The stars of the silver screen continue to fascinate. In Bette & Joan playwright Anton Burge takes us back to 1962, to the dressing rooms of two Hollywood actresses who are each hoping a new film will restore their star to its former brightness.
They are Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, once the studio’s most prized signings, but whose careers have floundered in recent years as younger, fresher-faced actresses flirt with studio bosses.
They are played by two contemporary actresses – Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi – who, in depicting their predecessors, prove to the audience at the Arts theatre what Davis tells us: that though women over 40 may find it harder – still – to get work, their abilities are better than ever.
Both are plum roles and Dobson and Scacchi inhabit them with aplomb, though Dobson particularly enjoys herself as Crawford, a former dancer for whom glamour and image play as much a role in her career as the actual job of acting. Davis, by contrast, is a no-nonsense ball-breaker who would happily make herself look ugly if the part required it, sneering at her image-conscious counterpart and deriding her as merely a movie star, not an actress.
It is against this background of contrasting personalities and long-held personal differences – Davis reportedly had an affair with Crawford’s soon-to-be-husband – that Burge’s play is set. It is 1962 and the two women have come together for the first time to film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? For each, it is an attempt to put their career back on track; indeed, the mere fact these rivals have decided to join forces shows exactly how desperate to revive their fortunes they each must be.
The strength of the play is in these characters and the play is at its best when the two interact, exchanging bitchy comments, intentionally annoying each other and revelling in their rivalry. Despite the charismatic performances however, the play is limited in its action; most of it takes the form of a duologue, with each character taking it in turns to speak directly to the audience, gradually, over the course of the play, telling us about their early lives, their route into the industry and their four husbands a-piece.
Nevertheless, his script has some genuinely funny moments, expertly drawn out by the two leads, and the play does provide an insight into the pressures actresses faced from audiences and studio bosses at a time when glamour ruled. Burge also shows that, despite seeming like chalk and cheese, Crawford and Davis had similar aims, they just set about achieving them in a different way. Behind the tough exterior, Davis was vulnerable; behind the sweet-smiling veneer of Crawford was a steely operator who knew what she wanted. Despite the sexist environment they worked in – or maybe because of it – these women were tough operators. “If you don’t, you will never work in this industry again,” Crawford tells her hapless assistant who has so far failed to make the actress’s dressing room the correct temperature, before adding sweetly “Love and eternal thanks.”