The more things change, the more they stay the same. Now that Baby Jane has wrapped, Bette and Joan are both dismayed to discover that roles for “mature” actresses are still few and far between. Plus, rumor has it that the movie stinks, and its stars are further tainted by association.
Bette’s been reassigned to a junior agent of not quite 23. He encourages her to take gigs in TV, or even, may God strike this man down, in dinner theater, which he insists has become “chic” again. In what cold, miserable alternate universe was dinner theater ever chic? And Joan is back where she started—if she wants work, she’ll need to find it herself. She fires the entire conference room’s worth of William Morris agents that (theoretically) work for her. Bette chooses a more theatrical method of revenge, placing a classified ad in Variety seeking “steady employment in Hollywood.” (Yes, she really did do this. Petty Davis is my forever queen.)
Bob Aldrich, who’s convinced the movie is a bomb, considers the imminent sneak preview a “public execution.” But his assistant Pauline is more optimistic, reminding her boss that the moviegoing youth grew up watching Davis and Crawford in their classic films on TV.
Pauline isn’t just optimistic. She’s ambitious. She drops by Joan’s house not to see the grande dame herself, but to talk with Mamacita, her housekeeper. She’s written a script with Joan in mind. The Black Slipper follows a choreographer wrongly convicted of shoving a dancer off a catwalk to her death, only to take over the part herself when her name is finally cleared. (I wish very much that this were a real movie.) Pauline has come straight to Joan’s “right-hand lady” to get her advice on how to convince Crawford to sign on. But here’s the thing: Pauline wants to direct it herself, in an era when women directors are all but unheard of. Mamacita nevertheless thinks this is a “marvelous idea,” an embodiment of the American dream, and agrees to pitch Joan the picture.
At the Baby Jane preview screening, which Bette chose to skip, Joan wallows in boozy self-pity. But the movie proves to be a surprise hit, standing ovation and all. As Joan descends into the lobby, someone shouts, “It’s Joan Crawford!” A crowd of enthusiastic young people gather around her with their autograph books open. Bob mouths “bravo” from across the room. If Crawford were any more thrilled, her heart might explode out of her chest and spray gore all over Mamacita’s glasses.
“Boffo Box Office for ‘Baby Jane’” trumpets Variety. Lines for tickets wind their way down the block. But the sweetness of this success quickly sours for Joan, who’s furious that it’s Davis’ performance that’s getting all the critical attention. Hedda Hopper—wearing four necklaces and, by my count, six discrete fake flowers plastered asymmetrically to her head—assures Crawford that the audience is rooting for Blanche. Besides, the Academy “wouldn’t dare” recognize Bette and not Joan. We’ll see about that.
Jack Warner is delighted with the profit the picture’s turning. He wants Aldrich to direct more movies based on the same formula (namely, “two broads beating the hell out of each other”), but Bob refuses to take on any projects that don’t “challenge” him.
Joan, too, has very specific ideas about the kinds of movies she will and won’t do. She witheringly shoots Pauline down, giving her the script back. “I did you the courtesy of not reading it… I see no reason to venture an opinion on something I have no intention of doing,” she says. (This is how I plan to respond to all emails from now on.) Joan says that women directors got work in the age of silent film because those pictures were cheaper to produce. Now that there’s big money involved, the powers that be won’t take the chance. “I’m not turning you down because you’re a woman,” Joan explains to Pauline, “I’m turning you down because you’re a nobody.” (By the way, in case you’d forgotten about the 1978-set interviews with the likes of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell that frame Feud, yes, those are still intermittently happening, although I’m still not completely sure why.)
Jack Warner comes by Joan’s house to chastise her for failing to promote Baby Jane. Joan—who’s so tipsy she can hardly stand—accuses him of championing Davis and not her for Best Actress, and worse, for thinking her Baby Jane costar has more talent than she does. Warner denies the former allegation but matter-of-factly cops to the latter. “But your ass is nice and your tits aren’t sagging,” he tells her. Gee, thanks, Jack.
Bette, meanwhile, is eager to embrace her stardom, perhaps for the first time ever. In a baby-blue sequined dress, she sings “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” on The Andy Williams Show (watch the real-life performance, too). After seeing Bette on The Jack Paar Show (I’ll just leave this here), Joan drunkenly calls her up to harass her. Bette reminds her costar the success of Baby Jane is equally hers; Joan tells Davis to enjoy herself “half as much,” then.
Pauline gives Bob her script, and she’s pleasantly surprised when he agrees to read it and consider producing the film. “It’s a new world, Pauline,” he says.
Bob goes to visit Bette on the set of Perry Mason, where she’s taping a guest spot (believe me, the clip is worth watching for her wig and fur alone). But she’s still not getting movie offers. She’s found a script she wants Bob to direct—a story about twin sisters, and she wants to play both parts. He’s not interested, but promises to write her “another big fat fucking hit.” She’s far from convinced he will.
Bob is busy: He’s directing Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in a western comedy, 4 for Texas. If you’re thinking, “Well, surely Feud won’t have Frank Sinatra show up as a character,” then I have no idea what show you think you’ve been watching. Frequent Ryan Murphy collaborator Toby Huss has been enlisted to trot out his delightful Ol’ Blue Eyes impression. Bob follows Sinatra around the golf course to question his ridiculous costume requests (cream suede boots, linen pants, gold silk ascot) and notes on the script, which call for beautiful actresses to give him foot rubs. But Frank has exactly zero fucks to give. Aldrich may want to make a statement about the values that shaped the American West, but as far as his star is concerned, this movie is “saying nothing but tits and fistfights, and me looking like a real cool daddy.”
On set, Frank’s misbehavior escalates wildly. He calls Bob’s daughter a “stupid bitch” when she feeds him a line, threatens to decapitate the director and bury him in the desert, then flies off to New York without warning. Guess the tension between those two old broads don’t seem so bad now, huh?
Jack Warner knows that both the Sinatra movie and Sinatra himself are trash. So he makes Aldrich an offer he can’t refuse: If Bob agrees to shoot one of his so-called “tales of old hags” and bring the script to Bette, in exchange, Warner will release the shitstorm that 4 for Texas will inevitably prove to be. “Do you think I have the potential for greatness?” Aldrich asks him. “No,” answers Jack “Keeping It Extremely Real” Warner without hesitation.
Pauline is offended when she discovers that Bob used her script as scrap paper to take notes on. Overwhelmed and overworked, he snaps at her: “No one’s going to let a woman direct a picture. You’re in fantasy land.”
Mamacita treats Pauline to pie and Pepsi (she’s nothing if not loyal, even when she’s meeting people behind Joan’s back). Pauline says she’s decided to “live in the real world” and rethink the scope of her aspirations. Mamacita, a new citizen, produces a U.S. census report that was possibly purloined from a library reference book. She tells Pauline that the national sex ratio is shifting in favor of women, who have recently begun to outnumber men. Before long, Mamacita encouragingly predicts, “Studios will have obligations to make half of stories about women. By women. For women.” If only, Mamacita.
A hungover Joan awakens to find the phone on her bedside table off the hook. Actually, all the phones in the house are off the hook. Their blaring tones echo around her as she walks downstairs.
Joan had asked Mamacita to wake her up early, because they announced the Academy Award nominations that morning. Mamacita tells her to sit down. From outside the beautiful, seemingly peaceful house, we hear Joan emit a bloodcurdling—if not quite Oscar-worthy—scream.
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