A Sequel of Sorts: Hush …Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

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.

Joan Crawford accepts the Best Actress Oscar for Anne Bancroft, 1963

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.

Diva Joan Crawford could only take so much.

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.

Agnes Moorehead and Bette Davis

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.

Sources

  • 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

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Second Divine Feud: Bette and Joan

Back in February, I wrote about the lifelong feud between Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, immortalized onscreen in The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance (1943).  This was a bitter and deep feud, but far less legendary than the well known animosity between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Like many Hollywood feuds, it’s difficult to determine how much was fact and how much was manufactured by the press to sell magazines.  By the 1950s, television was eating up an increasing share of the advertising pie, and the fan magazines crawled into the gutter to sell more copies.

As Shaun Considine writes in Bette & Joan:  The Divine Feud:

“The private lives of stars, no matter how sacred, were no longer considered off-limits to interviewers and reporters, and Crawford, “Saint Joan of the Fan Mags” was one of the first to be burned at the tabloid stake.”

Crawford was crucified as phony, a poor actress who’d gotten by on looks that had gone to seed.  And Bette Davis?  Well, everyone knew she had talent but was plain crazy, a wrecking ball that destroyed anything and anyone that got in her way.

In one of Hollywood’s most inspired bits of casting, director Robert Aldrich had them face off in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the story of a formerly beloved actress (Crawford) who’s now in a wheelchair and held prisoner by her sadistic sister (Davis).

The stories of the antics on the set of Jane are too good to fact check—that Davis installed a Coke vending machine (Crawford was married to the CEO of Pepsi), that Crawford filled her pockets with rocks when Davis had to drag her across the floor in a scene, that Davis intentionally kicked Crawford in the head during a scene where her character does the same.

It’s so juicy that in 2017 FX produced an eight episode miniseries about their feud and the making of Jane, starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford.

Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) is obsessed with her childhood, in which she traveled the country singing, gaining attention, and lording her status over her sister Blanche (Crawford).  Soon the tables turn, as Davis grows up and into obscurity and Blanche becomes a bonafide movie star.

By the time we meet the sisters, Baby Jane has once again gained the upper hand.  Blanche is permanently wheelchair-bound after an accident in which Baby Jane was driving.  Jane “cares” for her invalid sister, but the two have become recluses and Jane begins an escalating campaign of torture against Blanche.

It’s a horror film, but the acting is so intentionally over-the-top it’s more funny than scary.  

At least it’s always been funny to me.  

I first found Baby Jane as a kid, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  When Baby Jane cackles after she serves her sister a rat for lunch, it’s a terrible moment, but it’s also an uncomfortably funny one.

Bette Davis looks truly grotesque in the film, wearing thick white pancake makeup she made herself, and smeared on red lips.  Her character runs around in pigtails and dresses like a doll, in spite of the fact that Davis was in her mid-fifties when she played the part.

Today, the film is cited as perhaps the first true example of hagsploitation, or films where older women are made as ugly as possible and run around scaring everyone and generally wreaking havoc.

Previously called witches.

There’s nothing new under the sun, folks.

I have two competing thoughts about Jane—first, the film was not the apex of Bette Davis’ or Joan Crawford’s career and shouldn’t be treated as such.  If Jane is the only film you’ve seen starring these two women, please let it lead you to Mildred Pierce, Jezebel, A Woman’s Face, or Now, Voyager.

Second, don’t dismiss it as pure hagsploitation.  It’s a fun film to watch, and I love that Crawford and Davis refused to be pushed off the stage into bit parts or retirement.

If the choice was to play hags above the title or the wise woman in the background, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford chose the hag every single time.

And damn if I don’t love them for it.

Sources

  • Spoto, Donald.  Possessed:  The Life of Joan Crawford
  • Sikov, Ed.  Dark Victory:  The Life of Bette Davis
  • Considine, Shaun.  Bette & Joan:  The Divine Feud

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings