Tracy-Ann Oberman: Playing the diva

“I didn’t want to be in this,” admits Tracy-Ann Oberman. “I’d suggested Catherine to the producer, I thought she’d be brilliant. But I didn’t want to be in it at all, so I was a bit nervous when the producer came to me and said Radio 4 would really like me to be.”

Oberman is talking about Bette and Joan and Baby Jane, her new play for Radio 4 which documents the bitter struggles between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the making of Robert Aldrich’s classic 1962 psychological movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.

Davis is played by Catherine Tate, a long time friend of Oberman’s (they performed together in the second series of the BBC2 comedy sketch show Big Train), with the role of Crawford taken by Oberman herself.

The interview is taking place just after a full-scale photo shoot promoting the play and the pair have been dressed in the iconic make-up and costumes from the film.
It is quite disconcerting to discuss Davis and Crawford with a woman who, her trademark blonde locks secreted under an impressively accurate wig, looks for all the world like Blanche Hudson, albeit one tucking into a chicken salad and sipping mineral water in a photographic studio in west London.

Somewhere in the background, Tate mills about in the pallid make-up and blonde ringlets that made Davis’ character all the more sinister. The subject matter of the relationship between the two Hollywood actresses is clearly close to Oberman’s heart.

“I’ve always been a massive Bette Davis fan,” she says. “I love all her films, especially Now Voyager. But one of the first films I ever saw of hers was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and I just loved the gothic, grotesque quality of it. It’s genuinely frightening and brilliant, and that lured me in to Bette Davis and I really became obsessed with her.

“And then the more I learnt about her, the more I realised how much antipathy there was between her and Joan Crawford, who I had never liked, I have to say, ever since Mommie Dearest [her daughter Christina’s memoir, published in 1978].

“I really hated her, thought she was nothing like my Bette. Then I realised that they were in this huge, 40-year feud at the point where they made this film. And what I think made this film is the genuine hatred that Bette Davis had towards Joan Crawford.”

That Oberman is passionate about the subject matter is evident. “God, I’m sorry, I can bang on for hours,” she says with a smile, and it has clearly fuelled her desire to tell the story behind the iconic film. “I wanted to de-campify it, if that makes sense, to claim it back and make it more believable and real.

“I think that fantastic as they are, these two brilliant gay icons, they are almost larger than life and diva-like. I wanted to try to show what was going on underneath.

“I said to Catherine, I don’t want an impression, we can’t do impressions of these two. But I sent some links… for her to listen to Bette and I listened to Joan, so we could get a flavour of them without impersonating them.

“I think the thing with Bette was that you would start off hating her, but by the end you grudgingly respected her because she just wanted everybody around her to be a perfectionist.

“Whereas everybody started off loving Joan because she was just so terribly kind and gracious, but actually, probably deep down, was the real monster.”

Stories about the events behind the scenes of the film have passed into folklore. Tales abound of Davis kicking a prone Crawford in the chest and head so hard that she broke several ribs and required stitches. In retaliation, Crawford sewed weights into the lining of her dress.

“Bette kept saying, ‘Please mind my back, dear’. And with the weights sewn in, they did the scene in one take and as the director shouted ‘cut’ Bette slumped to the floor, having slipped two more discs. And apparently, Joan… well, I slightly invented Joan stepping over her body, going, ‘Excuse me, dear’.

“But I found a lot of sympathy for both of them. This is a monstrous business and I think in Hollywood at that time it was more monstrous than ever. They were worked like pack horses, and God knows where they had to go, what they had to do to get where they were. You worked bloody hard to get to that point and you sold your soul to the devil a million times over.

“But once you got into that inner sanctum, you were given riches and power beyond imagining. And once you had that, you wanted to hold on to it and you had to fight. These women had to fight, particularly Bette. She fought to make that career, she took them all on. And Joan, in her own way, did as well. They gave their lives, their hearts and their minds for the industry.

“And at the point we’re meeting them for the film and for this play, it was kind of over for them. They could not believe that they were being treated this way and were having to tout for work. They were poor, had made bad investments, their marriages had failed, they were lonely women who had given up their lives for an industry that could not love them back.”

The reasons for the start of the actresses’ feud are shrouded in rumour, Oberman says. “Was it because when Bette first came to Hollywood, she was told she wasn’t a Joan Crawford, she wasn’t sexy and yet she had come from the stage, she always felt that she was a better actress. She called Joan ‘the mannequin from MGM’. She never saw her as a proper actress.

“And then there was the other rumour that Bette had been in love with Franchot Tone, her leading man. He had also come from the New York stage and he was the one leading man in Hollywood that she truly looked up to and admired. She thought they were intellectual equals and that there was a genuine love between them.

“And he went off and married Joan Crawford, who, in Bette’s words, ‘slept with every leading man in MGM bar Lassie’. Or was it plain jealousy, that Joan was a star, very beautiful and sexy, while Bette was always seen as ‘the actress’?”

There certainly seems to be much on which to base a radio play, so much so that the staging itself needed to be simple, she says.

“Just these two women in their dressing rooms, talking. I wanted to make it as simple as possible. There is a little bit of re-enactment of the film, but a lot of it is in reported speech.

“The other thing is the way those two spoke. They were used to 40 years of people listening to their voices. So they speak in these great big speeches, which gave me room to expand, particularly on radio.”

While Oberman has a long track record on stage and television (including playing Chrissie Watts in EastEnders and a prominent role in the 2006 series of Doctor Who) she is something of a Radio 4 mainstay. “Over the years, I’ve probably done about 600 comedies, sketch shows and dramas,” she estimates.

This, however, is her first radio writing commission, and her first solo writing credit after the 2007 stage drama Three Sisters on Hope Street (co-written with Diane Samuels).
The drama is being produced by CPL Productions, the production company formerly known as Celador and known for making shiny floor shows including All Star Mr and Mrs.

It is one of four radio drama commissions won by the company under Radio 4’s new batch commissioning regime. Other radio productions in the pipeline include a Ronnie Corbett sitcom.

Directing and producing Bette and Joan and Baby Jane is CPL’s Liz Anstee, a veteran radio hand who, along with experienced radio writer David Spicer, helped Oberman through the writing process.

The challenge of having two hats on the production was something she says she relished. “Every time I wasn’t in a scene I’d run into the box where you hear it being recorded so I could hear the performances and give notes. And then when it was my turn I’d have to go in and put my acting head on. But it was fine, I really trusted the team.”

After this project, Oberman intends to continue writing as well as acting. She is co-writing a television project with fellow EastEnders alumna Kacey Ainsworth, and there have been discussions about whether Bette and Joan and Baby Jane will have a life beyond radio, potentially as a stage play.

Of the balance between writing and acting, she says that “the two will always go hand in hand. Acting will always be a passion, but creating this work has been very interesting. Seeing this thing come alive from a little spark in my head, and during the recording hearing the play come to life has been just amazing.”

* Bette and Joan and Baby Jane is on Radio 4 on Thursday, April 29 at 2.15pm

Originally published in The Stage

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.