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She’s got Bette Davis Eyes

Margaret Jesson and Rita Ann Penhale become Joan Crawford and Bette Davis with their makeup done by Jo Bentley. PHOTO/ESTHER BUNNING

 

A play inspired by the infamous rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is making its Australasian premier in Masterton. And it looks like audiences will be in for real treat, writes Emily Norman.

 

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s rivalry will go down as the most notorious cat fight in Hollywood history.

And the tale of the two silver screen actresses is making its way to Masterton’s Harlequin Theatre in December.

The play, which has never been performed in the Southern Hemisphere, is set in 1962, a time in which the actresses’ rivalry reached a crescendo with the pair appearing on screen together for the first time in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

There was always a bone of contention between Bette and Joan, with the former making her way to the top of the film industry through years of training, accusing Joan of making her way to the top through sex.

“She slept with every male star at MGM, except Lassie,” Bette once said about her rival.

An example of the actresses’ petty behaviour was when Bette had to drag Joan across the floor for a scene in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and so Joan filled her pockets with rocks.

However, the two actresses playing the part of Bette and Joan at Harlequin theatre, couldn’t be more different.

Rita Ann Penhale, playing the part of Bette Davis, and Margaret Jesson, playing Joan Crawford, have been friends through theatre for about 17 years.

“In lots of ways, our roles are reversed in terms of our own personal character,” Margaret said.

“It’s a real challenge because Joan Crawford came up from the sticks, if you like, and she was very poorly educated.

“When she got into movies, she was pedantic about taking diction lessons, so her voice is very modulated, it’s very slow – quite contrary to the way I am.”

Margaret said slowing down her own diction for the role had been a challenge.

“Everything is done with beauty and glamour,” she crooned in a classic Transatlantic accent reminiscent of Hollywood’s ‘golden era’.

“It’s all very measured, very controlled – though, she loses it a couple of times.”

Rita Ann, on the other hand, found it challenging to capture Bette’s a frantically energetic persona on stage.

“I used to wave my hands about a lot when I talked, and so for five years it was drummed into me, do not wave your hands around, keep your hands still.

“Bette Davis never managed to break that habit, she waves her hands about a great deal.

“So, I’ve got to go back to that.”

Bette also made comments that Rita Ann said she would never personally say.

“I might think them, but I would never say them,” she said, laughing.

“The only two things we have in common is she always called a spade a spade, and we both love the theatre.”

From across the table Margaret made a smoking gesture to Rita Ann, prompting her to confess another similarity.

“Oh, Margaret keeps insisting we are alike in our smoking habits, but I don’t smoke anywhere near as many as Bette Davis did,” Rita Ann said.

“Apparently at the end of her life, she was still smoking 100 cigarettes a day.

“I have never managed to go through that many.”

Director, Lynn Bushell said it had been a mission to bring the play to Masterton as it was restricted worldwide “because BBC have an embargo on it in the UK”.

“In fact, it took us several months and we’d actually given up,” Lynn said.

“I’d spoken to the president and everything. I said we couldn’t do it.

“And then two days later, Rita Ann called me up and said, guess what – we’ve got the rights.”

The team have been preparing the Australasian debut officially since getting the ‘go-ahead’ in October.”

“So, it’s been a very truncated rehearsal period on this one, Lynn said.

And because there were only the two actors in the play, both Rita Ann and Margaret have had to learn “quite a lot of monologue” to play the parts of Bette and Joan.

“These women were tough, they had to be to survive,” Lynn said.

“They’re both strong and feisty which means that their angst and vitriol brings some of the most fabulous put downs and one-liners of all time.”

The play, Bette and Joan, written by Anton Burge, brings light to issues of ageism, manipulation and control “which sound all too familiar even today”, Lynn said.

“These women were the original celebrities, and they had this mystique about them.

“The studios promoted them as celebrities, and what they did outside of that was very controlled.

“Not like today’s celebrities where you know what they had for breakfast.”

Bette and Joan, the play, will have its opening night on December 7 at 8pm.

It will run at Harlequin Theatre until December 16.

Tickets are on sale now online at iTickets, or from iSites and The Wool Shed Museum (cash only).

For further information and updates, check out Harlequin Theatre’s Facebook and website.

 

 

 

Interesting fact

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s claws continued to be out for one another for the rest of their lives until Joan died after a heart attack in 1977.

The tragedy did not end Bette’s snarky behaviour however, with her quoted as saying: “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good…Joan Crawford is dead…Good.”

 

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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