Backstage with the best Hollywood enemies - REVIEW: Bette and Joan

17:11 22 May 2012

Bette and Joan

Bette and Joan

2011©Elliott Franks

“Who’d have thought it – crazy Bette and phoney Joan in the same picture?” asks movie star Davis in the play Bette and Joan.

Not many people is the answer to that one.

The two former A-listers had been “best enemies” for 30 years by the time they came together in 1962 to film Who’s Afraid of Baby Jane?, in a bid to resurrect their floundering careers.

Both Oscar winners had fought over the same roles and men. Davis saw herself as a serious working actress with a background in the theatre, whereas former dancer Crawford was the ultimate “movie star” who “did it all for the fans”.

Their rivalry is the subject of Anton Burge’s play, which gives a fictionalised account of one day backstage on the film about two warring Hollywood sisters that has since become a cult classic.

We see Crawford (Anita Dobson) concealing weights under her gown before a scene where Davis (Greta Scacchi) – who she knew suffered from a bad back – had to lift her. And Crawford informs Davis she will be using a double for the scene in which the latter kicks her.

Both Scacchi and Dobson are superb in their roles. We see Scacchi literally become Davis as she applies her ghoulish Baby Jane make up in her dressing room. She has the looks and mannerisms nailed.

While Dobson doesn’t look as much like Crawford as Scacchi does Davis , she too perfectly captures the mannered body language, insincere Texan drawls and rictus grin – offered repeatedly, much to the audience’s amusement.

Burge’s script is full of amusing lines, giving each character’s point of view on the same subject.

Davis says: “I always play bitches because I’m not a bitch. That’s why Miss Crawford always plays ladies.

Whereas Crawford declares: “Now I know why she won all those awards [for playing tough women]: she wasn’t acting, that’s how she is.”

She sees Davis as “coarse and no lady”. Davis says Crawford has slept with everyone in Hollywood except Lassie.

Some of the humour is bittersweet, such as when both women talk about the perils of ageing, their bad choice in men and loneliness.

Davis talks about visiting her son in hospital and, in a quiet moment, tells her mother on the phone she is doing the job for the money. Crawford admits she is glad her mother – with whom she had a difficult relationship – is dead.

Apparently, despite their rivalry, the two stars pulled together to get the movie made in three weeks, but Davis tells the audience director Robert Aldrich admits they “exhaust him daily”.

“I need to call him… and tell him what a c**t she’s been,” Scacchi says with a wicked smile to the audience, who reward her by roaring their approval and giving both her and Dobson a standing ovation.

Bette and Joan is at the Churchill Theatre Bromley until Saturday May 26 and then at Brighton ’s Theatre Royal until June 2.

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