The Best of Joan
Last night marked the premiere of prolific executive producer Ryan Murphy’s new FX miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan, chronicling the contentious carnival of bad behavior surrounding the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), whipped up due to the competitive back-biting of its two legendary stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, respectively played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. Each woman reportedly despised the other, but business was business and both icons needed career boosts: leading-lady roles had dried up for both fifty-something Oscar® winners, and “it was Joan’s idea to team up with Davis in the film adaptation of Henry Farrell’s novel,” according to Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography scribes Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell. A sensationally entertaining, popular box-office hit would ultimately result, but getting there was an ordeal, as subsequent episodes will depict in the coming weeks. Both stars had fraught personal lives, but in the years leading up to Baby Jane, Crawford was particularly hard hit: in 1958 her mother Anna died on August 15, 1958, and then her husband, Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred Steele, succumbed to a heart attack on April 6, 1959. Producer Jerry Wald, the man behind her career-comeback Warner Bros. 1940s roles in Mildred Pierce, Humoresque and Possessed, thought that a juicy film role would be an effective antidote to the actress’s sorrow, help relieve her financial problems, and give an added marquee boost to his latest project, the film version of Rona Jaffe’s Manhattan career girls bestseller The Best of Everything (1959). Just a few weeks after Steele’s death, Crawford was back on a Hollywood soundstage playing Amanda Farrow, the work-obsessed, love-dispossessed supervising editor of a publishing house, where staffers Hope Lange, Diane Baker, Suzy Parker and Martha Hyer strive for career advancement (not all in publishing) while trying to find romance with men who are worth the devoted effort. Candidates for those positions, definitely not all successful, include Stephen Boyd, Louis Jourdan and Robert Evans. The Cinemascope-Deluxe color production, under the direction of Humoresque’s Jean Negulesco, evoked fine performances across the board, but not without its share of tensions, some generated by Crawford, whose part was smaller than most of the leads. Quirk and Schoell recount: “Joan generally plays (sometimes overplays) with real style and panache, forcefully occupying the movie, even when she’s not on screen. When Amanda learns that Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) has been reading manuscripts and tells her, ‘You young secretaries think you can breeze in here and become editors overnight,’ it’s almost as if it’s Joan directing her words to the young contract players in the cast….Joan often got impatient with the hesitant and apprehensive approach of some of the young women who were starring in the movie. Joan got into a spat with Hope Lange (who, in spite of her inexperience, is quite good in the lead role), and she expected the director to side with The Great Crawford. Negulesco bitterly disappointed her by siding with Lange. Joan realized that her days of being deferred to were probably over, at least on big productions like this, in which she had only a small part. Some of her scenes were dropped from the final cut, including one that she felt would have explained and humanized her character.” So with the spotlight now back on Crawford courtesy of Feud: Bette and Joan, it’s interesting to revisit The Best of Everything as a insight into the lady’s professionalism, indelible style and determination that on her next project, she would occupy the driver’s seat. Laura Jacobs’ fabulous 2004 Vanity Fair article The Lipstick Jungle, which you can read here: https://www.joancrawfordbest.com/magvanityfair304.htm, offers a fascinating overview of the production that might merit consideration as a potential Ryan Murphy miniseries project itself. (Indeed, the book and movie sired a 1970 daytime drama series that had only a six-month run but boasted a quality cast that included Gale Sondergaard, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Patty McCormack and Susan Sullivan.) Meanwhile, you can spin Twilight Time’s high quality, highly polished hi-def Blu-ray to revel in The Best of Everything – including the feuding Ms. Crawford.