"There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne," Bette Davis observed airily as she gave an "Auld Lang Syne" clink to Miriam Hopkins in the closing moments of "Old Acquaintance," their 1943 Warner Bros. rematch.
You'll not find such a swank line in John Van Druten's original play, which opened two days before Pal Joey at the tail end of 1940. Jane Cowl and Peggy Wood went at each other hammer and tong for 170 performances at the Morosco Theatre.
That should have been that, but Roundabout Theatre Company has cagily elected to resuscitate the play and recast it with two of New York's most splendid, yet still grossly underappreciated, actresses — underappreciated, if you don't count the Theatre World Award (Margaret Colin for Jackie) and the Tony Award (Harriet Harris for Thoroughly Modern Millie).
This long-time-in-coming revival is most welcome. Otherwise, Old Acquaintance would go down as the second cinematic Davis–Hopkins catfight. Davis' choice for adversary was Norma Shearer (who turned out to be quite sincere about retirement), then Mary Astor (who won an Oscar for a Davis film: "The Great Lie"), but The Boss, Jack Warner, picked — perversely, probably — Hopkins, who had given Davis such upstaging grief in "The Old Maid" four years earlier. Predictably, the two clawed their way through the filming, and that worked rather well for the warts-and-all, through-the-years friendship they were depicting. Indeed, the showdown scene when Davis gave Hopkins the sound shaking she'd always needed drew a record number of set visitors, who were braced for a spinal injury or a detached retina. Late in life, Davis said that, of all the characters she had played, the one that was most like her in real life was Kit Marlowe (named Kit Markham in the play), the clear-eyed, uncomplicated, completely together novelist of "Old Acquaintance." Of course, she seemed all those things sharing scenes with Hopkins, who had the flashier role of her lifelong best friend and nemesis, silly Milly Drake, a better best-selling authoress who did "beach reads" as opposed to Kit's more substantial fare. (Milly's ex and daughter much preferred Kit the substantial.)
Davis' affinity for the role makes perfect sense to Harris, who in 2000 appeared at the American Airlines Theatre in the stage version of another Bette Davis movie. (She opened the theatre, playing Maggie Cutler, the ever-reliable secretary/confidante/caregiver to Nathan Lane's Sheridan Whiteside, in The Man Who Came to Dinner.)
"Like Kit, Bette made a lot of choices to lead the life of an artist," Harris notes, "and she always — whether she was or not — gave the appearance of being alone and independent. I don't think anybody comes close to Bette Davis. She defined everything."
Here, Harris has shrewdly opted for Davis' hysterical tormentor, Thoroughly Old-Fashioned Milly, the emotionally messy one. "She's rangy, unpredictable and very self-interested. That's always fun to play. I love when people's motives are transparent, except to them.
"I have lifelong friends myself, and I've found it hard, at different periods of my life, to cultivate new friends — but I kept the ones I started out with. And boy! There is history. Even if you're angry, you can never successfully separate. It's like cutting off a limb."
Old Acquaintance predates feminism a good quarter-century, so what's really going on here? "Oh, I think it's just a very human play," reasons Harris. "You want your friends to succeed, but, of course, you want to do well as well. You won't allow anybody else to say anything about them, but in exasperation you might. And you want one other person to know how hard it is being friends with this person — yet you would never let them go."
Playing Vera Charles to Christine Baranski's Mame Dennis last summer at the Kennedy Center well-prepared her for this new duel/duet. Her role in Mame — the English actress from Pittsburgh — is usually played arch and angular, but Harris rounded it off and warmed it up to an Una Merkel-type sidekick, always cracking wise but ready with open arms.
"They're similar to these women in Old Acquaintance. The dynamic is much the same. No one outside of these two women knows how important this relationship is. They really do define themselves by how their friends see them as opposed to how their lovers or children or whatever see them. They're twins — and, sometimes, evil twins. They've been rivals and will be again — but boy! When the chips are down, they're there for each other."
You know she's a real actress because, when the call came for Old Acquaintance, Harris was spending all of pilot season in Minneapolis, hustling subscriptions to The Homemaker's Companion at ungodly hours as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. "I wanted to play that part since I was 13. It was one of the reasons I went into theatre, to do plays like this that speak to people and mean something. It's a great thing to do with your life."
She did Menagerie, mind you, "much to the dismay of my perfectly wonderful agents, who said, 'If you really want to do it, then go do it.' These roles don't come along too often, and, in your life, you gotta do it when you can do it and where you can do it."
So what would Bebe Glazer have done? (That's Frasier Crane's gleefully unscrupulous agent she did once a year in the 11 seasons of TV's "Frasier.") Harris gives the question ten seconds of serious thought and says: "She would have blown up the theatre."