Feud: Bette and Joan is the latest offering from the people who brought you American Horror Story. Depicting the legendary struggle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the critically acclaimed drama has already aired in the States and is coming to BBC Two in December.
But who exactly were the two acting legends depicted in the drama? Here’s what you need to know about Joan Crawford.
Who was Joan Crawford?
The name Joan Crawford is probably now indelibly associated with Mommie Dearest, the 1981 film starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford and based on Crawford’s daughter Christina’s memoir of the same name. However, there’s much more to Crawford than a fear of wire coat hangers.
Crawford was born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas. No one knows exactly the year Crawford was born, but it was around 1905. Crawford’s grave marker in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York states her birth year as 1908, but 1910 census records would suggest a birth year of 1905. However, most sources believe her to have been born in 1904. No birth certificate exists for Crawford, so the exact year of her birth will remain a mystery.
Following a peripatetic childhood – taking in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri – Crawford took her first steps towards a career in the performing arts. She worked as a chorus girl in Detroit under her birth name. This career took her to New York City in 1924. From there, only a quick screen test separated Crawford and Hollywood.
She was signed by MGM in 1924 and appeared in her first Hollywood movie – still as Lucille LeSueur – in 1925. Early Hollywood studios were known as publicity machines and MGM was no different. When the name Lucille LeSueur was deemed no good for an emerging movie star, the studio organised a contest whereby readers of the magazine Movie Weekly could choose the actress’s new name. And so, Joan Crawford was born.
Joan was a successful actress in both silent films and talkies throughout the 20s and 30s being voted one of the top 10 most bankable stars from 1932 to 1936 and declared the 'Queen of the Movies' by Life magazine in 1937. However, her career took a dip between 1937 and the early 1940s.
Crawford moved from MGM to Warner Brothers in 1943. It was at Warner Brothers that Crawford would star in Mildred Pierce, the 1945 film that would win her the Best Actress Oscar.
Crawford continued to make movies throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In 1962 she took the role of Blanche in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? opposite her rival Bette Davis. Feud: Bette and Joan depicts a fictionalised retelling of the events surrounding the filming and aftermath of this film.
Crawford was reportedly angry when Davis received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role of Jane while she, Crawford, was snubbed. Davis did not, however, win the award. That honour went to Anne Bancroft. However, Bancroft was absent from the ceremony and the award was accepted, on her behalf, by Joan Crawford – who had arranged it in advance.
The later years of Crawford’s career were split between film and TV appearances.
Crawford was married four times – the first three times to actors Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Franchot Tone and Phillip Terry. Crawford’s final marriage was to Alfred Steele, chairman of Pepsi-Cola. Crawford took her loyalty to Pepsi very seriously and travelled the world with Steele promoting the brand. She also helped promote the cola on her movies.
After Steele’s death, Crawford would be elected to the Pepsi-Cola board – the first woman to be so - and one story told by Hollywood director Billy Wilder shows how determined she was to succeed in business as she had done in front of the camera.
“I was filming One, Two, Three with James Cagney playing the part of a Coca-Cola executive, and Joan got wind of this, and she wanted equal time for Pepsi-Cola, more than equal time. I can imagine what it must have been like if she’d wanted a part in your movie,” Wilder recalled, according to Vanity Fair.
As well as having four husbands, Crawford also had four children. She adopted the first, Christina, in 1940 and then a boy named Christopher, with husband Phillip Terry. Finally, in 1947 she adopted girls, Cindy and Cathy.
Crawford’s relationship with her children has made the headlines over the years since Christina Crawford published the tell-all memoir Mommie Dearest (then made into the film starring Faye Dunaway) which painted Crawford as a controlling, abusive mother. This characterisation was disputed by Crawford’s other children Cathy and Cindy. Christina and Christopher were left out of their mother’s will when she died.
Crawford died in New York City in 1977. In her final years she had become more and more confined to her apartment on East 68th Street due to ill health. She died of a heart attack.
It is perhaps testament to Crawford’s ability to reinvent herself that she had such career longevity. The New York Times summed up her career thus: “In more than 80 movies, she adapted easily to changing times and tastes. When audiences began to tire of one image, she toiled to produce a new one. She made the changes with pace-setting makeup, coiffures, costumes - and craftsmanship.”
Feud: Bette and Joan begins at 9pm on Saturday December 16 on BBC Two.
Photo credits: George Hurrell/MGM/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, PA, SNAP/REX/Shutterstock, PA