Bette & Joan
Bonkers Playhouse, Kettering
8th April 2022
The making of the 1962 film ‘Whatever Happened To Baby Jane’ was infamously turbulent, and the fallout between its leading ladies became almost as iconic as the film itself. Long-time rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had both been previously successful in their own right and earned Oscars for their mantlepieces, but the actresses’ popularity had started to wane over the years; they both needed a hit to reignite their careers and put money back in their bank accounts again. Crawford had been deemed ‘Box Office poison’ following a string of flops and was seen as difficult to work with, while Davis focused solely on her career and had no time for anything or anyone else. Two strong women with wildly different personalities, acting styles and temperaments, they clashed at every turn during the production of the film, and their feud became the stuff of Hollywood legend. The tension forms the basis for Anton Burge’s play ‘Bette & Joan’, which is enjoying a new production by White Cobra Productions.
Such severe dislike for each other makes for great drama, and Burge’s play has a lot going for it. He mines the backstories of both women and reveals far more than just bitching and backstabbing, also exploring the private lives of the stars. Crawford’s need for approval, and obsession with maintaining her public image of glamour and control while secretly abusing alcohol makes for an interesting watch. So too does her reputation for passive-aggressiveness; always saying the polite thing but with cold eyes and a crocodile smile, an icy harshness always just below the surface. She is a fascinating character and compellingly written. This is juxtaposed nicely with Davis, her brashness and vulgarity as strong as her work ethic. She sees herself as a ‘real actress’ who couldn’t rely on her looks or the Hollywood casting couch to become successful, whereas she views Crawford as ‘just a movie star’ who slept her way up. The play explores the ladies’ relationships with men and their families, helping to flesh them out and explain who these women are even further, along with numerous insights into other Hollywood legends such as Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. How much is true may never be truly known, but it’s a fun journey nonetheless.
It’s no easy task to portray iconic leading ladies such as these, and Victoria Miles and Kate Billingham do a fine job. Miles nails Davis’ bawdy chuckle and bravado, and also does a great job turning herself into an eerily-uncanny Baby Jane near the end of the first act. Billingham also excels as Crawford, maintaining the prim and proper poise of the actress, while also letting the venom out brilliantly. For amateur performers, this is a fantastic effort by both women and should be very proud of themselves.
There is a moment in the second act when both stars share a joke during a rare civil moment, and they both laugh. The two reactions may be notably different (Davis a big loud belly laugh and Crawford a softer chuckle), but it reminds us that under it all, these women are actually more similar than they’d care to admit, and that there is a mutual respect there, despite allowing their differences to drive a wedge between them.
‘Bette & Joan’ ultimately explores what makes these two screen legends tick, and also what ticks each one off about the other. It’s a well-written and funny insight, and for fans of strong complicated women and Hollywood drama, it delivers.