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The real story behind Hollywood's most infamous feud.

The year was 1963. John F Kennedy was still president, a gallon of milk cost you 49 cents and the Oscars were a slightly smaller affair. Albeit, hosted by Frank Sinatra.

Joan Crawford swept up on stage to rapturous applause to accept the Best Actress Oscar. Wearing a baby pink, low-back gown covered in chandelier-style jewels, she beamed down at the faces of her fellow Hollywood stars as she approached the lectern.

Listen: The story behind Hollywood’s biggest feud. 

Bette Davis, her co-star in that year’s box office hit What Ever Happened To Baby Jane, watched on from the audience, no hint of a smile on her face.

It should have been her on that stage, not Crawford.

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Crawford with Sophia Loren at the Oscars. Image: Getty

It's not a matter of opinion - Davis was the one nominated for the coveted award. Crawford, jealous that her co-star - and arch-nemesis- had upstaged her, called every other actress nominated for the prize and offered to accept it on their behalf should they be unable to attend on the night.

And so, when Anne Bancroft's name was announced as the winner for her turn in The Miracle Worker, it was 59 year old Crawford - not even nominated - who gave the acceptance speech and walked away ecstatic with Oscar held firmly in her hand.

"It would have meant a million more dollars to our film if I had won. Joan was thrilled I hadn't," Davis later commented.

It wasn't the first Oscars to bear the brunt of the intense rivalry of former Hollywood heavyweights Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, nor was it the first (or last) time one had gone out of their way to hurt or undermine the other.

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"I wouldn't piss on her if she was on fire," Davis reportedly said of her arch-rival. Indeed, the fuel for the fire between the two ageing starlets started much earlier than all this.

Crawford, born in 1904 in San Antonio Texas as Lucille Leseur, started in Hollywood as a dancer, before her own self-promotion strategy made MGM sit up and take notice, casting her in her first role in 1925, the silent film Sally, Irene and Mary.

It was 1928's Our Dancing Daughter where she played a flapper that really cemented her position as a star.

Davis, born in 1908, made a name for herself acting on Broadway, before making the switch to Hollywood in 1930.

However it wasn't until two years later when she signed with Warner Bros that her career really started to take off. By the late 1930s (one legal dispute and one Oscar for her performance in Of Human Bondage later) Davis was the studio's most profitable actress.

The makings of the feud that exploded during the filming of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane likely stemmed from the inevitable competition Crawford and Davis felt competing against each other for similar roles, as each vied for the unofficial title of Queen of Hollywood.

Both earned reputations as being difficult to work it, while neither were particularly good at befriending their female co-stars. Davis later claimed their "talk bored her to tears".

Throw in a suspected love triangle and it's no surprise just how poisoned their 'relationship' became.

Franchot Tone

The man in question was Franchot Tone, a stage actor from New York who had appeared alongside Crawford first in 1933's Today We Live, followed later that year by the hit Dancing Lady with Clark Gable and Fred Astaire.

Crawford was reluctant to get into another relationship so soon after her divorce from first husband Douglas Fairbanks, but the couple soon became an item.

In 1935, Tone starred with Davis in Dangerous, during which the actress was said to have fallen for him.

In the book Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, author Shaun Considine alleges that Tone equally loved working with Davis which may have nudged Crawford to wed him shortly after filming wrapped.

Franchot-Tone
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Image: Wikipedia

"[Crawford] took him from me. She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness," Davis said in an interview with journalist Michael Thornton in 1987.

Davis won the Best Actress Oscar for her part in the film, but Crawford reportedly resented Tone paying even the smallest amount of attention to his co-star.

Considine says that Tone "leapt to his feet as Bette passed by and embraced her," while his wife made a comment about her dress "with dripping sarcasm".

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Davis circa 1940s. Image: Everett Collection

After four years in which Crawford spent trying to further Tone's Hollywood career, the actor allegedly began drinking and becoming physically abusive. Their divorce was granted in 1939, although the pair later rekindled their friendship in the years preceeding Tone's death in 1968.

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And the Oscar goes to...

The rivalry between Crawford and Davis was not helped by their choice to accept - or decline - certain roles offered to them. In 1945, Davis refused the title role of Mildred Pierce, which went to Crawford who won an Academy Award for her performance.

Just two years later, Davis was unable to appear in Possessed, which had been tailor-made for her as she was pregnant and went on maternity leave. Crawford once again picked up her role and was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.

Then came a twist with more than hint of schadenfreude.

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Crawford and Davis had an intense rivalry. Image: Getty

In 1952, Davis filmed The Star which earned her one of her 11 Oscar nominations. The film told the story of a washed-up actress eager to launch a comeback and was presumed to be inspired by Crawford, written by a former friend.

Davis confirmed this rumour to Playboy in 1983.

But underneath this jealousy was a desperate need for approval. In 1943, when Crawford left MGM for Warner Bros, which was also the home of Davis, she sent her flowers.

"She wanted [Davis’] approval, but Bette brushed her aside. She had no patience with her,” said Sandford Dody, ghostwriter on Davis’ 1962 autobiography The Lonely Life. Davis reportedly felt Crawford, the former 'glamour girl', was nowhere near her league when it came to being a serious actress.

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Listen: Laura Brodnik and Tiffany Dunk explain the very biggest moments from TV this week.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Fast forward to 1961 and the careers of both former Hollywood heavyweights were waning. The pair were middle-aged and in desperate need of a hit - and something with a little more material.

"I was bored out of my skull. And I needed the money," Crawford later said.

The needed vehicle arrived in the form of horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, the story of a demented former child star who holds her crippled sister captive.

Crawford was the first to sign on, but was well aware she needed a strong co-star to make the film the career-reviving hit it needed to be.

So the 58 year old flew to New York and asked long-time professional and personal rival Davis to take the part. For whatever reason (likely the same as Crawford's) she said yes.

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A still from the film. Image: Warner Bros.

Director Robert Aldrich believes both were aware of how important the film was to their careers. "It's proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly," he said.

That doesn't mean everything was smooth sailing though. Far from it. Which is little surprise perhaps, that Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy chose this particular period to start Feud: Betty And Joan, his new drama series charting the battle between the starlets, played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange.

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The series reenacts one scene where during a press conference for their contract signings, Davis sits at the best seat at the table to ensure her name would appear first in the photo captions.

Crawford quickly stood to her left, thereby nabbing first spot.

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Sarandon as Davis and Lange as Crawford. Image: FX

Crawford was also devastated to discover that Davis' contract was signifiantly more than hers - $60,00 plus $600 per week living expenses, according to Considine.

The subtle digs continued on set.

Davis installed a Coca-Cola machine in her dressing room purely because Crawford had been married to Pepsi CEO Alfred Steele.

According to the New York Post, she also spontaneously kicked her co-star in the head during a fight scene.

Crawford, knowing that Davis had a bad back, wore a lead-lined weightlifter's belt under her costume for a scene in which Davis was required to drag her across the floor in response.

"The best time I ever had with Joan was when I pushed her down the stairs in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane," Davis later said.

The horror film revitalised their waning careers, but not even that could reunite the pair  - as evidenced by the 1963 Oscar's debacle.

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Image: Warner Bros.

"I almost dropped dead when I didn't win," Davis told the LA Times, adding in her 1987 memoir This 'N That, "Moments later, Crawford floated down the hall, past my door. I will never forget the look she gave me. The look clearly said, ‘You didn’t win, and I am elated!’ "

It was perhaps cutting off her nose to spite her face.

"The rule of thumb was that an Oscar winner usually added at least a million dollars to the box office receipts of a film," Davis revealed later.

"Since Joan and I each had a percentage of the movie, how Medean, how foolish she was to work against my winning."

Following the film's success, the studio wanted more and signed the duo on for 1964's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Crawford left just two weeks into filming citing illness although most believe it was more to do with not wanting to be upstaged by Davis yet again.

It was however clear the feud did not die when Crawford did, following a heart attack in May 1977.

"You should never say bad things about the dead, only good... Joan Crawford is dead. Good," Bette Davis reportedly said.

Safe to say Feud: Bette and Joan is one show not short on material.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sunday March 12th at 8:30pm on Showcase, Foxtel.

Will you be watching?

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