They just don’t make trailers like they used to. Joan Crawford shrieks in a straitjacket in a promo for a 1964 movie straightforwardly titled Strait-Jacket, until her image is chopped in two with an ax. (Yes, this is real life.) To put it kindly, Strait-Jacket does not scream “prestige project.”
The film’s director, William Castle (played by John Waters!), warms up the crowd at a showing in Oklahoma. “Be warned,” he tells them, “Strait-Jacket contains the most realistic portrayal of axe murders in motion picture history, made all the more vivid by the powerful performance of a screen legend.” He introduces Joan, but the lights come up to reveal an empty straitjacket sharing the stage with him. “Don’t panic, but a madwoman is loose in this theater,” Castle says.
In what will probably be one of the most enduring images from this season of Feud, Joan — glittering with diamonds in a blood-red gown and elbow-length gloves — bursts into the theater from the rear, feebly brandishing an axe at delighted teenage audience members who laugh and pelt her with popcorn. The muscles of her face twitch as she tries to maintain a dignified expression. But the gimmicks are only just beginning. Before the movie begins, Castle’s fake decapitated head will roll across the stage and a squad of women in sexy nurse costumes will toss cardboard axes into the crowd. Joan is on the verge of fainting in disgust.
Back home, an utterly wasted Joan throws a flower arrangement at Mamacita in a rage. It only narrowly misses her head. She’s immediately apologetic, but her loyal housekeeper is angrier than we’ve ever seen her. “The next time you throw something at my head, I leave you,” she tells Crawford. “Then you will have nothing.”
Decapitation might be messy, but Strait-Jacket is cleaning up at the box office. “Degradation” is the central appeal of these “hagsploitation” movies, Jack Warner argues, as he takes credit for singlehandedly inventing the genre. A formerly “too beautiful” movie queen forced to “suffer?” Audiences eat that up.
Hedda Hopper comes over to visit Joan. It’s obvious right away that something’s wrong — the columnist is wearing exactly zero necklaces, and she even (gasp) takes off her hat. She suffered a heart attack last week. Her doctor has warned that another will hit her soon.
But that’s not the only bad news she has for Joan. Someone is shopping a “stag picture” — that is, some old-school porn — allegedly starring the young actress. Hedda wants her to take ownership of the tape as an empowering “story of redemption,” not to mention a perfect “final scoop” for the gossip columnist herself. But Joan denies any knowledge of this film. Ahem.
A depressed Bob Aldrich swallows his pride and pitches Jack Warner one of his beloved “hag pictures.” The title: What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte. An aging southern belle living alone in a mansion gets gaslit by her cousin visiting from the big city. And did he mention that the story features both dismemberment and hatchet murder? Warner is thrilled. Aldrich sees Davis as Charlotte and Ann Sheridan as the cousin, but Warner is dead-set on casting Crawford opposite Bette. Bob is horrified at the prospect of working with this not-so-dynamic duo again, but the mogul couldn’t care less. “I want to you to get those two harpies’ signature on the dotted line,” Warner orders.
Aldrich goes to see his warring leading ladies, each of whom would rather swallow an Oscar whole than share a set with the other again. Says Davis, “I wouldn’t piss on Crawford if she were on fire.” Joan seizes this and any opportunity to shit on Bette’s TV work: “Is that a face America wants in its living room at dinnertime?”
Both women have their personal insecurities, too. Since Baby Jane, Davis feels she’s seen as a joke, a “white-faced ghoul.” Crawford doesn’t want to go out as a “dowdy matron.” They turn Aldrich down initially, but eventually agree, on their own conditions: Crawford wants top billing and a big signing bonus, Davis wants creative control.
Joan goes to see the hotel clerk responsible for threatening to put her “blue movie” on the market, all the while denying that she’s the actress depicted in it. Lo and behold, the clerk is her big brother, Hal. The LeSueur family is nothing if not wildly dysfunctional. She brings him a check to put a stop to this, but he coldly informs her that her would-be bribe is only half the amount that Luella Parsons is offering.
As it turns out, Bob has a good old-fashioned “fuck you” in store for Jack Warner. He’s gone behind the mogul’s back and sold Charlotte to 20th Century Fox and Darryl Zanuck, who won’t just give Aldrich final cut—he’ll show him some respect. The very best (and most infuriating) part of this scene is listening to Aldrich take all the credit for Baby Jane, when in fact it was Joan Crawford who found the novel in the first place, recruited Bette Davis as her costar, and convinced Bob to direct. Men: They’re dumb!
At the table read for Charlotte (featuring your pal and mine, Victor Buono!), Bette and Joan do their best to start fresh — Oscars schmoscars — and present a united front, but it’s not long before the passive-aggressive verbal daggers start flying. It’s like they’re allergic to one another. “We are going to get through this if it kills us, even if I have to tranquilize the both of you,” Aldrich vows, but that doesn’t stop Bette from walking out. “I’d be happy to read both parts,” purrs Joan in her absence.
Crawford visits her brother in the hospital. His appendix needs to be removed. She gives him a check to cover his medical expenses out of her advance, pointedly noting that this should cover the price of whatever recording he claims to have. This business transaction devolves into a deeply ugly confrontation. Hal tells her she’ll always see herself as “the runt mother didn’t want.” When she demands the tape, he brushes her off: “There is no film… you said so yourself.”
By the time Joan returns home, the hospital has already called: Hal’s appendix exploded and he died in surgery. Joan’s first reaction isn’t grief, or even anger—it’s to place a call to cancel the check she wrote to her brother. Mamacita points out that Hal’s death means she doesn’t need to do the movie anymore. “If I’m not working I might as well be dead,” Joan scoffs.
Bob wants his wife Harriet to come with him to shoot in Baton Rouge. Harriet wants something else: a divorce. He’s only happy when she’s making a picture, she says, but there’s no room for her in his life when he is. On set in Louisiana, Bette — improbably costumed as the young version of Charlotte — finds Bob crying outside. He tells her his marriage is over. A three-time veteran of divorce herself, Bette comforts him. “We’ll be alone together,” she says.
Joan is mildly disgruntled that no one has come to greet her and Mamacita at the Baton Rouge airport. Worse, at the hotel, they’re told there isn’t any room for them. But Bette appears just in time. Exuding happiness and toting a bottle of a champagne, she gets further with the clerk than Crawford did. Now it “won’t take but an hour” for Joan’s suite to be ready.
The room she’s sharing with Mamacita is awfully dingy, but sweaty, tired Joan is still optimistic. She calls up Bob in his room to let him know they’ve arrived in town and that she’s “raring to go.” Over the phone, she can overhear Bette laughing and encouraging the director to hang up. Uh-oh.
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