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Steve Burbridge In Conversation With . . . Anton Burge

Published by: Steve Burbridge on 28th Mar 2012 | View all blogs by Steve Burbridge


A new critically-acclaimed play lifts the lid on the back-lot bitching between two of Hollywood’s biggest actresses. STEVE BURBRIDGE spoke to writer Anton Burge to find out more.

The long-standing feud between legendary Hollywood screen queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford reached boiling point in 1962 when the pair, who were both experiencing career lows, were thrown together to film a high-risk, low-budget shocker.

The movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, was a surprise hit which propelled both actresses back to superstardom. Davis won her tenth Academy Award for her portrayal of an ageing ex-Vaudeville child star who wages a psychotic reign of terror over her crippled ex-movie star sister (played by Joan Crawford).

Nominated for a further five Academy Awards and an Oscar winner for Best Costume Design, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a mirthful masterpiece of the macabre which is now widely regarded as a cult classic.

Half a century later, the behind the scenes story of the making of the movie forms the basis of a new stage play, Bette and Joan. Written by Anton Burge, it lifts the lid on the highs, the lows, the tantrums and the tiffs between two of Hollywood’s greatest leading ladies.

“People are always fascinated by the confrontations between the two women,” says Anton. “But, as a writer, I also wanted to concentrate on the solidarity that they shared as women in the same boat.”

Indeed, Davis and Crawford were remarkably similar – albeit more in terms of circumstance than personality, as Anton points out:

“Both were born soon after the turn of the twentieth century, though Davis insisted Crawford was four years older, both had married four times, both had adopted children, both had complicated relationships with their mothers, both had been abandoned by their fathers at early ages and both were the breadwinners in most of their marriages.”

Although Davis frequently asserted, “We had absolutely nothing in common” , Burge maintains that there remained a grudging respect between the two.

“While their contemporaries were happy to accept retirement, or the odd cameo part, Davis and Crawford fought on for roles that would make it considered acceptable to have an older woman as the lead protagonist in drama. These two incredible star actresses began a fight that, sadly, continues to this day.

It is apparent that the playwright is intrigued by Davis and Crawford, but his body of work also suggests that it is strong women, in general, that fascinate him. Indeed, he specialises in writing for women, about celebrated women, and has written five further plays including Though I Was A Wonderful Actress, No One Would Engage Me Twice, a study of the Edwardian actress Mrs Patrick Campbell; G & I: Going into Battle With Gertrude Lawrence, a musical spotlighting Lawrence’s war work with ENSA; Fanny’s Burning, about the cookery writer Fanny Craddock; Lady Mosley’s Suite, a study of Diana Mosley’s time in Holloway prison, and Whatever Happened To The Cotton Dress Girl?, a one woman show about Bette Davis starring Paula Wilcox.

I’m fascinated by strong women and older women tend to have led more interesting lives. I’m sure the fact that my parents divorced when I was a child and my mother – an amazing woman – raised my sister and I, has a lot to do with that.”

The casting of Bette and Joan reflects this fascination for strong women, with renowned actresses Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi stepping into the shoes of Crawford and Davis, respectively. So, has a similar rivalry developed between Scacchi and Dobson to that of Bette and Joan?

“I bet if this were a play about two blokes, you wouldn’t ask me that question,” Anton retorts. “But, no, there hasn’t. They both admire each other and they’re in it together.”

Hailed by the critics as funny and sharp, Bette and Joan is making its regional debut in Darlington, fresh from an acclaimed run in London’s West End.

“West End critics can be quite harsh,” admits Anton. “But it’s amazing and very rewarding when you do get good feedback. A couple of people whose parents were involved in the shooting of the film came along and I met the daughter of Lukas Heller, who wrote the screenplay of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, so people were very supportive and I’m hoping that support will continue on the tour.”

Bette and Joan is at Darlington Civic Theatre from Tuesday, March 27 until Saturday, March 31. Performances are at 7.30pm each evening and at 2.00pm (Thursday) & 2.30pm (Saturday). Tickets cost from £20.50 to £25.00, with a special two for the price of one offer available on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings only. Concessions are available at certain performances. To book, call 01325 486 555 or log on to . For additional information visit





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