole Litvak.
As producer Hal B. Wallis said in an interview years after the filming, “It was an incredible feud, just fantastic. They would each prolong their arrival on the set, trying to make the other wait. I think later the studio tried to claim it was all just publicity, but it was the real thing. Those girls hated each other.”
In fact, Warner Brothers did capitalize on the publicity of the feud, even going so far as to have Hopkins and Davis pose squaring off with boxing gloves, with poor director Edmund Goulding stuck in the middle as referee.
It wasn’t far from the truth.
“Whatever respect they had for each other as professionals was quickly thrown out of the window when one or the other didn’t get her way,” Goulding said. “If it wasn’t lighting, it was costuming or camera angles or lines. There were times they behaved like perfect little bitches, but I loved them both, and I think the admiration was likewise.”
But the tension between them works onscreen.
It worked so well, in fact, that Warner Brothers paired them again in 1943 in Old Acquaintance, another film that told the story of a long and complicated relationship between two women. This time Hopkins and Davis play lifelong friends and writers Millie Drake and Kit Marlowe.
Their real-life tension is again a boon for the film, as Millie and Kit alternately love and loathe one another over their lifelong relationship. Millie is by turns selfish, jealous, and desperately needy. In some ways, the audience wonders why kind and clever Kit puts up with her.
In a moment of honesty, Millie’s husband asks Kit just that. Kit, to her credit, doesn’t try to paper over Millie’s faults.
Kit (Davis): Millie remembers the same things I do, that’s important. For instance, she’s the only person I know, who still remembers when I used to be called Chunky.
Preston Drake (Millie’s husband): I’d think you wouldn’t want to remember that.
Kit: But one does. Funny, one does.
The film is an exploration of the ability of a woman to juggle motherhood, career, and love. Old Acquaintance firmly establishes the belief that a woman cannot have it all. Kit is a literary darling, beloved but broke. Millie’s books are bestsellers that have made her rich but the critics dismiss her work as trash.
In one of my favorite scenes, literary critic Belle Carter asks Kit how her new book is coming along.
Kit (Davis): Well, I write and I write, and I still don’t like it.
Belle Carter: But, at least when you do turn one out, it’s a gem! None of this grinding them out like sausage…
Belle Carter: [looks over shoulder and realizes she has offended Millie] I suppose I could cut my throat.
Millie (Hopkins): There’s a knife on the table!
So one cannot have both critical and commercial success. Millie and Kit are also both unlucky in love, unable to balance both a career and love.
In the film’s most famous scene, Kit calmly walks over to Mille, grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her before deadpanning, “Sorry.”
Word of the scene got around the studio, and legend tells that half of Warner Brothers showed up to watch the filming. A reporter from Life magazine even tried to get into the studio to cover the event.
Hopkins must’ve worried that Davis would let her have it.
As Humphrey Bogart said of Davis’ on-screen slaps, “Unless you’re very big she can knock you down.”
Hopkins made sure Davis didn’t knock her down, and probably just to spite Davis, relaxed so completely during the shaking that she just bobbed around “like a doll with a broken neck,” as director Vincent Sherman put it.
Davis stormed out, and was eventually persuaded to return for a second take. Still Hopkins didn’t do what Sherman wanted, but knowing the stubbornness of both actresses, he cut his losses and moved on.
In the finished film, it’s an unintentionally campy moment in an otherwise serious and melodramatic film.
The film has a surprisingly touching ending—both have just suffered heartbreak from men, lashed out at one another for a lifetime of petty jealousies, and yet they spend New Year’s Eve together toasting one another and their long friendship.
And after the director called cut, they went their separate ways and never worked together again.