Book review: Bette And Joan The Divine Feud

Posted by Bel. The time is 1.45pm here in Wellington, NZ.

Maybe you're a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, wanting the behind-the-scenes gossip. Maybe you love vintage clothing and the women who started the styles. Maybe you're a huge bitch, looking for tips on how to make miserable the lives of all those around you.

Whatever your reasons for picking up Shaun Considine's dual biography Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, I'm sure you will find something to delight and entertain you within its salacious pages.

Eyebrows! Posing! Blood-coloured lightening! Actually, that's pretty much the whole book.

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis' careers ostensibly overlapped only once, when they united for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, IMDB link), a tale of stale Hollywood stardom and crazed jealousies that may have been startlingly true to life for the pair.

The author does not describe himself as a friend of either, but he did interview both several times, on occasions when one or other would catch a whiff that an article was coming up and the drunken, self-obsessed, verbose broad (this applies to Joan or Bette alternately and unremittingly it seems), would call him up to put her two cents in. And then some.

This wealth of uncensored material (pre-publicist days) is unravelled chronologically, leading us from young Joan's childhood days of being forced to work in the boarding school where she studied in order to be able to stay on there, and Bette's conservative upbringing, to Joan starting off in Hollywood as a chorus line dancer, whilst Bette carved out a name for herself on the stage.

Their infamous rivalry is denied time and time again, but then both women reportedly let rip with zingers against the other - Bette being particularly scathing towards Joan, who seems to personify the type of actress constantly looking for external validation.

An early moment of conflict was when young starlet Bette found herself falling for her leading man, a dashing and swarthy man named Franchot Tone. Married to her high school sweetheart, a union that was swiftly losing its gloss as her star began to rise, Bette was yearning for something more exciting - and the chance for love was snatched away from her by, you guessed it, Joan Crawford.

At that stage the reigning sex bomb of the studio, Joan been having a casual affair with Monsieur Tone (I like to imagine him as some kind of witless French toyboy, even though he was apparently a New Yorker). But when she realised that he was at risk of developing mutual affections for Bette, his on-screen love, Joan whisked him away and married him, despite having only recently divorced her first husband and declared herself well and truly shot of marriage and all its trappings.

Bette did manage to have the last laugh on this round, as she won her first Academy Award for the film, titled Dangerous (1935, IMDB link), voted Best Actress and reportedly receiving a warm embrace from her handsome co-star at the ceremony, much to his new wife's disgust...

Filled with anecdotes like this, Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud is trashy and gossipy and lots of fun. The supporting players are a star-studded bunch - from Clark Gable to George Cukor, with a fair dash of pre-White House Ronald Reagan thrown in there for good measure.

Crawford would have loved our modern age; she diligently responded to all fan mail personally and engaged in correspondence with some fans for years on end. Can you imagine that woman on twitter? However both she and Davis became reclusive towards the end of their lives, even after all the accolades and lovers. The two of them, despite being very different women, had similarly isolated themselves from their friends and families - most spectacularly their daughters.

There's not one, but two photo sections in the book, which I think bumps it up to being one of the best Trade Me purchases I have ever made.

Click to view large (300 dpi) and witness this rare moment of cheerful civility between the divas.

PS: Yes I am aware that this book is not on The List. After three consecutive calendar years of reading The List, I have decided that 2010 shall be the Year of Memoirs and Biographies. In addition to continuing to endeavour with The List!

3 thoughts on “Book review: Bette And Joan The Divine Feud”

  1. Dear Sassy Bel,

    Actually the legendary stars worked together twice - a rematch in "Hush..Hush...Sweet Charlotte," which sent Joan screaming to the hospital, where
    she planned her brilliant revenge. Also, there's an updated version of the book, with new dazzling cover (check the B&J page on my website).

    Anyway, thanks for the neat review, with kisses from Bette and a "Bless You" from Joan.

    Shaun C.

  2. Hi Shaun, wow thanks for stopping by to comment.

    Yes I had forgotten that B&J "worked" together on that film too... it became such a debacle by all accounts that I suppose I'd figured it didn't really count!

    Mommie Dearest is definitely on my list of films to see in the near future, but first I'm going to watch bitchy Bette at her best in All About Eve and Joan as a noir vamp in Mildred Pierce - or maybe the original version of The Women. It is so not surprisingly that modern Hollywood could just not get that right. Siiigh.