“[Olivia de Havilland] and Bette commerced their long but ‘peculiar’ friendship.” (Considine, location 2662)
Bette Davis was notoriously difficult to work with. Back in the days of Hollywood when movie stars could be divas and no one seemed to mind, Davis was among the biggest. Her feuds with Joan Crawford and Miriam Hopkins are legendary and even in her later years when she worked with Lillian Gish in 1987’s The Whales of August, she couldn’t reframe from making a caustic observation when the director complemented Lillian Gish on her perfect close up that “the bitch invented them” (I’m paraphrasing here).
However, Davis was also a professional and not unappreciative of the talent she saw in others and there were several Hollywood actresses with whom she was friendly and remained so for most of her life. Ann Southern was one of them and so was Mary Astor. But the one that I consider worthy of discussion when it comes to a Hollywood dynamic duo is Olivia de Havilland.
The two did indeed, in Saun Considine’s words, had a “peculiar” friendship. Not surprisingly, they didn’t exactly start out as friends. Their first film together was the forgotten and forgettable 1937 comedy It’s Love I’m After with Leslie Howard. At the time, both were rising stars and on more or less equal footing as Davis had not yet hit her stride with films like Jezebel, Dark Victory, and The Letter. But by their second film two years later, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, the game had changed. Davis was the star and de Havilland, as Considine points out in his book Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, was “[a] ‘fresh young beauty with a voice that was music to the ears,’” (location 2651) whose star was still rising. The more seasoned Davis watched, probably with a mixture of annoyance and amusement, as de Havilland sparred with director Michael Curtiz when he blew up at her about her demands to finish her obligations at MGM for Gone With The Wind before beginning her role with Elizabeth and Essex. Indeed, Davis later said “she came ‘perilously close to smacking Olivia’s face.’” (As quoted in Considine, location 2657).
But if Davis and de Havilland didn’t exactly have the makings of a dynamic duo when they first met, they made up for it later. Their friendship really began on the set of their second film in 1942 In This Our Life. The friendship blossomed for both professional and personal reasons. Although Considine doesn’t mention it, I read some time ago that when Davis received the script for this film, she wasn’t happy with it and didn’t think it had much merit and, in fact, told de Havilland it was up to the two of them to make something of it. And the film does have merit in many ways, not the least of which was the complex family relationship between Davis’ character Stanley and her unscrupulous but a-little-too-doting uncle William Fitzroy (play by Charles Coburn) and in it’s portrayal of African-American characters. But their collaboration was also off the set. De Havilland had a stormy affair with director John Huston whom Davis knew from having worked with on a previous film and considered “brilliant, but a bit of ‘a macho phony’” (Considine, location 2662). Davis was sympathetic toward de Havilland, listening to her love woes, even when Jack Warner pointed out that their love affair was causing Huston to give de Havilland the better lines and camera angles. Davis quickly remedied that situation but didn’t lose her affection for de Havilland in their later years because of it.
Their collaboration and friendship stood the test of time well into the 1960’s with what is probably their most famous film together — 1964’s campy horror, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It was de Havilland who helped Davis pull a stunt on Joan Crawford that was the pinnacle of their feud. After the success of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? two years earlier, director Robert Aldrich was brave enough to attempt a second film with the two Hollywood legends. But Davis, who was also co-producer of the film, was clearly unhappy with Joan and some say she set about getting her ousted from the film very early on. She wanted de Havilland to take over Crawford’s role as the evil but complex Miriam. De Havilland, who had long since retired from film and was living peacefully in Europe, was none too eager to accept the challenge. It wasn’t only she was enjoying her retirement. She had actually done a horror film in a similar vein the year before called Lady in a Cage and a reviewer from Life magazine made the sarcastic remark, “‘[a]dd Olivia’s name to the list of movie actresses who would apparently rather be freaks than forgotten’” (as quoted in Considine, location 6853). The always intelligent and savvy de Havilland was none too keen about playing another “freak” (though I would argue Miriam is anything but). But Aldrich presented the character to her in light of the more complex character she was and that convinced her that the role was worth doing. The film is, I think, the best collaboration between the dynamic duo despite its camp horror. I find it both entertaining and fascinating to watch the relationship between Miriam and Davis’ character Charlotte unfold in the film.
There were some speculations as to just how deep the friendship between Davis and de Havilland was. Some of the people close to Davis insist the affection was more on de Havilland’s side than on Davis’. Davis’ daughter, BD Hyman insisted they were “ ‘never really that close’.” (As quoted in Considine, location 7131) and Vik Greenfeld, Davis’ secretary, commented “‘[s]ince they were girls at Warner’s together, Bette always had the upper hand, so she … [tolerated] Olivia’” (As quoted in Considine, location 7137). I would point out that while it might be true Davis had had “the upper hand” in their earlier years working together, it was really de Havilland who had the upper hand in 1964 when Davis called upon her help for Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and it was Olivia who accompanied Davis to several award ceremonies and gave her comfort and support when she needed it, especially at the 1963 Academy Awards where Davis not winning the Best Actress Oscar for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Was a huge blow for her . It may be true that de Havilland showed more warmth toward Davis than Davis did toward her but I don’t think we can judge whether that meant that the friendship was less on Davis’ side. In a show for the series This is Your Life done on Davis in 1971 where de Havilland makes a surprise appearance all the way from Paris, Davis insists she always found de Havilland to be a lovely person and there is no doubt about her sincerity and warmth.
Considine, Shaun. Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud. E. P. Dutton, 1989. Kindle digital file.