Growing up on a farm as a kid, and being about as outdoorsy as a Kardashian, I often turned to old black and white films to escape to a world I thought better suited my own eclectic personality. I fell in love with the romanticized version of Hollywood and idolized the glamorous femme fatales of Film Noir along with their charming and roguish leading men.
I credit much of my infatuation to the mystique that shrouded the lives of Hollywood stars, and as an adult, I’ve tried to learn more about the real people behind these beloved characters through devouring various memoirs, biographies, and documentaries. Oftentimes, as one might expect, public perception and tabloids that dominated a very controlled news cycle do not match what lies beneath the surface.
I think one of the greatest challenges for film biographers is to get to some sliver of the truth by pulling back the studio-controlled veneer and separating myth from reality. This is a quality that very few achieve.
In preparation for Ryan Murphy’s new anthology series Feud: Bette & Joan on FX, I decided to visit Shaun Considine’s critically acclaimed work Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud to learn about the series of events that sparked Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s dramatic schism – and hopefully learn more about the real lives of these iconic starlets of the silver screen.
Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud chronicles the infamous rivalry between the two Hollywood legends. Beginning with their childhoods, the book covers a wide range of topics, from the alleged event that sparked their general dislike of one another (when Joan stole Bette’s headlines with her high profile divorce, thus taking attention away from what Bette thought would be her big Hollywood break), to the highs and lows of their iconic careers, to their torrid personal lives and struggles working in a misogynistic, ageist, and exploitative industry.
Considine empathically shows how their enmity evolves from mild irritation and jealousy to a full on weave-snatching extravaganza that comes to a palatable head with the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and its follow-up, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The author takes a stab at all the behind the scenes drama in an attempt to reconstruct the series of events that erupted into their feud of epic proportions.
I appreciate the fact that Considine gives the same attentive care to both starlets and does his best to portray them in an equitable light, including a multitude of perspectives and anecdotes to express a variety of competing viewpoints on a single event. It’s all laid out nicely and concisely, thus allowing the reader to think critically and assess the difference between the real events and celebrity gossip.
The book is, as it should be, well researched and effortlessly structured. It has a smooth narrative feel that is thankfully compelling as Considine chronologically weaves various sources from interviews to news articles into a tale that is brimming with anticipation. It might seem a bit overwhelming to cover so much ground with two stars in a single biography, and yet Considine does it with such ease that you aren’t taken out of the moment by having to mentally switch gears every time he moves between the two stars.
By far the greatest strength of this book is how Considine portrays Bette and Joan as flawed individuals in an effort to move beyond their onscreen personas. It allows readers to see the lasting impact of their feud by bringing Bette and Joan’s individual insecurities and struggles to life. In a trailer for the FX series, Catherine Zeta-Jones poignantly remarks that “Feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain.” I think this statement best summarizes the underlying thesis of Considine’s work as he explores the root cause and destructive force of the rivalry.
Finishing the book left me with a feeling of just how important it is to try to put one’s petty differences aside, especially in the face of adversity. Even though Bette and Joan had disparate upbringings, they both tried to fight against the same oppressive Hollywood studio system and could have been great allies had they moved past their grudges. By showing the ravages of divisiveness, Considine shows that even though taking the low road may seem like the more satisfying path, it really doesn’t amount to anything at the end of the day, nor does it address the existing systemic problems.
Despite the fact that the book remains a bit sensational at times, and I would need to do additional research to separate fact from fiction, Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud provides illumination on some key contemporary issues that I think we can all take to heart. It will be interesting to see how Ryan Murphy adapts this well-documented feud for television, and I hope that he uses the show to portray the not often shown, vulnerable side of these beloved actresses and provides a platform for discussion regarding ageism and sexism in both the film industry and society at large.
-Fisher Adwell is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.
Film stills via Wikimedia Commons