Those Dynamic Divas We Loved to Hate

We admired them, we hated them and, at times, we even envied them – those beautiful but dangerous film divas from the 1940s and ’50s who got away with things onscreen few of us would dare try in real life.

Hollywood’s golden era gave us a bounty of sinister grande dames, matriarchs of movieland whose onscreen characters typified treachery and greed. They way they looked, the way they reacted and delivered their lines; tiny, remembered phrases and moments that live in our memories long after the name of the movie has faded. Like the famous party scene in All About Eve, when an agitated Margo Channing (Bette Davis) raises a well-plucked eyebrow and delivers this ominous, often-quoted warning line to her guests: “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

In this film, Davis portrays an aging, egotistical superstar. She was pitted against a young Ann Baxter who played an ambitious, ruthless starlet who would stop at nothing to achieve her goals: art imitating life, perhaps?

bette davis in all about eve, one of the dangerous film divas.
Bette Davis in All About Eve.

Bette Davis was once quoted as saying, “Evil people … you never forget them and that’s the aim of every good actress, never to be forgotten.” I guess that’s why she portrayed so many nasty women in her career: Jezebel (1938), Little Foxes (1941), All About Eve (1950) and Baby Jane (1962) among them.

Davis was at her meanest in Little Foxes. She reaches new highs in cruelty, even for her, when she withholds her dying husband’s medicine and watches coldly as he gasps his last breath, begging her for help.

Decades later, Davis does it again in the hit film,Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? This time, Joan Crawford played her unwitting victim.

But when it came to portraying controlling, possessive, willful women, few could hold a candle to Joan Crawford, who was one-of-a-kind with her imposing, bushy, dark eyebrows and intimidating padded shoulders. Some of her tour de force roles included Queen Bee, Harriet Crieg and Mildred Pierce, for which she won a best actress Oscar in 1949.

According to an unflattering book written in 1977 by Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina, the actress’ life strangely paralleled her move roles. Whatever it was that fueled and inspired this move queen, what she was really like as a wife and mother I don’t really want to know, but I do know that she’s given her fans unforgettable little pieces of time. Anyway, I suspect few of Hollywood’s Oscar-winning divas would win mother-of-the-year award.

Vanity thy name is actress. This story is told of Joan Crawford: one day at the height of her career, after lunching at the post 21 Club, the famous star decided to take advantage of the sunny day and walk home. “But Madame,” her chauffeur protested, “you’ll be mobbed.”

“I should certainly hope so!” Crawford eagerly replied.

When Bette Davis was asked how she liked working on Baby Jane with long-time foe Joan Crawford, she replied: “It was the best time I ever had with Joan; I loved every minute of it – especially when I pushed her down the stairs!”

It is said that during the filming of Baby Jane, Crawford and Davis were referred to as “Bitchy” and “Witchy” by their co-workers. But love them or hate them, their names are synonymous with great films.

joan crawford and bette davis.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

It was called “vamping” in the 1920s, and silent movie legend Gloria Swanson could vamp with the best of them. But when the talkies came along, like so many of her peers, her star faded into oblivion. Swanson made a spectacular comeback, in true Hollywood fashion, when she starred as Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. In the film she portrayed an aging, forgotten star of the silent screen who yearns for a film comeback – art imitating life again?

Barbara Stanwyck was another of Hollywood’s dangerous divas who portrayed strong-willed independent women during her career in films likeStella Dallas (1937), Martha Ivers (1946) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). She surpassed all her previous films for downright treachery as the deadly blonde in the 1944 film noir classic Double Indemnity.

The following year, Lana Turner starred in the spellbinder The Postman Always Rings Twice, a story about a beautiful blonde who murders her husband for his insurance money: recognize a theme here?

lana turner the postman always rings twice.
Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

For more than 40 years, these actresses ruled Hollywood.

I miss those enthralling film stars from the 1940s, and days when I sat in rapt attention at the new Garden Theater, munching popcorn, gripped by a movie plot and watching my favorite film diva do her stuff. It was a good time to be a young movie-goer, a time when an actress could convey steamy passion with a little cigarette smoke and a knowing glance.

There was no television for my generation to watch, no videos or pay-per-view. It’s easy to understand why these 40-foot-tall screen sirens, these bigger-than-life women without rules became such an indelible part of our lives and why the memory of their films sticks with us through the years, touching the wonder of our imaginations and rekindling some of our favorite make-believe moments.

Cookie Curci
Cookie Curci is an experienced freelance writer, born and raised in San Jose, California. Cookie writes syndicated columns across the country, and wrote a "Remember When" column for The Willow Glen Resident for 15 years. Her work has been published in 15 Chicken Soup for The Soul books, and in the series of "Mother's Miracle" books ( Morrow books).She has a short story in the new book "ELVIS", Live at the Sahara Tahoe; has been published in San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury news, Woman's World, Primo magazine, Mature Living, and many websites.Cookie is currently writing for several Italian American newspapers and magazines, they include LaVoce Las Vegas, Amici Journal, L'italo Americano, Life in Italy and Italiansrus.