This book is required reading at the National Organization for Offensive Gay Stereotypes (along with my previously reviewed Get Happy), but I didn’t just read it to get the free caftan. I have been obsessed with old Hollywood biographies for a while now, and had heard from several trusted sources that this was one of the best. Now that I’ve read it, I couldn’t agree more. The best biographies offer both juicy details and extensively researched facts, and this book is bursting at the seams with both. Even if you’re not typically interested in biographies and claim not to care about these two megastars, you will find yourself caring within a few dozen pages. It’s that well done.
I initially was concerned that a biography dealing with two stars instead of just one would lack focus, jumping back and forth between two disparate lives without cohesion. The very beginning of this book feels that way, as the two stars did indeed have very different origins. However, Considine manages to maintain a brisk pace and brings it all together rather quickly. Even before the ladies meet or share any association, it is easy to be drawn into their individual stories. Fortunately, their lives become intertwined fairly quickly.
I had also been concerned that the book would choose sides, slanting the story whichever way painted the author’s favorite in a more positive light. That fear was also quickly laid to rest. There is a slight indication that Considine favors Davis (the upper crust, theater trained, legitimate “actress”) over Crawford (who came from nothing, had more beauty than acting talent, and was more of a “star” than an actress), but such favoritism is kept to a bare minimum. The author is aware that he must produce as accurate a picture as possible of both actresses, and not pull any punches. He accomplishes his task of impartiality by sharing some rather unpleasant tales of both. Neither comes across well at all, which–if we’re honest–is exactly what we want as readers of books like this. We want dirt. We want diva bitches. And dirty, diva bitches is exactly what you get here.
Younger readers may be unaware that these women–arguably the top two female stars of their time–hated eachother with a burning passion. It was fairly common knowledge in Hollywood at the time, however. The growing enmity between them is well-documented with an extensive bibliography and sources including close friends and industry insiders, and goes well beyond the scathing tell-alls their respective daughters wrote about them.
I won’t give too many details, but the book is full of man-stealing, affairs, divorce, substance abuse, professional sabotage, catty interviews with the press, and even the potential complete shut down of a film on which they were scheduled to work together. The reader sees their relationship deteriorate from mild annoyance (as they both start out in the industry), to dislike (as Joan leaves MGM for Bette’s studio, Warner Brothers, and begins competing for attention there), to full on cat-fighting glory (the “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” years). The reader will be left unable to choose sides, which is the mark of a great compare and contrast biographical work.
You may walk away from this book still respecting both of these legends as actresses, and you may even doubt the veracity of some of the information (especially if it is provided by daughters Christina Crawford and BD Hyman). However, you will also have some insight into a darker side of the old Hollywood system and how ruthless those at the top had to be to get to where they were. So head over to the bookstore or Amazon (where used copies I think are selling for a penny) and pick up a copy. Delicious, gossipy trash awaits.