Sunday, June 20, 2010
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.