By 1969, Joan Crawford is living alone in a New York City apartment (quite a nice one, but a shoebox compared to her former mansion) and doing her own cleaning and cooking, primarily in the microwave. She eats alone in front of the TV, channel-surfing until she stumbles on a rerun of her own 1932 movie Grand Hotel. Her eyes well with emotion. More alarmingly, when she brushes her teeth, she spits out bright red blood. She adopts a tiny puppy, Princess Lotus Blossom, a name that’s fun to imagine Joan calling out across a dog park. Her beloved Mamacita, thank god, comes back to work for her part-time.
At the dentist, Joan reveals she had six molars extracted when she was 23 on the advice of her agent, so that her cheeks would curve more appealingly. Her mouth is an absolute wreck now, but she outright refuses her dentist’s suggestion that she be fit for dentures. “I’ll stop worrying about how I look when they dip me in formaldehyde,” she tells him.
Joan’s agent has a part for her in a B-movie—as a scientist who discovered a preserved caveman—but discourages her from taking the offer. Despite his warnings, and despite the shitty pay, she wants to work. There’s a more appealing opportunity on the table, too: Simon & Schuster wants her to write an advice book for women.
And so Crawford, now a strawberry blonde, flies to London to star in Trog, short for Troglodyte. The title character’s costume is about 10% more professional looking than what you’d find on the sale rack at a Halloween store. Not only will she be sharing a makeup table with Trog, but she’s assigned a decrepit, curtainless van to change in while they’re on location. She spikes the tea from craft services and struggles to remember her lines—the director resorts to cue cards. Joan seems like an entirely different woman, one who’s lost all her fight.
Back in her hotel room, Joan sits down with a (massive) tape recorder and begins to gather her musings for her book. Crawford’s thoughts on the importance of “self-pampering” and tips for leading a life befitting a star play over the indignities she suffers on the Trog set, layered surreally and poignantly with the Doors’ “The End.” A security guard shows the director that his star has been spending her nights at the studio, wandering around and rehearsing aloud. They leave her be. All alone, she silently regards Trog’s mask, then tries it on herself. Jessica Lange’s performance in this episode—particularly in this scene—is utterly heartbreaking. I think Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon might have serious competition at the Emmys.
Back in the United States, Joan does a signing for her new book, My Way of Life. A long line of fans turn out to see her, but it quickly becomes clear that they’re drawn to Joan for her camp appeal, not her talent. But the last straw is an unflattering (she calls it “monstrous”) newspaper photo of Joan. “If that’s how they see me, they’ll never see me again,” she declares. She calls her agent and demands he stop submitting her for roles.
Bette’s career has also taken a decidedly degrading turn. Out of desperation, she’s shed her formerly high standards. She shoots eight pilots, not a single one of which is ordered to series.
In 1972 Los Angeles, a chain-smoking, chronically coughing Bette meets her daughter BD for lunch, at what happens to be Joan’s one-time favorite restaurant. BD and Jeremy are, improbably, still happily married. As excited as Bette is to spend time with her grandchildren, BD coldly informs her that Jeremy has already brought the children back to their home in Pennsylvania. BD’s older son told her that his grandmother “beat” his baby brother while they were under her supervision. Bette vociferously denies this, saying she simply “swatted” him during a temper tantrum. It’s too late: BD says Bette can only visit the kids under supervision, if she controls her drinking problem. (BD would later write the memoir My Mother’s Keeper, which characterized Davis as an abusive alcoholic.)
Come 1976, Davis has found herself a new professional nemesis to contend with: Faye Dunaway. In The Disappearance of Aimee, Dunaway plays the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, a part Davis had originally wanted for herself. Davis plays Dunaway’s mother—that is, when she isn’t waiting hours and hours for Faye to bother to show up to the set. At least Crawford worked her butt off, Davis observes, showing up early and staying later than anyone.
Victor breaks the news to Bette that Joan has cancer. She hasn’t left her apartment in months. He encourages her to call: “She may be the only person in the entire world who knows how you feel right now.” Bette does pick up the phone, but can’t bring herself to speak when Joan answers.
Back in New York, Joan’s daughter Cathy—who’s concerned that her mother has stopped seeing her doctor—and her two kids visit a visibly weak Crawford, her hair gray at last. Joan has heard from her editor that her eldest daughter Christina is writing a scathing book about her (the book that would become Mommie Dearest, and eventually the same-name movie starring Faye Dunaway), but she turned down the chance to read a galley. “Do they think of me as their real grandmother?” Joan asks of Cathy’s kids. They do. She cries, as her daughter reassures her that she was the best mother she could have had.
Joan is awakened by the sounds of a party. In a dream sequence, she finds Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner, looking just as they did when we first met them, playing cards and drinking martinis in her living room. Joan joins them, suddenly transformed into her former self—gorgeous red gown, diamond earrings, familiar dark brown coiffure. Bette appears, too, looking rejuvenated and glamorous.
“I spent my whole life being Joan Crawford, a woman I created for others,” Joan says. “I don’t know who I am when I’m by myself.” Jack assures her the public mostly remembers the the joy that stars brought them; Hedda Hopper adds that she’ll always be young and beautiful in their minds. Then Joan and Bette are left alone, connecting in a way they never have. Bette expresses her regret over having not been a friend to her. We can start over, Joan says, inviting Bette to stay with her.
That’s when Mamacita finds Crawford—alone in the apartment, clearly unwell. She dies one week later. Mamacita tells the documentary interviewer that, while Joan was memorialized with a “star-studded” funeral and even a moment of silence observed by the studios, it would have been much more meaningful if those people had reached out to the actress when she was alive.
Bette gets a call from AP wire service, informing her of Joan’s death and asking her to comment. Davis summons a quip: “My mother always said, ‘Don’t say anything bad about the dead. Only say good.’ Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” She clearly regrets these words even as she’s saying them. Bette goes to see her disabled daughter Margot, in an attempt to belatedly forge some kind of a connection. Davis reveals that she recently read her own beloved late mother’s letters and was shocked to discover that she didn’t care much for “selfish” Bette. “I thought she was my only friend,” Bette says, “But actually, I was totally alone.”
Bette, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Blondell, Victor Buono, Mamacita, and Pauline are backstage at the 1978 Academy Awards when the “In Memoriam” segment begins. (A brief, happy aside: Pauline did leave Hollywood and followed her mortgage broker boyfriend to Michigan, but there she discovered a fulfilling career as a documentary filmmaker. Yay Pauline!) All Joan gets is a two-second blip in the montage. Those who knew her are horrified. “That’s all any of us will get,” Bette realizes. They raise a glass to Joan.
The documentarian whose interviews have framed Feud finds Davis at the bar, and she shuts down his efforts to get her to participate in his project down once and for all. He knows he wants her to contribute “funny, bitchy one-liners” about her former costar. But Davis won’t do it. Crawford was a “professional,” she tells him. That’s all.
Feud ends by revisiting the first day Davis and Crawford spent on the Baby Jane set together. The two women sit in personalized director’s chairs, shooting the shit, and genuinely getting along. Joan tells Bette, “Here’s what I really hope from this picture when all is said and done: I hope I’ve made a new friend.” Davis agrees.
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