Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bette vs. Miriam, Bout of the Divas: Meow


About a year ago, I wrote a short piece on the legendary feud of two legendary Hollywood actresses, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Since then, I have expanded this forum and also, delved deeper into the abyss that was the Davis/Hopkins relationship. Bette was infamous for her battles with certain co-stars, male (paging Mr. Flynn! Mr. Errol Flynn!) as well as female (calling Joan Crawford!), but they seemed to pale in comparison to her feeling for Miriam Hopkins. Their’s was a deep seeded, long standing rivalry, which began even before either woman made a single movie.

Round 1
In 1928 both young actresses were in a stage production on the east coast called Excess Baggage. Both were part of a repertory acting company headed by director George Cukor, although at this point, unlike their future film pairings, Miriam, not Bette, was the big cheese. Hopkins also made leading lady status in Hollywood long before Davis, with star turns in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Design for Living (1933), among other notable films of the early 30’s.



Round 2
In 1933, Hopkins starred in Jezebel on Broadway. It was the story of a tempestuous Southern belle (a part tailor made for the real life Southern spitfire) in the era before the Civil War, ala Scarlett O’Hara. The play was unsuccessful, running only a few dozen performances and closing after a month. Not only did Miriam star in the play, but she was part owner of the rights to it. When Warner Brothers studio showed interest in the story as a vehicle for its rising star, none other than Miss Bette Davis, Hopkins balked, refusing to sell the rights unless the deal included her in the lead role of Julie, which she had originated. In order to obtain the rights, she was given the impression that she would be cast, so when top brass gave the plum part to Davis, Miriam was livid. To add insult to injury, Bette won her second Oscar for her performance in Jezebel. The story goes that Miriam cried.

Round 3
In late 1938, with her career in somewhat limbo, Hopkins signed a two picture deal with Warner Brothers. The first film under her new contract was the historical melodrama The Old Maid (1939), based on an Edith Wharton story. In the film, she played second lead to guess who….Bette Davis, Warners reigning queen supreme. But neither actress was a shrinking violet and there was tension aplenty on the set, with director Edmund Goulding at the helm. A studio memo summed up the stressful situation when it relayed, “…Goulding has a tough job on this picture with these two girls. Not that they want to cause him any trouble or worry, but each one is fighting for a scene when they go into it…”

Davis had fought hard with the studio to get where she was professionally, and she wasn’t about to take guff from her rival. But Miriam certainly tried to get a rise out of her at any opportunity. On her first day on the set, Hopkins wore an exact duplicate of the dress Davis had worn in Jezebel. Davis reflected on this time with Hopkins in her autobiography with the following observations: “Miriam used and, I must give her credit, knew every trick in the book. I became fascinated watching them appear one by one…When she was supposed to be listening to me, her eyes would wander off into some other world in which she was the sweetest of them all. Her restless little spirit was impatiently awaiting her next line, her golden curls quivering with expectancy."



Warner Brothers publicity department took full advantage of the dueling divas and played up their feud to boost ticket sales for the upcoming film. They even went as far as to circulate a photo of the actresses in full costume with boxing gloves on, ready to duke it out, with director Goulding looking resigned between them. (above)

Round 4
During the making of The Old Maid, Hopkins was married to director Anatole Litvak. Litvak had directed Bette Davis in her follow up film to Jezebel called The Sisters (1938), and Miriam suspected the two were having an affair, but Davis was too taken with her Jezebel director, William Wyler, at the time to look at Litvak. However, reportedly Litvak and Davis DID have a short affair during the filming of All This and Heaven Too in 1940, but by that time the director and Hopkins had already divorced.

The Old Maid was excellent box office, and Warners signed Miriam on for another spin with her nemesis in 1943 to make Old Acquaintance, the story of two childhood friends/rivals who spar incessantly over men, career, and a child. The romantic yarn was perfect for the pair, but wasn’t without its backstage fireworks. Edmund Goulding was again slated to direct but had a heart attack shortly into the production. Knowing the emotional state of the set and the stress Goulding had been under with the two high maintenance queens, studio head Jack Warner jokingly accused him of having the heart attack on purpose. At 40, the dew was off the lily for Miriam, and when production wrapped on Old Acquaintance, she sold her house in California, packed her bags and went back east to the stage. When she returned to Hollywood, it would be in character roles over half a decade later.

19 comments:

  1. I adore both these actresses. I feel sorry for Miriam, though. She was a good actress even though she is not often remembered.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I never knew this! Thanks for enlightening me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Interesting as usual, Rupert.

    Just finished reading "The Clark Gable and Carole Lombard Murder Case" in which Hopkins had a small, but shall we say, trampy, role. Then again, the author certainly played with the facts. (Made it all the more interesting, tho!)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great stuff, Rupert. I love Davis (probably my favourite actress) and Hopkins together in both 'Old Acquaintance' and 'The Old Maid', and find it odd that there is so much warmth between them on camera when they couldn't stand each other in real life - watching either of those movies, I'd swear they were the best of friends! I also think Hopkins is underrated - love her in 'Jekyll and Hyde' and 'The Barbary Coast', and would like to see more of her work.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Davis upstaged everyoen with those stunning eyes and that raw and persistent talent i think the reason that there was a feud between them is because Miriam was not confident enough with her own self and talent so she decided to steal the scene of her fellow colleagues/companions but we all know tha davis was the best not only that other actresses envied her unlimited talent and that she got were she got with talent not using beauty or sleeping with fellow directors or actors they were scared of her talent and her fierce personality that led to win 2 academy awards for best actress and 10 nominations although it says that she should of won 1 more academy award do to a miscount of votes but BETTE DAVIS #1 SHE WAS A MASTER at showing her emotions through those big eyes and no one can be compared to such genius such petrifying talent.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Miriam Hopkins never was of the caliber of Bette Davis. She served as an excellent foil, but nothing else.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I love them both! I think the fact that their feud is not noticeable on screen speaks volumes about the talent of both actresses. I agree that Miriam Hopkins is highly underrated and tragically almost forgotten. I also agree that Bette Davis was a far superior actress. I recently saw Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte for the first time and I was completely blown away by her performance! An amazing talent!!!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I love them both too, and together it's like electricity! The two films they made together are great and I really wish they could have made more (though I might have a bit of sympathy for the director chosen to undertake them) :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hopkins wasn't done with Old Acquaintance. Then there's the story in 1949 when Hopkins is playing Olivia deHavilland's aunt at Paramount in "The Heiress," while Davis is rebelliously finishing out her Warners contract in "Beyond The Forest," one of the ones she'd later claim she was forced to do.

    When "Heiress" succeeded and "Forest" tanked, the story goes, Hopkins, with a little malicious glee, sent Davis a telegram with words to the effect that it was better to be No. 2 in a winner than No. 1 in a loser.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Never was much of a Hopkins fan until I recently saw Temple Drake and she was good in that.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The photo of the two of them in boxing gloves is worth a million words! Actually, it's priceless.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Very interesting article. I feel sorry for Miriam Hopkins. She hasn't a chance against Miss Davis. who just takes over that movie "The Old Maid" right after the first scene. She never gives it back.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hopkins was under utilized. She would have excelled at playing the cunning vixen that Davis played in The Letter, Dangerous, and many others. That being said, Davis had an uncanny understanding for every part she played. Her role in Of Human Bondage is an example of this connection to ther character.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hopkins was fantastic in lighter roles in movies like The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise. Of course she wasn't the complete actress Davis was; she was the greatest.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Just saw Miriam Hopkins in "These Three" the other night on TCM with Merle Oberon and Joel McCray. Wow! What an actress. Bette Davis is also one of my all-time favorites.
    I'm sorry but Hollywood today has NOTHING like these actors of old. Long live TCM.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hollywood!!! Hopkins was a very classy lady that had a figure to do a lot more justice to all the dresses that she wore than Davis ever did! Bette used those
    Scarry eyes for a lot of things I'm sure!! I loved them both...

    ReplyDelete
  17. Not surprised to hear about this feud. Bette had her bouts with several actors during her very long career. During the filming of "The Whales of August", Fish was asked about doing a close up. Davis replied, "She invented close ups". Atta Girl my lovely Bette.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I have watched Dr Jekyll and Mr hyde several times and in my opinion Miriam should have been nominated for best actress. I also love Fredric March.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Bette Davis as Baby Jane "But you are Blanche! You are in that chair"! CLASSIC

    ReplyDelete

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails