Two Hollywood icons.
One intense rivalry.
An incredible cinematic legacy.
With the recent television sensation Feud, acclaimed producer and showrunner Ryan Murphy introduced a whole new generation to a very different kind of American horror story. Set against the backdrop of the golden era of Hollywood, the critically-lauded series told the true tale of a legendary battle of egos between screen icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford…and the one film that brought them together.
Detailing the production and aftermath of the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Feud not only highlights an intense chapter of the rivalry between the two women, but also showcases a turning point in both of their careers. Prior to Baby Jane both Davis and Crawford had rarely dabbled in the world of genre cinema, instead making their names via studio “prestige” pieces and dramatic fare. The film, about a deranged former child star and her invalid sister, presented the two screen titans to a whole new audience, and arguably, instigated a second wind for Crawford and Davis in the world of scare cinema.
The success of Baby Jane kicked off a trend of horror films centered on the mental decline of older women, often played by major screen stars of yesteryear. Movies such as Die! Die! My Darling! (Tallulah Bankhead), Who Slew Auntie Roo? (Shelley Winters), and What’s the Matter With Helen? (Debbie Reynolds) would all follow in Baby Jane’s wake, proving, as ever, that Davis and Crawford were leading the charge. As one of the progenitors of this arm of horror, Davis would return again to the subgenre with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a film helmed by Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich. Charlotte was initially intended to reunite Crawford and Davis, with Crawford even going so far as to join Davis for early promo material. Unfortunately, the intensity of the women’s disdain for one another eventually caused Crawford to pull out of the picture all together, being replaced by Olivia de Havilland.
Crawford’s departure from Charlotte, however, did not bring an end to her work within the genre. The year following Baby Jane, Crawford would star in The Caretakers, portraying a nurse at odds with the doctors and patients of the mental ward that employed her. Although the film would serve as a smooth transition from the world of Baby Jane to what lay beyond, it wasn’t until Crawford’s next feature, Strait-Jacket, that she fully leaned into the world of fright. Helmed by legendary director and showman William Castle, Strait-Jacket reimagined Crawford as an axe-wielding murderess. The image of Crawford clutching the axe became instantly iconic, redefining her persona for a whole new generation of filmgoers. From there, Crawford would work with Castle again in the voyeuristic horror film I Saw What You Did, as well as appear in Jim O’Connolly’s circus scare flick Beserk! and Hammer-alum Freddie Francis’s deliciously campy Trog. With these roles, as well a memorable appearance in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (directed by a young Steven Speilberg), Crawford cemented her status as a verified horror icon.
Meanwhile Davis, for her part, also continued to carve a swath in the world of genre cinema. Prior to Charlotte, she had starred opposite herself as evil twins in Dead Ringer, but it wasn’t until a trip to the UK that the grand dame really kicked her involvement in fright up a notch. Crossing the ocean, Davis would twice work with Hammer in the years following Baby Jane, once as a killer au pair in The Nanny and again as a one-eyed, maniacal hostess in The Anniversary. Davis would later collaborate with Dan Curtis (creator of Dark Shadows) on his benchmark haunted house film Burnt Offerings, dabble in the world of kiddie horror with Disney’s Watcher in the Woods, and work with grindhouse legend Larry Cohen on Wicked Stepmother. Though her post-Baby Jane oeuvre was more eclectic and genre-spanning than Crawford’s, Davis nonetheless owed a great portion to her second-stage reinvention to her work in horror.
Individually, both women created a lasting legacy for a whole generation of fright fans. The one true shame is that the duo only ever shared the screen once. Even though, as Feud showcased, the production of that single film was tumultuous, there’s no denying that the end result was pure movie magic. Furthermore, as Murphy’s series brings out, the two stars lived a great many parallels. Were it not for a rivalry of egos, likely perpetrated by an industry that intentionally pitted them against one another, Crawford and Davis could have easily become a female Cushing and Lee act, bringing the utmost class to their brand of chills. Still, the body of work we were left behind merits celebration…and that’s nothing to feud about.
Michael Varrati is the screenwriter behind several award-winning independent horror films, as well as a number of TV movies for networks such as Lifetime, Hallmark, and Ion. As a columnist, his work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The Huffington Post, Vice, FearNet, VideoInk, Videoscope Magazine, and more. When he’s not writing, Michael routinely travels, hosting and speaking on panel discussions about the horror genre.
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