Touring play Bette and Joan offers insight into movie star rivalry
- Credit: Archant
Two of the great icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age take centrestage in a new play Bette and Joan touring Suffolk next month. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Jayne Lindill about the humanity behind the hatred.
It’s gone down in Hollywood history as one of the great feuds of all time. Two great movie stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, lock horns in a headstrong battle of egos, neither one of them willing to back down.
Bette Davis, Queen of the Warners Brothers lot, and Joan Crawford, the Matriarch of MGM, had spent 25 years circling one another, spitting and hissing, both convinced of their supremacy, and while they reigned at their individual studios, they could claim to be The Pre-eminent Actress of Tinsel Town.
But, by the early 1960s, the Hollywood studio system was breaking down. Studios no longer could afford contract stars and suddenly, in 1962, Bette and Joan, these two arch-rivals, found themselves starring opposite one another in a dark, psycho-horror movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
The making of that film has gone down in legend and now Suffolk-based Horizon Theatre is bringing that tempestuous relationship to the stage.
Bette and Joan is a play by Anton Burge and depicts the two stars, in adjacent dressing rooms, between takes on the set of Baby Jane. While Joan manages her anxiety by lacing her Pepsi with Vodka and signing photographs for her beloved fans, Bette chain smokes and muses on her love life, and her ability to pick a decent script, never a decent man.
With the recent screening of Feud on television over Christmas and with Hollywood coping with the fall out of the Harvey Weinstein affair, promising to give women better roles and more creative control, Bette and Joan is incredibly topical?
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“Yes it is, but we had found the play long before all this happened. We chose it because it gave two really strong roles to women. These aren’t cartoon characters. Behind the bitching and practical jokes we see each woman’s insecurities and regrets, and their rivalry is revealed to be underpinned by grudging respect as they attempt to identify their new roles in life as well as in their careers.
You are taking this out on the road?
“Yes, we did it a couple of years ago at the New Wolsey Studio, as part of the open season, and it had such a good response that we thought it would be a great play to revive and take out on tour. It’s witty, it’s entertaining, it’s a great show for women to go and see but men will find it funny too.
I am a great believer in taking theatre out to the people rather than make everyone come to us. Not everyone can or wants to turn out at night come into Ipswich or some other large town. Public transport isn’t always available late at night. So it’s much better for us to bring a great play like Bette and Joan and stage it in your local village hall or community centre.
What attracted you to the play?
“What I loved about it, is the focus on people. It’s very much a character piece. The action is very self-contained, it all takes place backstage and in the dressing rooms of Bette and Joan as they film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? This is two women, past their glory days, now in their 50s, at a time when Hollywood had, more or less, turned its back on them and this is their last chance to salvage their careers. This was the most unlikely casting and the question was could they keep their intense rivalry in check?
“The play is about showing who they are as women. They are not Gorgons, although they are both headstrong and ambitious but the play shows how each women got to this point in their career and why they are desperate for this film and this unlikely partnership to succeed.”
Did the play allow you to see these two Hollywood icons in a new light?
“Absolutely. You see them as flawed human beings. We see the different routes each of them had to stardom but, equally, we also get to see how similar they are in some respects, what hurdles they both had to get over to get to the top. They are both witty but they are also rather sad and it’s quite touching and tender in parts. I feel that when they do come to together it’s hard not to think that had they met under different circumstances, at a different time, they could have been friends.”
Bette and Joan, starring Jayne Lindill and Petra Risbridger, is staged by Horizon Theatre and will be touring Felixstowe, Hadleigh, Shotley and Sproughton in April.