Together Again – Almost
This week’s Feud: Bette and Joan episode, bluntly named Hagspolitation, depicted the disillusioning aftermath of the effect What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) had on the subsequent careers of its two stars Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), and director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina). In real life, both actresses kept busy, but the quality of their output was noticeably variable: Davis appeared in Dead Ringer, The Empty Canvas and Where Love Has Gone (all 1964), while Crawford gave her all to the likes of The Caretakers (1963) and Strait-Jacket (1964). Aldrich had to ride herd on the taxing demands of the stars (particularly Frank Sinatra) of the rambunctious Western comedy 4 for Texas (1963). Could another single project – however physically and emotionally dicey – provide the same promotional boost to all three? In The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, Davis biographer Charlotte Chandler recounts that Aldrich commissioned Baby Jane scribe Henry Farrell “to write another Gothic vehicle for two older female stars. His response was a story set in the Tennessee Williams South that he called Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?” Renamed for a song penned for the film by composer Frank DeVol and lyricist Mack David, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) began location shooting “in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on June 4” with Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Mary Astor, Cecil Kellaway and Victor Buono cast in support of the two marquee legends. Chandler writes: “From the very beginning, when no one met her at the Baton Rouge airport, Joan Crawford felt out of place. She belived that a star should look and act like a star at all times, so she tended to be aloof while Bette mingled freely with the cast and crew. In the evening, she would leave the set with her maid and chauffeur in a limousine while Bette left in a station wagon with her fellow cast members.” On the Crawford side of the ledger, Joan Crawford: The Definitive Biography authors Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell chronicle that Crawford’s behavior “was not at all intended to offend anyone or to declare superiority over anyone; it was simply the role to which Joan was accustomed and which made her feel secure….It had always offended Davis, whose own massive ego wouldn’t allow her to admit that she liked being the star every bit as much as Joan did.” They quoted Cotton’s 1987 memoir Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, where he wrote that “Joan was finding her refinement of style difficult to weave into the strong and colorful pattern of raw emotions,” and would also comment that “Joan wanted to approach her role with some dignity and ‘not completely give away the fact tat she was a villainess, which was supposed to come as some surprise.’” Feeling overwhelmed by Davis’s antagonism and abandonment by Aldrich, and under duress that took a physical and mental toll, Crawford entered Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles after leaving the Louisiana shoot. Quirk and Schoell assert: “Joan might have stuck it out, but on the last day of location shooting the crew packed everything up and went back to the motel, leaving Joan stranded as she rested in her trailer. She had to call for someone to come pick her up. This may have been another ‘miscommunication,’ but Joan was convinced that Davis was behind it, and furthermore that Davis was manipulating Aldrich behind the scenes.” From her hospital confinement she tried to hold out for script revisions and characterization improvements to no avail. It was there that she learned that Olivia de Havilland would replace her. Quirk and Schoell write: “Years later, Aldrich claimed he was ‘disappointed’ that Joan hadn’t finished the picture despite the added tension her presence had created….He admitted that most of the tension was actually caused by Davis, not Joan, and thought that Joan would have done a lot for the picture, and vice versa. Aldrich thought he had made a genuinely great movie. While this is not true (although Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is certainly well-produced and entertaining), it must be said that the picture cries out for Joan Crawford, who would have added immeasurably to its impact and power. While de Havilland is fine as Cousin Miriam (a kind of deranged Miss Melanie from Gone with the Wind), the part was tailored for Joan and her special delivery and persona. Watching the film today, one can imagine Joan snapping out Miriam’s bitterness toward Charlotte as she recalls how she was always treated like the poor relation by Charlotte’s family; one can imagine her imparting an extra dimension to the sequence in which Miriam and Charlotte drive off to get rid of Dr. Bayliss’s body, and Miriam winds up slapping Charlotte on the drive home. De Havilland confronting Agnes Moorehead’s maid Velma and knocking her down the stairs with a chair is menacing enough, but Crawford’s formidable, threatening presence might have made the sequence crackle with fury and tension. But it was not to be.” Ironically, the reliably professional de Havilland, who had made her own entrée into the field of Gothic-styled horror of the “terrorized mature actress” variety with that summer’s Lady in a Cage (1964), diabolically deceptive as she proved to be, sensed that she wasn’t the top candidate for her role. She told Chandler: “Bette wanted it so much, so I did it. I can’t say I regretted it, because working with her was so special, but I can’t say it was a picture I am proud to put on my resumé. Given the choice, I wouldn’t have deprived Joan Crawford of the honor!” A box-office hit nominated for seven Academy Awards®, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte turned out frightfully well despite the reversals of fortune involved. Its tempest-tossed production is thoroughly recounted on Twilight Time’s exquisite hi-def Blu-ray, which includes two perceptive film historian Audio Commentaries, an interview with co-star Bruce Dern, a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette and the documentary Hush…Hush, Sweet Joan: The Making of Charlotte. And as Feud: Bette and Joan attests, with this week’s episode depicting Crawford’s entrance and next week’s segment (Abandoned!) covering her exit, the combustible Davis, Crawford and Aldrich combination endlessly fascinates.