“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels,” goes the famous quote from an old cartoon. The actress is the subject of a film retrospective at MoMa through March 27. “A sassy woman, a street smart girl, a lady with chutzpah, and dame with integrity… she played them all. She was them all. It is her strength that continues to speak to future generations and to women in particular,” writes Meredith Grau of the prolific actress. MoMA’s lineup honoring the dancing diva boasts several films with multiple starlets who demand the spotlight. Here are other great stories with classic movie divas that go head-to-head when it comes to relationship rivalries, showbiz struggles, and more.
A reclusive, ailing southern belle Charlotte (Bette Davis) was accused of murdering her lover and suffers a lifetime of public disgrace. But terrible family secrets start to surface after she is driven to madness by her wicked cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), who is plotting to steal her money and run off with the local doctor (Joseph Cotten). Davis and De Havilland play delightfully off each other. Of course, the real diva standoff was happening behind the scenes. Joan Crawford was slated to star opposite Davis after the success of their film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but dropped our after a few days claiming to be ill. It’s rumored she told director pal Vincent Sherman, “I’m not sick. I just couldn’t stand working another minute with that Bette Davis.”
In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell play best friends with clashing view on marriage and romance. Lorelei (Monroe) maintains that wealth and security are the only qualities she looks for in a man, as she sings during the film’s famous “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ number. But Dorothy (Russell) is more interested in a man’s physique than the contents of his wallet. So while the two women support each other, Lorelei and Dorothy share a friendly rivalry, competing for husbands that are every bit as shallow as they are.
In this 1936 screwball comedy, a romance between The Thin Man co-stars Myrna Loy and William Powell (as Connie and Bill) develops in spite of protests from Jean Harlow’s Gladys, Powell’s shrewish fiancée. Connie is a socialite who threatens to sue the newspaper that Bill, a lady-killing reporter, works for. To save face, Bill is forced to trick Connie into dropping her suit by making her fall for him — and then uses his aggrieved sweetheart Gladys to break up Connie and Bill’s relationship. Eventually, real chemistry develops between Connie and Bill, making Harlow’s character a hysterically squeaky third wheel, competing for Bill’s attention.
James Mason is the object of Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner’s mutual affection in East Side, West Side, a post-war melodrama co-starring Cyd Charisse and Van Heflin. As wealthy socialite Brandon, Mason must convince wife Jessie (Stanwyck) that he’s loyal to her, while resisting the charms of Isabel (Gardner), a former flame who is convinced that Brandon really belongs with her. East Side, West Side‘s plot twists are charming, but Gardner, Stanwyck, and Mason’s three-way chemistry makes the film a real knock-out. New York Review of Books writer Jeanine Basinger describes the scene in the film where Stanwyck and Gardner confront each other about the affair, which showcases the movie’s talented stars:
When they are done deciding Mason’s fate (the female prerogative), Stanwyck sweeps confidently out the door, and then, alone and rattled, she starts to cry. This was Stanwyck’s famous trump card, her ability to make a rapid shift from tough to vulnerable. This was what you once got for your money from Hollywood: glorious junk enlivened by two fabulous and unique stars who knew what an audience wanted from them and who earned every cent they were paid.
The sororal ties that bind Shirley Maclaine and Audrey Hepburn’s nuns in The Children’s Hour devolve bitterly with time after the two women are accused of being lovers. The gossip tears apart their friendship and creates doubt. In that sense, Maclaine and Hepburn’s characters are only rivals because they’re not sure how to respond to vicious, career-threatening rumors (the two women run an all-girl private school).
Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, and Lana Turner headline this 1941 musical about three aspiring women who compete for the same prominent Broadway role. Garland is naturally the most naive and sincere of the three applicants, but all three women stop at nothing to get their dream job, including jilting lovers James Stewart and Tony Martin. Featuring several classic music numbers, including Garland’s “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” Ziegfeld Girl is a joyful, star-driven delight.
Comedienne Marion Davies tries to win Bing Crosby’s affection in Going Hollywood, a charming depression-era musical. Sylvia (Davies), a French teacher, falls in love with Bill’s (Crosby) voice while listening to the radio. But Bill is already involved with Lili (Québécois vaudeville star Fifi D’Orsay), a fellow actress. Sylvia follows Crosby on his road to stardom and wastes no time declaring her affection for Crosby (i.e. she slaps Lili as soon as she finds out that she’s involved with her man). Come for the musical numbers, stay for the claws-out fighting.
Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, and Katherine Hepburn headline 1937 backstage drama Stage Door, a snappy movie that follows a group of aspiring actresses as they compete for the attention of a wealthy Broadway producer. Terry (Hepburn) and Jean (Rogers) are the group’s most outspoken members, the former being a stiff, upper-class outsider while the latter is a wise-cracking, working-class dancer. Inevitably, the two women bond, choosing solidarity over needless in-fighting. As Jean, Rogers exhibits real dramatic range while playing off of Hepburn’s typically charismatic performance.
Mary Astor fights to protect her husband from a gold-digger in Blonde Fever, a winsome 1944 comedy. Astor plays Delilah, wife of Peter (Philip Dorn), an unhappy café owner. Delilah is Peter’s only hope when his marriage and business are threatened by Sally (Gloria Grahame), a home-wrecker out to get Peter’s money. To save Peter, Delilah hatches an elaborate plan to remind her husband that nobody — not even a delightfully catty Grahame — can take away what’s rightfully hers.
Based on Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s musical, Pal Joey stars Frank Sinatra as Joey Evans, an egotistical womanizer who enters a mutually abusive relationship with Rita Hayworth’s Vera, a rich widow. Joey wants Vera’s money, and Vera wants Joey’s affection — but Joey really loves Kim Novak’s Linda, a Pollyanna-ish chorus girl. Joey remains committed to Vera for his own selfish reasons, hoping she’ll launch his career, but he eventually falls deeper and deeper in love with Linda. This film adaptation is notably different from Hart and Rodgers’s original. While you may want to root for Hayworth’s character, you can’t help but root for Novak and Sinatra, who eventually earn their happy ending.