What Ever Happened To Comebacks? Bette & Joan Get Reviewed


Though their infamous film became a surprise hit, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford never made it back to the A-list. So what happened after the reviews came in?

Last week’s episode of Feud dealt not with the filming of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, as much of the season had so far, but with the aftermath of the picture. It was no surprise that audiences and critics alike were anxiously awaiting the stars’ tandem return to the screen- tabloids could hardly leave them alone, and the theatrical release was set to be historic.

Much of the anticipation could be attributed to a phenomenon we now know as “hate-watching,” wherein the consumption and certain disapproval of a piece of art is the reason to engage in it.

And just from the small bits of cultural engagement we saw throughout Feud, it was clear Baby Jane was set to be a hate-watchable tour de force. The women were set up for failure, and unfortunately, didn’t do much between them to combat the sexist system that framed them as desperate, old hags grasping for their last chances at stardom.

So when the film was released to rave reviews, the women were as shocked as anyone. And, as last week’s episode showed us, they’d been so long forgotten and so unprepared for success that dealing with the aftershocks of a hit became somewhat untenable.

The Hollywood Reporter’s review of the film from 1962 describes the two women like this:

"“Miss Davis plays with all the baroque technique at her command, which is unmatched by any other actress. The part has no shadings, except an occasional horrible coyness, but Miss Davis sustains it by sheer will. Miss Crawford plays her scenes of cajolery, panic and despair with supple skill. Between the two actresses, it is a confrontation of tremendous personality, and a standoff for honors.”"

And a standoff it became. Though we’ll see much more of the continued feud in the context of Oscar season in upcoming episodes, it’s clear even in the most recent installment that Joan’s refusal to accept Bette’s (arguably superior) skill as an actress contributed to her post-Jane downward spiral. But awards aside and with feuding put on the back burner, BOTH of the women, who’d taken these roles in order to regain respect, show their worth even as “old broads,” and restart their once shimmering careers, received no offers for future work.

They both had to continue to fight for jobs. They both fought with their agents over their lack of success, and lamented the work that wasn’t being done on their behalf. They both, even after a veritable smash hit, couldn’t convince the public, the studio heads, the critics, or their agents that they were worthy, that they were valuable, or that they were stars. And so it seems even in their attempt to serve themselves when no one else would, the men in charge still got the honor and the glory, and all they got were more doors. Doors which, even if they forced opened, would have hoards of folks on the other side, inexplicably, ready with locks.

Next: Feud: Bette and Joan Episode 4 Recap: “The Feud-ture Is Female”

As Feud continues, and the women’s individual and shared downfalls continue, it’s important to keep in mind the systems that were, and undoubtedly still are, put in place to keep women from succeeding. It’s not that they’re not good enough. It’s not that they didn’t try hard enough. It’s not that they didn’t have an audience, or any appeal, or enough clout. It’s simply that they were women, no longer young as they once were, and there was not a space for them to visibly exist within the culture. Or rather, there was a space. But the men made sure it was never filled.