The stories behind the biggest Oscars scandals and Hollywood fights
As the annual love-in that is the Oscars draws closer for this year, time to remind ourselves what really makes Hollywood tick: pure hatred.
The film industry has seen its fair share of long-terms spats between actors and actresses, which have gone on to be played out in the public eye and on set. History has shown that these clashes can be caused by a variety of reasons; a lack of professionalism, working with a love rival, or just a general dislike of their opposite number.
From Bette Davis to Roman Polanski, the best in the business have found themselves in arguments which have escalated into more than just a war of words.
Ahead of the 2021 Oscars, here’s our celebratory look back on some of the biggest costar squabbles of yesteryear.
Bette Davis vs Joan Crawford
The grand dame of Hollywood feuds, the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford sparked legions of camp behind-the-scenes stories, a litany of bitchy one-liners and its own TV mini-series starring Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon.
It is believed that the feud began over actor Franchot Tone, who Davis reportedly fell madly in love with on the set of 1935’s Dangerous. Unfortunately, Tone only had eyes for Crawford, especially after he accepted an invitation to her home and found her completely starkers waiting for him. They married soon after.
In the meantime, the tabloids played up the pair’s rivalry, particularly when they both began competing for the same roles at Warner Bros Pictures. The pair would go on to work together on the cult classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? On set, Davis reportedly kicked Crawford in the head, while Crawford stuffed rocks into her clothes to make it harder for Davis to drag her limp body around during filming.
In 1962, Davis was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her work in the film, devastating a snubbed Crawford. But, in revenge, Crawford contacted every other Best Actress nominee, volunteering to collect the award on their behalf if they were unable to attend the ceremony. Hilariously, an absent Anne Bancroft ended up winning the Oscar, with Crawford striding to the podium to collect it in her place.
The pair would almost work again, on the horror picture ‘Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte’, with Davis installing a Coca Cola vending machine on set to infuriate Crawford, who was married to the CEO of Pepsi at the time. Crawford went on to drop out of the production due to ill health and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. Davis didn’t quite believe her sickness however, and hired a private eye to trail Crawford around the streets of LA.
In the end, it was Davis who got the last word on the feud, saying upon hearing Crawford had died: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say the good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
Bette Davis vs Tallulah Bankhead
Oddly, Bette Davis owed much of her screen success to her other arch nemesis Tallulah Bankhead, playing three separate characters that Bankhead had originated on stage: in The Little Foxes, Dark Victory and Jezebel. It has also been speculated that Davis lifted much of her haughty persona from Bankhead, who was similarly famous for her put-downs and bon mots.
While Bankhead’s career declined in comparison to Davis’s rapid ascent up the Hollywood ranks, she was often said to have been deeply resentful, often cracking jokes about Davis in industry circles, despite supporting her publicly.
When rumours began to swirl around Bankhead’s drinking, she went to the press, proclaiming of Davis: “Don’t think I don’t know who’s been spreading gossip about me. After all the nice things I’ve said about that hag. When I get hold of her, I’ll tear out every hair of her moustache!”
Olivia de Havilland vs Joan Fontaine
The feud between famous siblings Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine may have been exacerbated by their mutual Hollywood success, but their rivalry in fact started much earlier. As children, both sisters competed for their mother’s attention.
It was Olivia who found fame first, becoming the frequent costar of Errol Flynn, and hiring Joan as her personal chauffeur. Joan, meanwhile, was attempting to find her own success, but had to turn down a contract at Warner Bros on the warning that it was “Olivia’s studio”. She also was barred from using her surname de Havilland, with Olivia worried it would confuse the marketplace. So Joan took her stepfather’s surname instead.
The sisters had an on/off relationship from there, with Joan claiming that Olivia only got her role in ‘Gone with the Wind’ after she, the first choice for the part, had been turned down for being “too stylish”. Joan additionally made a crack about one of Olivia’s husbands, creating a further rift. The siblings would also snub each other when they both won their first respective Oscars.
Their mother’s death would also cause issues, with Joan supposedly not hearing of the passing until 2 weeks after and claiming that she also wasn’t originally invited to the funeral. They were subsequently sat far apart from one another at industry events, and it has never been confirmed as to whether the pair officially made up by the time Joan died in 2013.
Orson Welles vs Peter Sellers
On the set of the the bizarre James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the tension between Orson Welles and the kooky Peter Sellers got so bad that the pair refused to film scenes together, with their big roulette table set piece cut together using editing trickery.
Sellers was already unhappy working on the film prior to Welles arriving on set, having hoped to play his role straight rather than for laughs. But the actual source of their feud has been heavily disputed over the years. Some claim that Sellers was intimidated by Welles’s professional and physical stature, and requested that his dialogue be rewritten to “outshine” his rival.
Others have claimed that Sellers was often boasting about his friendship with Princess Margaret, and loved nothing better than introducing her to fellow celebrities as his good friend.
“The fact that Princess Margaret was stopping by every day at my house was unknown to Sellers,” Welles once said. “One day she came to the set to have lunch with Peter, or so he claimed. He couldn’t wait to tell the cast and crew who he was dining with. Then she walked past him and said, ‘Hello, Orson, I haven’t seen you for days!’ That was the real end. That’s when we couldn’t speak lines to each other. ‘Orson, I haven’t seen you for days!’ absolutely killed him. He went white as a sheet, because he was going to present me!”
Elizabeth Taylor vs Debbie Reynolds
When Elizabeth Taylor’s husband Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash, she sought constant comfort from movie star Eddie Fisher, despite him being married to her old friend Debbie Reynolds. As a characteristically brilliant Carrie Fisher wrote in her memoir, Wishful Drinking: “Naturally, my father flew to Elizabeth’s side, gradually making his way slowly to her front. He first dried her eyes with his handkerchief, then he consoled her with flowers, and he ultimately consoled her with his penis.”
Within months, tabloids reported the pair were having an affair, with Reynolds ambushed on her doorstep to answer questions about the state of her marriage. A defiant Taylor even released a statement to the press claiming the marriage was already over: “Eddie is not in love with Debbie and never has been… You can’t break up a happy marriage. Debbie and Eddie’s never has been.”
Unusually for elaborate movie star rivalries, this one had a happy ending. The pair accidentally reunited while on a cruise ship and went to dinner, where they slowly mended their old friendship. Debbie, after all, had long blamed her husband for the affair.
“If your husband’s going to leave you for anyone, it might as well be Elizabeth Taylor,” Reynolds later said. “She was beautiful, smart, and a very sexual woman and I was very different—not exactly a sex kitten. I told [Eddie] she’d throw him out eventually and that’s exactly what happened. But he wasn’t the brightest of men.”
The pair later worked together on what would become Taylor’s final film, the 2001 comedy These Old Broads, which just so happened to be written by Carrie Fisher.
Tony Curtis vs Marilyn Monroe
When asked what it was like kissing Marilyn Monroe – widely regarded as one of the most desirable women in history – Tony Curtis famously responded: “It was like kissing Hitler”.
While Curtis and Monroe had been lovers before shooting Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot, Curtis’s feelings towards the archetypal blonde bombshell had apparently undergone a sharp about-turn by the time they both starred in the 1959 comedy, with some sources suggesting that he was fed up with her on-set behaviour and constant demands for retakes.
“She’d gone funny, her mind was all over the place,” he later said.
But it’s not all depressing news: some sources suggest that the “Hitler” comment may have simply been intended as a joke, after Curtis became frustrated by pointless press questions.
Billy Wilder vs Marilyn Monroe
Potentially not a real “feud” as one party was slightly out of it the entire time, but director Billy Wilder was reportedly exasperated by Marilyn Monroe while working on Some Like It Hot.
Monroe was frequently late to set, and notoriously struggled to remember her lines. One scene, which called for Monroe to open drawers and proclaim “Where’s the bourbon?” was only successfully filmed after 59 takes. Monroe repeatedly goofed the line, saying “Where’s the bonbon?”, “Where’s the whiskey?” and “Where’s the bottle?” that Wilder pasted the line to the bottom of the drawer she had to open. When Monroe struggled to remember which specific drawer Wilder wanted her to open, he pasted the line to the bottom of every one of them.
At the time, Wilder joked, “We were in mid-flight, with a nut on the plane.” He also said: “The question is whether Marilyn is a person at all, or one of the greatest Du Pont products ever invented. She has breasts like granite. She defies gravity. She has a brain like Swiss cheese – full of holes. She arrives late and tells you she couldn’t find the studio, and she’s been working there for years.”
However, his position on the icon softened in his later years: “She was an absolute genius as a comedic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comedic dialogue,” Wilder recalled. “It was a God-given gift. Believe me, in the last fifteen years there were ten projects that came to me, and I’d start working on them and I’d think, ‘It’s not going to work, it needs Marilyn Monroe.’ Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.”
Sir Laurence Olivier vs Marilyn Monroe
The unconventional pairing of Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier, both using each other to advance their careers (Monroe wanted to work with an acting legend, Olivier needed a hit movie), turned out to be a disaster of epic proportions on the set of The Princess and the Showgirl.
Monroe, immersed in method training and struggling through a marriage to playwright Arthur Miller, was rarely on time, holding up production and infuriating the British star.
“It was evident that Marilyn was going to be a problem for Larry on the film,” wrote the film’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff in his memoir. “Most actors will come on the set and chat, but she would never come on the set. She went through so many agonized times with Larry because he was, to her, a pain in the arse. She never forgave him for saying to her once, ‘Try and be sexy’.
“Marilyn had this ghastly obsession with method acting and was always searching for some inner meaning with everything, but Larry would only explain the simple facts of the scene. I think she resented him. She used to call him ‘Mr Sir’, because he had been knighted.”
Olivier reportedly always spoke of his disdain for the actress, even years after they worked together. Their feud later formed the backbone of the 2011 biopic My Week with Marilyn.
Frank Sinatra vs Shelley Winters
While Frank Sinatra’s charms typically worked on any woman in his vicinity back in his prime, there was no love lost between him and his Meet Danny Wilson costar Shelley Winters. In fact, they absolutely loathed each other. The pair reportedly argued repeatedly through the filming of the musical, with one fight becoming so bad that Winters reportedly punched him in the face.
They even insulted each other in the press, Sinatra calling Winters a “bow-legged bitch of a Brooklyn blonde,” while she labeled him a “skinny, no-talent, stupid Hoboken bastard.”
Speaking in the Eighties, Winters said: “Talk about Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde! He can scare the hell out of you, but he’s also very generous and kind. One night at the Burbank Airport, we had a long scene, and it was a picture where he didn’t get the girl, and that’s very tough for Frank.
“We had this terrible fight and it ended with us screeching at each other, and he said something terrible to me like, something about a Brooklyn blonde dumbbell, and I said, ‘Oh you Hoboken idiot’, stuff like that. Classy. And I thought his make-up man was gonna shoot me and he was gonna hit me or something, but he got in his limousine and went away and hit Ava Gardner, I think, who he was going out with.”
Frank Sinatra vs John Wayne
According to tabloid reports in 1960, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne nearly came to blows in the car park of a benefit dinner after Wayne condemned his support of a blacklisted screenwriter. Sinatra had hired writer Albert Maltz to script his film The Execution of Private Slovik, despite Maltz previously being jailed for refusing to tell a congressional committee whether he had associated with Communists.
Onlookers told journalists that Sinatra and Wayne “argued bitterly” at the fancy event, after Sinatra confronted him over his anti-Maltz comments in the press. “You seem to disagree with me,” Sinatra was reported to have heckled at Wayne, who initially attempted to flee the scene before being drawn into a volatile argument.
Wayne later told the press that the fight didn’t happen, saying “There was no trouble at all. I like Frank. Frank was the backbone of the entertainment that evening. In fact, he kept the show going.”
Faye Dunaway vs Roman Polanski
Water is wet, the sky is blue, and Faye Dunaway is something of a handful. But you’d be hard pressed to find many who wouldn’t be in her corner when it comes to her notorious feud with her Chinatown director Roman Polanski.
The pair frequently clashed on set, with Polanski treating his leading lady with disdain. Deciding a stray hair was ruining his shot of Dunaway, he calmly walked over to her and yanked it out of her head.
“The friction between Roman and me began from the start,” Dunaway has said. “During the make-up test Lee Hermon, who was my make-up man, finished his work and Roman came by to check it. He wasn’t happy – he wanted me paler that I already was, though my skin is extremely pale to begin with.
“Instead of explaining what he wanted, he started striding around saying, ‘No, no, no! I want it like this.’ And he grabbed the powder and began covering my face with it. The effect was awful, but his methods were worse. I came away from the encounter thinking he was a bully. I think what he did to me throughout the film bordered on sexual harassment.”
He also refused to allow her toilet breaks, leading to one particularly infamous urban legend that, exasperated, she was forced to urinate into a cup and proceeded to toss it in Polanski’s face.
But what you should never, ever do is ask Dunaway whether the incident actually happened. Poor Xan Brooks of The Guardian attempted to get to the bottom of the rumour back in 2008, and got a cup full of rage tossed in his own face in retaliation.
“I won’t respond to that,” she told Brooks. “That doesn’t even deserve the dignity of a response. I don’t know the details of that. It is absolutely ridiculous. This from the Guardian? I don’t believe it! It is insulting that you would even bring it up! I am a lady and you were completely insulting. My God. I turned down the Mail to do this!”