Time was when Joan Crawford didn’t even have to get out of bed for an Oscar. Bette Davis was rewarded for her lack of vanity and bitch roles with 2 Oscars and 8 nominations. Unofficially this should be at 9 Academy Award nominations; Bette Davis’ role in Of Human Bondage inspired a campaign to have her included.
Anita Dobson, as Joan begins the play. I admit I haven’t seen Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, or Mildred Pierce. What I know about Crawford I know from the film Mommie Dearest and various books about other Hollywood film stars. Quite what Crawford would think of a (very youthful) 63 year old playing her at an alleged 58 we'll never know. But I imagine it's a subject that would come up. The darling of the Hollywood casting couch, Crawford had spent her life always waiting in the wings. First for Clara Bow to exit stage left, then once the talkies came in, Garbo. Next time, next time it’s going to be Crawford, leading film star for MGM. Dobson’s Crawford was not how I expected Crawford to be.
For one thing her make-up was not as Crawford-esque as I’d expected. It is too much to expect Dobson to walk out looking uncannily like Joan Crawford. But the strong brows and red bow lips weren’t Crawford sharp. A determined character, Crawford has worked had in elocution lessons to rid herself of her Texas accent. Appearing incredibly glamorous, refined and charming were her absolute goals, Crawford was in love with the creation of a Film Star. Politeness was key, the correct greetings were necessary and Dobson signs off on each phone call with Crawford's "bless you" which the actress used instead of thank you.
Dobson, on a punch line, would make Crawford smile cheekily. The control Crawford was famed for in Mommie Dearest and elsewhere was a little absent from much of the performance. However Dobson was still enjoyable, her contained rage over a Bette Davis Coca-Cola based tease is perfect. The tight knock at Davis’ door was unexpectedly comic, well timed and told the entire story of the incident before it had even been recounted.
Greta Scacchi’s Bette Davis was bawdier than the Davis featured in all those ‘women films’. Interrupting Crawford as she describes how she never leaves the house until she looks like Joan Crawford with “Who the fuck else does she expect to leave the house as?” and informing the audience “I play the bitches because I’m a lady, she [Joan] plays the lady…”
Scacchi becomes increasingly reminiscent of Davis as she applies her distinctive Baby Jane make-up, suddenly those Bette Davis eyes are staring out at us while she and Joan discuss husbands, children and those new blonde actresses who all look the same (sound familiar?). Scacchi laughs in the manner of Baby Jane, great big grotesque guffaws.
When addressing an audience directly an audible reaction is highly desirable. Dobson clearly lives for this, it’s important to her to get this reaction and rather like the women they are portraying, there’s the suggestion the pair are vying for audience attention.
The play demonstrates two women’s take on faded youth and glory days. For one this is it, no more husbands, she’s zipping it up. For another, well, what faded youth? What’s more they are both on to each other’s game. Crawford complains about Davis upstaging her at the public contract signing, wearing all black and sitting to the right so her name came up first. Of course Crawford got the last laugh here, apparently they were handed each other’s contracts accidentally and Joan was able to glean that she was getting the better deal.
A mildly alarming thing about the script is how it highlights the golden age of Hollywood was so much more focused on what you could bring that was new to the silver screen. Sure the big studios searched the globe for their respective answers to each other’s Pickfords, Bows and Garbos. But there was a lot to be said for providing the new look, the new method, the new attitude to Hollywood. The pair also discuss ‘papas’, their real papas who abandoned them and the papas they found in Papa Warner, papas on the movie lot. The Papas exchanged movie knowledge and parts for high audience figures and good behaviour. There are no papas now.
Anton Burge’s play Bette and Joan is engaging, funny and profanity strewn. Not even the man seated behind me who was suffering from acute IBS could stop me from finding Bette and Joan great fun. You can’t ruin my evening, general public.
Bette and Joan is on at the Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday 2nd June