Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

When I first posted my Bette Davis story in May 2012, I had also considered divulging a little known anecdote about the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford relationship. I decided to save that little tidbit until a later time …. which is now.

This was an experience I consider to be one of the premier acting lessons of my life.

It was no secret that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford detested each other….classic professional jealousies and clashing theatrical vanities. I had not been able to establish any relationship with Crawford during the Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte shoot, but became very good friends with Davis. I had been told that Crawford kept to herself not out of disrespect for her fans, but that she was simply avoiding any chance encounters with Davis who was very “fan friendly.” Crawford was even considerate enough to provide FREE Pepsi Cola products to cast and crew via a vending machine that had been set to dispense without charge. More on this later.

My scene with Davis involved our exiting the house onto the Houmas House porch in preparation of our journey to the sanitarium. She was the first to exit followed by me, her doctor. Before each take on this exit scene she and I would engage in small talk, mostly of a theatrical nature. Upon hearing “Action” the house doors would open and she would instantly assume her character and start her exit. During one take I said to her “I notice that you are able to jump into character instantly when you hear ‘action.’” Then she immediately pounced on that statement with “Unlike Crawford who needs hours to get into character, the pretentious bitch. She’s such a pain in the ass.” Wow!  That was a sobering revelation! She went on to say “That’s why it’s called ACTING. If you know your character, then you simply ACT like the character. It’s not rocket science, which is how she treats it.”

This discussion remained etched in my memory all these years. It was but a few years after that encounter that Ingrid Bergman, on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, said essentially the same thing, but from a very different perspective. She revealed a problem she had been struggling with during the 1944 filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s “SPELLBOUND”. She played the role of Dr. Constance Peterson. A very emotional scene was scheduled to start filming in a few days and she was having trouble depicting her character’s mood in this scene. She finally confronted Hitchcock, saying she was torn between several different emotions, not able to come to grips with how to play it. Hitchcock simply responded with “Fake it, Ingrid”. To Carson she said “That was the best acting instruction I ever had.

OK, back to the vending machine saga. 

Director Robert Aldrich was a Coca Cola drinker. He said he couldn't stand Pepsi. Realizing that Crawford was dispensing free Pepsi Cola products to everyone, Aldrich decided to make this a contest. He had a coke machine delivered to the set and had it placed next to Crawford’s Pepsi machine. He challenged Crawford to a “drink-off”. Both machines were to start with the same number of drinks. In 24 hours both machines would be opened and the machine with the least number of remaining drinks would be the winner. Coca Cola was a hands-down winner. This humiliation became the straw that ended Crawford’s continuance with this production. She became “very ill” and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland.