“I never wanted celebrity. It’s not a game I’ve ever been interested in. My life leads my work, and I wouldn’t want it to be the reverse.“
Ryan Murphy‘s Feud: Bette And Joan, which originally aired on FX in 2017, brought the story of Joan Crawford‘s and Bette Davis‘s long rivalry to television for our enjoyment and edification. The eight-episode series is set during the filming of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, the two legends’ single film together, a late attempt for them both to resurrect their sagging careers. Their longstanding fuel was fire for publicity for the film and the person lighting the match was Hedda Hopper. So, who is Hedda Hopper? Two-time Oscar nominee Judy Davis takes on the role of the Golden Age Of Hollywood’s noted gossip columnist, who expertly needled the two female stars into giving mean quotes about each other to the press.
In real life, Hopper, too, was well-known for a longstanding feud with Louella Parsons, known as “America’s first movie columnist” until her rival came along. Hopper tried and failed to make it as a chorus girl on Broadway, but she did have some success in touring productions of former Broadway hits. She moved to Hollywood and was somehow able to break into the films with a certain degree of success during the 1920s. In the 1930s, her film roles dwindled and so she began to write a gossip column. This was at the same time as the start of the Crawford and Davis feud, putting Hopper in the right place at the right time to document one of the most famous rivalries in showbiz history.
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane was filmed in 1962, a long time after the zenith of Crawford’s and Davis’s careers. Despite their decades-long feud, they came together to try and use their hostility to spark some interest in the film. Hopper invited both women to a dinner party at her house right before they were scheduled to begin filming. She was to write a piece about what The Los Angeles Times called a “truce meal”.”
The two great stars mostly got along at the dinner, bonding over the lack of good roles for women their age. This sparked them to push several studios to make Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? starring the two of them. But on set, those old strains started-up again. Feud recreates the memorable filming of the fight scene where Crawford was so afraid of Davis that she demanded a body double to shoot the scene. But, Crawford had to shoot a close-up sequence, and Davis took an opportunity to kick her in the head for real. Davis denied it was ever as serious as Crawford made it out to be.
I feel strongly that Judy Davis should stand shoulder-pad to shoulder-pad with other great Gay Icons like Crawford and Bette Davis. Dry disdain is her performance specialty. Her tics and twitches, her drop-dead dismay, and her aching annoyance have been used to great effect in her work for Woody Allen in films such as Celebrity (1998), Husbands And Wives (1992), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Alice (1990), Husbands And Wives, and To Rome, With Love (2012).
Allen seems to have understood how to work with Davis, but other directors have endured her well-known temper, including the great David Lean. He used her so very effectively in A Passage To India (1984) based on the E.M. Forster novel.
As a film fan, I find Davis to be one of the bravest, fiercest actors of the last half-century. Beginning with her breakthrough performance as the bad-tempered, budding writer in Gillian Armstrong‘s My Brilliant Career (1979), launching her screen persona as an anti-bimbo, an intelligent woman dripping with venom.
Davis worked mostly in her native Australia during the 1980s, often with her handsome actor husband, Colin Friels. They love Davis Down Under. She is an eight-time AACTA Award winner (the Australian film academy). She has also won two BAFTA Awards and two much-deserved Academy Award nominations for A Passage To India and Husbands And Wives. Plus, she has 11 Emmy Award nominations with three wins, the first for playing the gentle, supportive lover of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, played by Glenn Close, the dedicated mother and medical officer who has spent most of her life serving in the US military, before getting the boot for loving another woman in Serving In Silence (1995); the second for the title role in Life With Judy Garland: Me And My Shadows (2001); and the third for the comic miniseries The Starter Wife (2007).
Her Oscar nominated performance as Adela, whose assault sparks an Anglo-Indian scandal, in A Passage To India is a fine, nuanced performance that makes the film really work, but was nearly overshadowed by those fights with its director. About David Lean she wrote:
“He was a frightening, Lear-like figure. He came with this enormous reputation but he wasn’t at the height of his physical powers, and I think he carried a lot of tension because of that. I perhaps didn’t appreciate that fully at the time, probably because I was overly aware of my own inadequacies. So when David tensed up, I tensed up. I’ve never been very good at being snapped at. I went into self-defense mode. It was endlessly fascinating watching Lean and the turmoil he was in. How he tried to dig himself out of it. Entire days’ filming would be cancelled because he’d decide the set needed to be re-dressed. Obviously, he simply didn’t feel ready to shoot that day. It was all very … interesting.“
Davis survived that one to give amazing performances in a string of films by great directors: David Cronenberg‘s Naked Lunch (1991), those crazy Coen Brothers‘ Barton Fink (1991), and Sofia Coppola‘s inventive Marie Antoinette (2006). Davis:
“When I started, I was so hyper-self-conscious, so horrified that what I was doing would be committed to film with somebody else controlling it. What eased those fears is working with people like Cronenberg and Woody Allen. The film is their creature. They know what they’re doing. That’s when I found it doesn’t have to always be a catastrophe.“
My favorite Davis performances just have to be named as the great mannish female writer George Sand opposite Hugh Grant‘s Frédéric Chopin in the astoundingly good, unjustly ignored Impromptu (1991), and her fearless work when she revisited Forster’s world in Where Angels Fear To Tread (1991) with Helena Bonham Carter, Rupert Graves, and Helen Mirren.
Davis is simply delicious opposite Kevin Spacey in the wickedly funny comedy The Ref (1994), portraying a couple whose marriage is on the rocks, with Denis Leary as a thief who counsels them on relationships. There is a palpably maniacal underpinning to most of her characters that reaches dizzying heights in this film. Davis has an innate gift for delivering spiteful dialogue. She and Spacey are the most unsympathetic, insufferable bickering double-act I have ever seen on film. Davis gives a playfully caustic turn in this, one of my favorite Christmas films ever.
Davis has played many real life figures besides Hedda Hopper. She was convincing as Golda Mier in A Woman Called Golda (1982), and I am big on her portrayal of writer Lillian Hellman in Dash And Lilly (1999) with Sam Shepard as author Dashiell Hammett, directed by Kathy Bates; and her icy interpretation of Nancy Reagan in the controversial The Reagans (2003) with James Brolin as Ronnie.
The true Davis career high for me was Judy as Judy in Life With Judy Garland: Me And My Shadows with Tammy Blanchard. Blanchard and Davis both won Emmys for their work, with Blanchard as young Frances Gumm and the Davis as the adult Garland. Davis is astonishing in a powerhouse performance. She gets inside Garland’s skin and captures her mannerisms, physicality, and the spirit of the troubled legend. The whole enterprise is so much better than I would have thought a television film about Garland ever could be, with high production values and strong acting all around. I mean, what Renée Zellweger did to earn our tears in Judy (2019) deserves an Academy Award, but what Davis does is on a whole other level.
Plain and simple, Davis doesn’t work enough. I am not certain if that is the industry or her choice. She stays out of the spotlight. Except for her on set flare-ups, I rarely read about her except in connection with a film. Her project with Kate Winslet, The Dressmaker (2015), was a hit in Australia, but I am not sure if it even played in the USA. That’s why I was so grateful to Murphy’s penchant for finding good roles for women, especially for female actors over 50. Davis is Nurse Betsy Bucket, head nurse at Lucia State Hospital and rival of Nurse Ratched (Sarah Paulson) in Ratched (2020).
If a female having an opinion in Hollywood is considered a liability then Davis is easily one of the most dangerous women. She is a petite, pale redhead, with a trademark slash of red lipstick, she is an especially fine actor even with her reputation for high artistic standards and frank speech. Not unlike that other Davis. She is one of the few actors whose participation in a project is enough for me to want to see it.
Please, somebody find Davis another worthy project! We miss seeing her on the big or small screen. She’s one of the Women We Love!