Actress Joan Crawford black and white photo in 1949.

Joan Crawford, The Queen Of Feuds: Bette Davis, Mercedes McCambridge And Others

Viewers of FX’s drama Feud have been utterly absorbed in the depiction of the infamous decades-long rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. In a recent episode, Joan (played by Jessica Lange) orchestrated a cunning and vicious plan to outshine Bette (played by Susan Sarandon) on the night of the 1963 Academy Awards when Bette was nominated for Best Actress.

Fans of the FX show have been fact-checking and deliberating online to confirm whether the event, in fact, played out as it did in Ryan Murphy’s series. When one looks back at Joan Crawford’s history in Hollywood, it becomes a little more evident that staging such a coup was well within her Machiavellian nature.

Bette Davis was not Crawford’s only antagonist. She had a few. One of the lesser known showdowns involving Crawford occurred during the filming of the 1954 Nicholas Ray film Johnny Guitar. Joan Crawford starred opposite Mercedes McCambridge, a rival Tinseltown leading lady.

The characters Crawford and McCambridge played were cowgirl enemies, and a great deal of hostility had to exist between the two. Apparently, the friction followed the stars off the set and into their personal relationship.

Reports are that Joan Crawford had once dated Mercedes McCambridge’s husband, thus creating a sense of jealousy on the part of McCambridge. Not a surprising revelation, as Crawford was well-known for her abundant love for men.

Crawford, on the other hand, envied the amount of attention and praise McCambridge was getting from the director, Nicholas Ray. Crawford’s covetous feelings came to a head one night when she gathered McCambridge’s personal clothing as well as all of her costumes and strew them on the nearby highway in Arizona where they were filming.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford read through a film script with their director.
Actress Joan Crawford, right, and Bette Davis flank producer-director Robert Aldrich as they go over a script. [Image by AP Images]

In an article that originally appeared in a March 1955 edition of Private Lives Magazine, Mercedes McCambridge recounted some of her thoughts on Joan Crawford.

“I am ashamed of myself because I have lacked the courage to tell the world what Joan Crawford really is, what she does to people in the studios. But she destroys those who oppose her.”

In Ernest Borgnine’s memoirs, he notes that McCambridge described Joan Crawford as “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady.” He then continues: “She called her all kinds of insulting names, and poor Mercedes would fall apart. She’d literally go weak in the knees and collapse, she was that frightened of Joan Crawford.” According to Borgnine, Mercedes McCambridge was almost certainly channeling the spirit of Joan Crawford when she did the voice of Beelzebub in The Exorcist.

Then there was a feud with Katherine Albert, a Hollywood screenwriter and long-time friend of Crawford. The story goes that in 1952 Albert had asked Crawford to speak to her daughter and encourage her not to get married at the tender age of 18. Instead, Crawford defiantly – or perhaps frivolously – married Albert’s daughter in her home. Albert was livid and, needless to say, that was the end of their friendship.

In a delicious twist of fate, Bette Davis appeared as the lead in Katherine Albert’s film The Star which was loosely based on the life of Joan Crawford. Bette got to play “Joan” as an unflattering depiction of an aging star in a film written by one of Joan’s other enemies. To make matters worse, Davis scored her 11th Oscar nomination for this part.

A former housemaid of Crawford’s once spoke out on the supposed “tyranny” of the Hollywood darling.

“Joan would deliberately throw the contents of her talcum box on the floor, or smash a jar of cold-cream on the wall, just for the pleasure of watching me pick it up. If there was a spot on a washbowl or floor she’d come raging out of the bathroom, sometimes stark naked, raging about the ‘filth’ and ‘slime’ I had allowed to accumulate.”

It’s no wonder that after Crawford’s death in 1977, Bette Davis was less than kind.

“You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

Mercedes McCambridge received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Best supporting actor Dean Jagger plants a kiss on the forehead of best supporting actress Mercedes McCambridge as they pose with their Oscars at the Academy Awards in 1950. [Image by AP Images]

While there is no source to verify that Davis ever did say that, it does seem like an appropriate jibe considering their tumultuous history.

A brief highlight summary of the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis follows.

In 1933, Bette Davis was making her big star debut in the film Ex-Lady when Joan Crawford upstaged her and dominated the day’s news with the announcement of her divorce from husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. It may or may not have been due to coverage that favored Crawford, but Davis’ film was canned merely a week after opening. To make matters worse, soon after the movie setback, Joan Crawford married the man who Bette Davis had set her sights on. Yikes, talk about a slap in the face.

Bette Davis suffered a similar blow in 1935 when she fell madly in love with Franchot Tone, her on-screen romantic lead in the film, Dangerous. Tone, however, was more interested in Joan Crawford, and the two played out a romance in front of Davis’ eyes eventually leading to an engagement. Davis once remarked that she was convinced Crawford had taken Tone away from her deliberately.

In 1943, Joan Crawford left MGM Studios and signed with Warner Brothers, the studio home of Bette Davis at the time. Bette could not have been pleased and famously took a swipe at Crawford while she was still at MGM.

“[Crawford] slept with every male star at MGM, except Lassie.”

Crawford, undoubtedly strategically, asked Warner Brother to set her up in the room right next to Davis’ and reportedly showered her rival with gifts. Bette returned all of them to Crawford. Ouch.

In 1946, Joan Crawford won her first and only Academy Award for her part in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, a role Bette Davis had turned down. In 1947, Crawford received another Academy Award nomination for her role in Possessed – a role that was originally written for Davis.

The climax of the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis came in 1961 when the two of them teamed up to co-star in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. Crawford played Blanche, an actress confined to a wheelchair, and Davis played Jane, her deranged sister.

Bette Davis was the only one of the two co-stars to receive an Academy Award nomination – a fact that enraged Crawford to the point where she devised a vicious plan to sabotage Davis’ chances of winning. That year Anne Bancroft won the Academy Award in Davis’ category, but she was unable to accept the award. Crawford had offered to accept it on her behalf and took to the stage to deliver a speech and claim the Oscar – albeit not her own – on a night that, of the two, was supposed to belong to Bette Davis.

“I almost dropped dead! I was paralyzed with shock. To deliberately upstage me like that — her behavior was despicable.”

Bette Davis nevertheless got the upper hand when she ultimately walked away from the decades-long feud with more honors than Joan Crawford. Davis had received eleven Academy Award nominations and two wins, compared to Crawford who had three nominations and one win.

[Feature Image by AP Images]

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