The original version of this book was published in 1989, but a newly revised version was published in 2017. It contains a couple of new chapters (including a fascinating one about the new cover picture and its story), and a number of pictures from a photo shoot that took place during the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I had never read the original but I am familiar with both actresses and have watched some of their movies (although I didn’t know either of their stories in detail).
This is a fascinating book. It contains information about the lives and the careers of both actresses (including detailed references to the original sources, when the quotes or events narrated where not directly conveyed to the writer but came from other books or interviews), and it uses as sources conversations with the actresses, with co-workers, family members, employees, and also their own autobiographies, and those written about them by others. These two women, from very different origins and whose childhoods were miles apart but who somehow ended up working in the same industry, reached the pinnacle of their careers and became rivals, in the business and in their personal lives. Although I would not say that the book solves the mystery (the two women would at times deny that there was any rivalry between them, and even when they admitted it existed, they never gave a rational explanation for it), it does offer an interesting picture of both of these women, working in a very competitive industry, trying to ensure they got their due and maintained their status. If Joan Crawford was more focused on being a film star (and cultivated that image with her dresses, jewellery, glamour, and self-promotion), Bette Davis always claimed to being the more talented and professional actress of the two (even if the book shares moments when Davis acknowledged her admiration for her rival’s acting skills, although never to her face). Joan Crawford was a consummate self-promoter and public relations (it’s impossible not to think how well she would have fared in today’s Social Media-dominated environment), and created her own persona (perhaps because she did not have a strong sense of identity due to her unhappy childhood), while Davis seemed more sure of herself, and did not always take herself so seriously (although she could be vicious and was not a good sport when she felt threatened). They both managed to do well in an industry dominated by men, and that must have taken a very special kind of person (and personality).
Apart from the captivating lives of the actresses (and there is a bit of everything: promiscuity, terrible family relationships [the daughters of both actresses wrote less-than-complimentary books about their mothers], suspicious deaths, scandals, heavy alcohol use, loneliness, desperation, lost opportunities, adultery, abandonment, bitching…), the book creates an absorbing picture of Hollywood and how the industry changed over the years. The two actresses, who were there from almost the very beginning, reached the height of their careers when the big studios ruled over American cinema, and the book illustrates this well, as both actresses were on long-term contracts with one of the big studios of the era (Crawford with M.G.M and Davis with Warner Bros). We learn, first-hand, what the system was like, both for beginners and for established stars, and experience the changes that came with the end of the studios monopoly, that caught them at a difficult age (good parts for actresses of a certain age have always been scarce), and what those changes meant for them and for the industry at large.
There are plenty of anecdotes, and we read a lot about other people in the industry, about the movies they acted on, and their interaction with others. The book is easy to read, alternates chapters about the two stars, it is full of quotes and lets the stars (and those around them) speak for themselves, with little interference from the author. Although Considine talks about the process of creating the book and he clarifies facts when he thinks he has to (always using his research), the book is not heavy on analysis, it is very amusing and entertaining, and despite the odd repetition of some material (mostly, I imagine, in the additional chapters) if flows well and it feels shorter than it is.
The book might not contain lots of brand-new information for dedicated fans of both stars (although, as mentioned, the author does include his own research and his conversations with the actresses), but it is a treasure trove for those of us who have watched some of their movies but don’t know a lot about them. It is also a very entertaining way of getting an insider’s view of the Hollywood of their time, far easier and lighter than reading historical or business accounts. Furthermore, it is impossible to read this book and not think about recent events and issues of gender-politics that are much more openly discussed these days.
The book is full of memorable quotes and I laughed out loud many times. Although Davis is the sharpest wit, Crawford can hold her own…
‘Sex was God’s joke on human beings,’ said Bette Davis in her memoirs, which led Joan Crawford to suggest, ‘I think the joke’s on her.’
‘Joan always cries a lot,’ said Davis. ‘Her tear ducts must be very close to her bladder.’
‘Guilty? Bette Davis? Don’t be foolish,’ said George Cukor. ‘She is a star, and all stars learn how to cultivate one very important asset early in their career: a very short memory. They remember only what they want to remember.’
I recommend this book to Hollywood aficionados, to fans of both stars, and in general, to people interested in stardom, the movies, and the old Hollywood. Full of juicy gossip, great quotes, newly recovered photographs, and movie anecdotes, there isn’t a dull moment in this book.
(I know there is a recent TV series called Feuds, and the first season is based on this book, with Susan Sarandon playing Bette Davis and Jessica Lange playing Joan Crawford. I have not watched it but I’m very curious about it).
Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
This is the first time I read one of Jane Fallon’s novels, and I’ve realised she has quite a following, and this is not the first novel she writes about revenge.
In this case, we have an actress, Amy, (not a big star, but an actress who has struggled from bit-part to bit-part until she managed to get a regular role in an American crime series. Well, or so she thought) who goes back home to surprise her childhood-friend Mel for her birthday, and she is the one to get a nasty surprise when she discovers her fiancé, Jack, is having an affair and somebody has taken her place. It does not take her long to discover that her supposed best-friend has stabbed her in the back, and rather than confronting both, her fiancé and her friend, she decides to try and get a new life and show them that she can make it on her own, before letting them know she is aware of their betrayal. This creates many awkward and difficult situations and a complex net of lies and deceit that will keep readers turning the pages.
The book is narrated in the first person, mostly from Amy’s point of view (who alternates what is happening in the present with the story of her friendship with Mel), although towards the last third of the novel we also have a few scenes when we follow Mel’s point of view, and that gives us some insight into her plans (more than her feelings, that we don’t know in detail, other than her wish to give Amy’s her comeuppance) and a different perspective on Amy’s relationships. (Sometimes both points of view might alternate in a single chapter, although it is easy to tell them apart).
Amy is a likeable character, although her reaction to the betrayal and her insistence in carrying on with her revenge plans for months and months and dragging others into it (including her friend Kat and Kat’s husband, Greg, two great characters, and Simon, a new love interest she meets when she moves back to London) make her less so at times, and she appears immature and too dependent on Mel’s friendship. Although both, Mel’s current behaviour, and what we learn about the history of their friendship, shows Mel in a very negative light (she is full of herself, self-aggrandizing, self-centred, vain, shows clear narcissistic personality traits, and is jealous of Amy’s good fortune, never giving her any credit and ruining her other friendships), sometimes, when Amy fights fire with fire, she goes so far that we have to wonder if they are not as bad as each other. Eventually, though, Amy has some scruples and there are lines she won’t cross, and it is easy to see that her friendship with Mel has made her doubt herself and lose her confidence. When a friend dismisses everything you do and only uses you to make herself feel better, she is not a friend, as Amy discovers.
There are a number of other characters (university friends, relatives, love interests, agents, etc.) that create an interesting and varied background, and London also provides a realistic setting for the story, from the difficulties of finding an affordable apartment, to the landscape, shops, food, and transportation. I particularly enjoyed the insights into the acting career (that the author has good knowledge of), that go beyond the glamor and big successes we are used to in films and books. Amy is a working actress who has to fight tooth and nail for tiny parts (woman in park, woman in pub), who is no longer young, and who has dedicated plenty of time to the career because she loves it, not because she thinks she will become famous and make it big (most of the time she can hardly make a living out of it). The fact that Mel, who also wanted to become an actress, and who was the more attractive and popular of the two when they were younger, never made it is a particularly nice touch.
The novel is enjoyable, full of lies, deceit, and twisted individuals, but it is a pretty light fare. There is some suspense, but it is not difficult to guess some of the events; there are some pretty funny moments, and some cringe-inducing ones too. Although the book exemplifies a toxic friendship, it is not a treatise in psychology and it is not a guidebook or a serious treatment of the subject (there are true memoirs and books written by experts if you are interested in the topic), but a light revenge novel, whose final message is a hopeful and positive one. Although the character goes through much heartache during the book, she learns from the experience, and she discovers who she really is and who her true friends are. (And, to be honest, she seems to be much better off without Jack, as there does not seem to be much love lost or chemistry between them).
Fallon’s style is fluid and the novel is easy to read and moves at good pace, although I don’t think the main characters will stay with me for long. A solid chick-lit book, set up in the world of acting, and one I’d recommend to those of you who enjoy revenge stories (and might have fantasised about your own).
Thanks to Alex from Pen & Sword for providing me with a review paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
If you have been following my reviews for some time, you will be aware that I have read a number of the historical books published by Pen & Sword. I tend to be more interested in social history and how historical changes affected the lives of those who don’t always figure in the big History treatises. Being a lover of plays and a kin theatregoer, I was very curious about this book. Yes, theatre gossip was intriguing, but getting a sense of what life on the Victorian stage must have been like was my main interest. Although sometimes we discover that life has changed dramatically in a reasonably short period of times, some things do not seem to change much. And human curiosity and the love of gossip are among those things. If Victorians had no access to social media, there were plenty of newspapers and periodicals to keep them entertained, and actors were as much a subject of interest then as they are now.
The author does not follow a narrative or chooses a few big cases in this book, but rather illustrates the sheer amount of theatrical news that occupied the Victorian press of the time, not only in London but also in the provinces. As communications improved, newspapers even started featuring stories about actors in America (either natives or British authors touring there) and although sometimes the features lacked in detail (in some cases a suicide or a death would not feature the name of those involved) they were always after items that would attract the public’s attention. Darby divides the book into three parts: Part 1 deals with the business side of things (including such matters as licenses, libel, bankruptcy, breach of contract…), Part 2 looks at criminal lives (from blackmail and assault to prostitution and murder), and Part 3 delves into the personal lives of the actors (what we would probably consider gossip proper, although not all of it is gossip. The chapter on death and disaster deals with serious matter and also makes us look at security measures and disasters in theatres, bigamy seems to have been much more common than it is today, and personally I was fascinated by the chapter on breaches of promise, as I had not realise that there were laws that offered more protection to women in those circumstances than I would have expected). Each chapter shares both, examples of standard cases of what would usually find its way into the newspapers (brief pieces with hardly any detail) and it dedicates more space to others that were better known, but no single case gets all the limelight. In many ways, this book is like a sampler, where people interested in the subject can learn more and be pointed in the right direction to research further.
The author’s style of writing is direct, and mostly allows the sources to do the talking. She provides sufficient background (on legal matters, the nature of performances, technical issues…) for readers to appreciate the items she discusses, and also some reflections on her own take on the materials. She notes how some periodicals, like The Era, were in a double-bind of sorts, as they tried hard to defend the profession of acting on the stage (that had a pretty bad reputation, especially in the case of women), insisting that actors were honourable and true professionals, whilst at the same time featured “sensational” news to attract readers. Although these days respectability is not a concept many people are worried about, it is true that the press has a hard time trying to reconcile the ideal of protectors of the truth, whilst fighting to keep the attention of the public by any means necessary. Is it possible to keep the moral high ground whilst publishing gossip and innuendo?
Although this is not, perhaps, a book for the general reading public, as I read I kept thinking about how useful this book would be to writers of historical fiction interested in the period (and not only for those considering using a theatrical background in their story but also for those thinking about the press of the time and even society at large) and to historians. Darby provides end notes full of details, both of the sources of her research and also of further information available. Although she mostly uses newspapers, she digs on the archives to confirm details such as names (as many actors and actresses used stage names and some of those were fairly popular) and discovers that Mark Twain wasn’t the only one whose death had been grossly exaggerated (deaths, marriages… were often misreported). The paperback also contains pictures that allow us to put faces to some of the names and help transport us to the era.
In sum, this is a book that will greatly assist writers, historians, and people passionate about the Victorian era and the history of the stage in the UK. It is a good starting point for those who want a general view of the topic and/or are looking for inspiration for their next story or research project. And if you just want to confirm that people’s love for gossip about the stars has not changed over the years, this is your book.
This time of year is when theatre groups, big and small, amateur and professional, experimental or conventional unveil their new season.
I love live theatre. I was even a member of the Vancouver Playwrights Theatre Centre and under their mentorship wrote two plays.
One of the biggest thrills I ever experienced was to have professional actors perform a reading of my one-act play, Harry’s Truth. It was truly mind-blowing to witness other people interpreting my work in ways I never imagined while still staying true to the script.
To celebrate live theatre I’m offering the scripts of Harry’s Truth and End of the Rope free until December 31, 2017 to any individual, drama class, amateur or professional theatre group to read, workshop or produce. Here’s what one reviewer had to say about Harry’s Truth.
“You show the interactions between the five of them and let us have a glance at everybody’s past. A lot gets revealed in every scene. I like the detailed stage instructions and the symbolism in the last scene. One can read Harry’s Truth as if it were a short story. I’d really like to see this play on a stage someday…”
Often theatre groups are inhibited by the price of mounting a production. I will sign off on all production rights during that period and also authorize you to reproduce the copies of the script.
As the reviewer I quoted pointed out, these plays also make entertaining reading even if you’re not a theatre buff.
If you send me an email I’ll forward the website address and the coupon codes so you can download your free e-book scripts of Harry’s Truth and End of the Rope.
If anyone would like to take advantage of this offer I’d love to be involved as a script consultant or in any other aspect (no, I won’t pay to produce the production). Who knows maybe I’ll even come and see it.
Stay calm, be brave, watch for the signs.
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00SD6LEU