Poetic Versus

The buzz about Batman v Superman is mostly bad. So join our writers in recalling cinematic rivalries that were more memorable, more poignant, more fierce and more strange.

Joan Crawford v Bette Davis
by Sarah Slade

For Joan Crawford, merrily shagging her way up the Hollywood ladder and back down again, being a movie star was all about the image. A ruthless self-promoter, Crawford became a celebrity first, causing F Scott Fitzgerald to call her the “best example of the flapper”.  Her birth name, Lucille LeSueur, wasn’t considered starry enough, so the readers of Movie Weekly were invited to choose a new one. She married Douglas Fairbanks Jr, the nearest thing to Hollywood royalty, and worked hard to lose her Texas accent so that she could play the lady. As the star aged, she acquired a total of five adopted children and peppered the movie mags with pictures of the family in matching outfits, having birthday parties, visiting the studio or ‘relaxing’ in their lovely home.

By the time Bette Davis obtained her part in Dangerous, Crawford was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Bette Davis trained in theatre, was fearless, ruthlessly perfectionist, and not above taking the studio to court over her contract conditions. She regarded Crawford as an animated clothes horse. But there were plenty of other clothes horses around at the time, why pick on Crawford, whose star was on the wane while Davis’s was rising?

Some say that the bisexual Crawford made a play for Davis, which a horrified Davis rebuffed. Davis certainly wasn’t shy about commenting on Crawford’s sexuality in later years. The sources all agree that the problem started with Franchot Tone, the leading man on Dangerous, a suave, upper middle class theatre actor who planned to use his Hollywood earnings to finance a theatre group back East. However Tone had recently become engaged to Crawford, but the still-married Davis was, according to reports, smitten with him. There were rumours of Crawford discovering them together but in the end he married Crawford.

All through the 1940s and 50s, the rivalry simmered but rarely broke out in full-on hostilities. That is, until both began work on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The journalist Hedda Hopper interviewed them for the Los Angeles times in 1962 and the principal bone of contention seems to be who discovered the story on which the film was based. Davis claimed that she had recommended the book to Alfred Hitchcock while Crawford claimed: “I came across Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, I sent it to Bob Aldrich and told him it was for Bette and me.”

The film itself plays up to the rivalry in fine gothic style. Davis is a malicious former child star, still dressed like a 1930s moppet with ghastly pancake make-up. Crawford is her crippled sister, also an actress. There were tales of on-set pranking and violence; of Crawford making herself deliberately heavy in order to exacerbate Davis’s back problems. Davis ‘accidently’ kicked Crawford in the head during a fight scene. An attempt to reunite the pair in 1964 foundered when Crawford allegedly feigned illness on the set of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte to escape persecution by Davis.

So who won in the end? Up to the publication of Mommie Dearest, I’d have said the unfailingly ladylike Crawford with the hand-written notes and thoughtful gifts that Davis despised so heartily. But Mommie Dearest, whether true or not, painted her as a driven alcoholic, unable to love or be loved, hiding behind the carefully constructed facade of her happy Hollywood family, and this portrait almost completely eclipsed her career. In the end at least you could say that Davis was honest about her demons, tackling them and anybody else who fancied a fight with all the grace of an angry, saucer-eyed lioness, in the open, with nails.

Apollo Creed v Rocky Balboa
by Charlie MacLean

Rocky-and-Apollo-02

When Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Creed and Apollo “I’ve got kids to feed” Creed first beat the everloving shit out of each other it was 1976 and walking around with a rubber ball all day long wasn’t a sign of someone dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome, it meant they were an everyday guy with enough quirkiness and lovability to get people onside, even though they looked like a socially anxious horse. They were different times, when an actual honest to goodness lummox who threatens people for a living could be a hero. Now you need three degrees and a couple of diseases to get anyone to care.

But even then, in those simple times, a hero needed a villain, otherwise he was just someone going around promising he’d be heroic the minute someone got up his nose. Rocky needed a rival, someone to punch in the face, and handily Apollo “I can never be bothered to watch Children in Need” Creed was there to oblige. Like all the best rivalries, it was born in contempt, travelled quickly through respect, contempt again, angry gesticulating in wheelchairs, more contempt, more respect and finally not-gay beach racing so by the time Apollo “I can never decide what to read” Creed was punched to death by a Russian steroid in 1986 they were both rivals and friends. Not lovers though. No. The beach thing was just homosocial bonding at its most intensely physically enjoyable.

So who won? The first fight, over fifteen rounds of magnificent cartoon brutality was edged by Apollo “I loved Sandra Bullock in Speed” Creed. The second, over fifteen rounds of magnificent cartoon brutality was won by Rocky. And of course, there is the mysterious fight at the end of Rocky III, of which we are permitted to witness only the two of them hitting each other at the same time like the idiots they are. It stands at one each then with one outcome unknown: an honourable draw and the perfect end to the perfect rivalry/friendship.

Except, no. The whole thing has been soured. Ruined. Tainted. Because the real decider wasn’t in the ring, it was out there in the sunshine, on that beach in Rocky III, where Apollo “Come on officer it’s just a bit of weed” Creed tried to teach Rocky how to run faster so he would be fast enough to knock out Mr T. If you can tear your eyes away from the epochal horror of Carl Weathers in the croppiest of crop tops, you will see that Apollo “I’ll dance with another man but only if I lead” Creed throws it. He allows Rocky to beat him. It is the only explanation because Sylvester Stallone sprinting at full capacity does not generate much of a breeze as he goes by. He is going hard, that is for sure. His head is bobbing, his arms are pumping, his legs are driving into the sand as if they hope to strike oil but it is all for nothing because no speed is generated. His efforts seem to take place in an entirely self-contained system, removed from the physical laws the rest of us obey. Newton would have watched him and thrown all his work in the bin. This is not a fast man. And yet, he won. And Rocky and Apollo “The best legal drama? Judge John Deed” Creed frolic in the waves like happy puppies all covered in muscles and oil. It is a shameful spectacle. A great rivalry, among the best in all of cinema, destroyed by one man’s desire to help his friend believe in himself. Appalling.

Miss Trixie Delight v Addie
by Helen Archer

Madeline-Kahn-in-Paper-Moon

Don’t get me wrong – Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 film Paper Moon is a remarkable achievement from beginning to end. Beautifully shot by cinematographer László Kovács, the script, by Alvin Sargent, is a work of genius, each and every performance a joy to behold. Yet it is Madeline Kahn’s turn, in a short yet luminous appearance, that raises the film to the sublime, her relationship with her young rival Addie (Tatum O’Neal) filled to the brim with glorious moments of both bittersweet humour and extreme pathos.

At the heart of the pair’s rivalry is, of course, the contest for the affection of a man. Addie and Moze (Ryan O’Neal), who may or may not be her father, are busy bonding while grifting their way through Kansas and Missouri during the Great Depression, when Moze meets Kahn’s character, the fabulously monikered Miss Trixie Delight. Our first introduction to Trixie is unseen – she baby-talks Moze through the door of a hotel room, as nine-year-old Addie, smoking a cigarette, listens on in disgust, eyes narrowed, her ever-active brain going into overdrive.  When Trixie invites herself along for the ride, accompanied by her maid Imogene (PJ Johnson), Addie immediately sees the the threat Trixie poses to her relationship with Moze, and resolves to remove the would-be usurper by any means possible.

While Miss Trixie has entranced Moze, it is up to the laconic Imogene to fill Addie in on Trixie’s less charming side – describing her employer as “just like that little white speck on top of old chicken shit”, Imogene further confides “I tried to push her out a window once in Little Rock”. When Addie asks, “She put out much?”, Imogene replies “Just like a gum machine. You drop some in and she’ll put some out.”

And yet Trixie is not some one-dimensional, gold-digging floozy. Her nuanced self-awareness is demonstrated in one of the finest monologues in film history, as she tries to cajole Addie, who has flounced off in a huff after being denied the front seat, back into the car. Expertly delivered, Trixie veers from flattery and enticement to impatience and anger, and ends with a plea for mercy: “You’re going to to ruin it, ain’t ya? Look, I don’t want to wipe you out. And I don’t want you wiping me out, y’know? So I’m gonna level with you, okay? Now you see, with me it’s just a matter of time. I don’t know why but somehow I just don’t manage to hold on real long. So if you wait it out a little, it’ll be over, y’know? I mean, even if I want a fella, somehow I always manage to get it screwed up. Maybe I get a new pair of shoes, a nice dress, a few laughs…times are hard. Now if you fool around on the hill up here, then you don’t get nothing, I don’t get nothing. You don’t get nothing.”

Trixie understands only too well the short shelf-life she has in which to secure her future, the limits of what she has to offer, and how quickly she can become surplus to requirements. You can’t help but root for her – even Addie cannot suppress a smile as she gives up on this particular battle, though the war is far from over. Pretty soon, Addie will prevail, her con-artist skills honed so finely that she can see Trixie off by way of a scam involving just a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a willing desk clerk

And so Miss Trixie is banished. The viewer can only mourn her passing, while being deeply grateful that, just for a little while, she was able to “sit up front with her big tits”.

Alien v Predator
by Mr Moth

AvP
This is what Scientologists actually believe

I’m not entirely sure why the Alien of the Alien franchise and the Predator of the Predator franchise are obvious mortal enemies. Because they’re both from space and aren’t very nice? Predator films exude gruff machismo, glorifying the honour of the warrior. Alien films have picked that idea apart, pitching frail, unprepared people into a desperate fight for survival against a foe without humanity. Aliens specifically detailed why warriors are rubbish against them. Maybe that’s the appeal. People failed, maybe these unstoppable Rastafarian crab-soldiers can take them down?

That’s not the real reason, of course. The real reason is that the conflict was willed into existence by excitable nerds. A comic series, boosted by a throwaway joke in Predator 2 – a film so sweatily tedious even Gary Busey at maximum bazooka can’t save it – ignited a series of “What if..?” scenarios that just won’t leave popular culture alone. More comics followed, videogames, novelty condoms and, eventually, inevitably, a film.

And who got to direct it? Why, it’s the idiot’s idea of a geeky genre fan, Paul WS Anderson! This means AvP is stuffed with ostentatious but ultimately hollow references to the earlier films, from catchphrases and set designs to specific shots. In the middle of all this, two franchises are smashed together by Anderson like a child playing with action figures.

In the end, it’s not much of a film. There’s a lot of von Dannikenish guff about ancient civilizations, the Predators breeding the Aliens just to give themselves something to do, and pyramids that reconfigure themselves For Some Reason. It doesn’t feel like an Alien film, it doesn’t feel like a Predator film… it doesn’t even feel like a blend of the two. The Aliens are broadly comic now. The Predators are a bit shit at fighting. There are a lot of unintentionally amusing moments, like the Predator and the film’s female lead Sanaa Lathan running out of the mist in slow motion in a manner strongly reminiscent of Del Boy and Rodney as Batman and Robin, or the Predator having to communicate his respect for her through a series of infomercial-level head tilts and nods. In the end, you wonder if a better, less generic film might have been made of this. I’m not sure, personally; this is a beef between two franchises, not personalities. Generic is all it can be.

Edward v Jacob
by Emma Street

twilight2

Sometimes the rivalry between two characters can’t be contained within the fictional universe in which it originated and it spills out into the real world. People get so invested in two not-real people competing against one another that they set up Facebook groups, don badges, buy customised t-shirts and write reams and reams of questionable fan-fiction. Because when it came to whether lanky, glum seductress Bella Swan should hook up with vampire, Edward Cullen or permanently shirtless werewolf,  Jacob Black, Twilight fans really cared.

It was a pointless endeavour, the whole Team Jacob/Team Edward business. (Well, obviously it was a pointless endeavour. People who don’t actually exist don’t really need anyone to fight their corner) but it was especially pointless because Bella was always going to choose Edward.

It didn’t matter how many times Jacob tried to persuade her to abandon her difficult and occasionally-disappearing-for-half-a-book undead lover and hook up with him instead. He could trot out reasoned arguments like “Well your Dad actually likes me” and “Your boyfriend is technically a corpse, you know” and “Hey, guess what I’ve never done? Killed a bunch of people.” and “Edward looks like a total twat when he sparkles” until he was blue in the face. Bella didn’t care. Her love for the pretty-boy blood-sucker was always going to triumph. It was destined to be. Written in the stars, that sort of thing. They were just like Romeo and Juliet. Better in fact. Because when (spoiler!) Bella dies at the end of Breaking Dawn Part 1, it’s a lot less of a bummer than when (another spoiler!) Juliet stabs herself at the end of Romeo and Juliet. Death in Twilight-world is less about endless oblivion and more about waking up with shiny new super powers and excellent hair.

So even though Jacob and Bella may have shared a few anguished snogs, the teenage werewolf never stood a chance as Bella’s Happily Ever After.

Luckily, when it came to finding true love, Jacob did get an interesting runner-up prize: Bella and Edward’s daughter, Renesmee. Which definitely wasn’t weird. I mean, sure, it sounds weird – a grown man falling in love with a newborn infant – but in Stephanie Meyers’ universe, it’s totally normal and non-creepy werewolf behaviour. The stupidly-named child’s own father was OK with the arrangement and he has the ability to read people’s brains so, you see, it was definitely fine.

Basically, all the over-invested Twilight fans were worrying about nothing. Bella may have been on Team Edward all along but happily things turned out swimmingly for both our boys. It was a win for both Team Hundred Year Old Multiple Murderer and Team Beastly Pre-Pubescent Child Fancier. Hurrah!

Robert Mitchum v Cary Grant
by Kate le Vann

Grant v Mitchum

Robert Mitchum was put on this earth to lead women astray. In films like Rachel and the Stranger and Holiday Affair he lets them know their man doesn’t deserve them, and offers a bedroom-eyed, thick-bodied alternative. In The Grass is Greener, he is millionaire Charles Delacro, ‘accidentally’ wandering into Lady Hilary Rhyall’s private rooms on a public tour of her stately home. (Those eyelids! He always seems to be looking down the length her body.) Hilary (Deborah Kerr) and Charles have ten full screen minutes to fall for each other – it feels very long – and their conversation is playful but not all that sparkling (the rest of the film is really funny). He says it’s love, but it looks like lust. Still – and this is one of the film’s themes – does it make that much difference?

Cary Grant isn’t the kind of rough, thoughtless husband Mitchum usually embarrasses. As Victor, Lord Rhyall, he’s attentive, suggestive, and the way he tells Hilary he loves her you know he tells her all the time. But as soon as he knows he’s losing her he starts coming to dinner in pyjamas, making fun of the tameness of marriage. He bumbles around looking for the Bible and the Racing Times, being deliberately banal and boring (there’s nothing funnier than Cary Grant being boring) – but then little touches show Hilary how well he knows her, like the way he lights the match that swoops to meet her cigarette.

Eventually, Victor packs Hilary off to London to have the damn affair. In a risqué montage, we see Charles’s and Hilary’s empty restaurant tables, empty theatre seats, a riverside picnic they’ve abandoned, the back of the bedroom door. Back home, Victor is consoled by his flirty friend, Hattie (Jean Simmons).

The actors knew each other well (it was the third time working together for Grant/Kerr, Mitchum/Kerr, Mitchum/Simmons, Simmons/Kerr – and Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum were also real life lovers!) so it feels quite like that Christmas episode of The Good Life where they almost get off with the wrong husbands. There are rivalries beyond Charles and Victor’s — the usual US/UK bants, and Kerr (dressed by the Queen’s couturier, Hardy Amies) and Simmons (in couture Dior that’s halfway between to-die-for and Demi-Moore-at-the-Oscars) have an Elizabeth-Princess Margaret vibe. Hattie lets slip that Victor was once in love with her, and he’s cheated on Hilary. So the message is this: love can come as a coup de foudre, but it doesn’t only happen once, and it isn’t bigger than the rest of your life. Sometimes it goes wrong even when no one’s to blame. Be nice, because it’s easiest to be in love with nice people, and if you’re nice enough, your wife might even be able to resist Robert Mitchum.

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One thought on “Poetic Versus

  1. “MAD”‘s satire of “Rocky III” pretty much summed up his beach running:

    “What’d you clock me at?”
    “Nine, two!”
    “Nine point two? Gee, that ain’t bad for 100 yards!”
    “That’s the DATE! You LEFT on September 2nd!”

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