Joan Crawford’s first day on the Charlotte set starts off promisingly, with the actress nailing her character’s introduction in one take. But by nightfall, she’s grumbling over the sounds of revelry spilling out from Bette’s hotel room into the communal courtyard. Crawford considers calling the front desk to complain about the noise, then decides to shut this misbehavior down herself like a one-woman neighborhood watch. But when she marches over to the glass door, she sees Bette mocking her, reenacting her performance. I’d much rather hang out in Bette’s hotel room, but it’s hard not to feel bad for a visibly hurt Joan in this moment.
On set the next morning, Bette is essentially co-directing, whispering in Bob’s ear as Joan performs, then expressing her desire to cut the scene altogether. Joan retreats to her trailer in a rage. Bob explains that Bette has every right to comment — she’s an associate producer on the film, a condition of her signing on the first place. Crawford feels utterly betrayed.
That night, Bette throws a full-on party in (and out of) her hotel room. Victor encourages her to be nicer to Crawford, but Bette recalls that she didn’t care for her treatment at the hands of the “most beautiful woman that ever lived” earlier in their careers. Well, beauty fades. Victor, who admits he has a big soft spot for Joan’s performance in Humoresque (she literally walks into the ocean at the end of the movie, what more could you want from a performance?), is put off by Davis’ cynicism.
Bob is undressing a tipsy Bette when — in an uncharacteristically vulnerable state of mind — she expounds on the plight of being a woman in Hollywood, and her lifelong personal insecurities about her appearance. “I wish I had known for a single day what it feels like to walk into a room and knock them out without a single word,” she says.
She remembers listening in on Jack Warner’s reaction to her first screen test as a wee 22-year-old, hoping he’d compliment her talent. His assessment: She had “zero sex appeal. Who would want to fuck that?” She was still a virgin at the time. As Bob tucks her into bed, Bette laughs. “Guess who he said he’d wished I’d looked like: Joan Crawford.”
On set, Joan takes a nap in her trailer, and wakes up sweaty, her makeup smeared and hair disheveled. It’s dark outside. Everyone has left, abandoning her and Mamacita on the plantation. Back at the hotel, Joan bangs on the sliding glass door of Bette’s room. “This entire production is an elaborate opportunity for you to humiliate me, isn’t it?” she seethes. Mamacita had to find a phone and call a cab to get them back to the hotel.
Bette professes her ignorance, but Joan doesn’t believe her — their planned alliance is bullshit. The heated argument that erupts is the most intense confrontation between the two women yet.
Joan tears down Bette’s pride in her 11 Oscar nominations: “The Academy doesn’t reward you for your talent…they reward you because they see how hard you sweat.” When Bette goes off on her “glamour makeup,” Joan pointedly informs her, “The answer to feeling unattractive isn’t to make yourself even uglier.”
Bette is hurt, and the jealousy at the root of her friction with Joan comes to the surface like never before. “How did it feel to be the most beautiful girl in the world?” Bette asks her.
“It was wonderful,” Joan says. “The most joyous thing you could ever imagine, and it was never enough.” She poses a question of her own to Bette: “How did it feel to be the most talented girl in the world?”
“Great,” answers Bette. “And it was never enough.”
Back in Los Angeles for more shooting, Joan is feeling newly optimistic. Then she sees the script revisions — a juicy monologue of hers is missing. They were on their way to the soundstage, but she demands her driver take her to Cedars-Sinai instead. I wish Joan Crawford could have guest-written a truly demented chapter of Lean In.
When news of Joan’s mystery illness reaches Bette, she correctly guesses she’s faking it to protest her reduced role. But Davis is (momentarily) distracted by a family matter. Her daughter BD wants her mother to sign consent forms allowing her to wed her 29-year-old boyfriend Jeremy, despite the fact that she’s only 16. Bette will have no part of her daughter marrying this old British creep, whose accent, she reminds him, will not have the same effect on her that it does on teenagers. (“I played Elizabeth I, twice,” she deadpans.) It’s a hard no, much to BD’s lovelorn angst.
Production on Charlotte continues for a time, with the crew using a stand-in to play Joan from behind whenever possible. But this cannot last. Bob goes to see Joan. They’re out of material to shoot and he needs her back. Well, perfect, because she has some ideas for the script! For one thing, how about they expand her character’s backstory, and for another, why don’t they give her a grand entrance?! Bob has unambiguously run out of patience, in part because directing another bomb will have him stuck working in the doldrums of TV. “I suggest you put down your fucking script and pick up your fucking contract and give that a close fucking read,” he snaps at Joan, ordering her to appear on the lot at 7 a.m. sharp.
She complies. Bright and early, Mamacita and a male nurse wheel the diva onto the soundstage, where she’s greeted with applause. Bette coolly welcomes her back and presents her with a rose, thorns (allegedly) removed. But so long as it’s an effective bargaining chip, Joan is happy to continue being sick, thank you. When Bette demands that some of Joan’s dialogue be cut, she dramatically swoons with dizziness.
Bob is pissed at Bette, too, because she’s failing as a producer. “Being right doesn’t mean shit if you’re driving talent off the stage,” he says. Bette storms into her own house and gives Jeremy and BD good news in the gruffest tone in possible. “Fine, you can get married, but I’m in charge of everything,” she says, having decided this is one way in which she can seize at least a little control.
Nearly a month has passed since Joan’s last day of work. Her absence is getting awfully expensive for the studio, and the “rare form of pneumonia” she’s apparently suffering from doesn’t seem to be improving. The studio offers to release her from her contractual obligations and recast her part. Crawford’s rep says she’s following all her doctor’s instructions, although producer Bette (slash Joan’s most gleeful adversary) insists her costar is really just on strike. It’s decided that Joan will submit to an independent medical exam. If the studio doctor clears her and she still doesn’t return to work, she’ll be sued.
Bette’s in Mother-of-the-Bridezilla mode, but BD couldn’t be less engaged (pun not intended) in planning her own nuptials. “Your first wedding is the one that you remember the most,” Bette advises her. BD is scandalized by her mother’s implication that she’ll come running back home when she and Jeremy inevitably split, and deals her a major blow: BD already had her “first wedding.” The couple was secretly married at city hall days ago.
Despite Joan’s attempts to (what else?) seduce him, the doctor gives her a clean bill of health. As expected, 20th Century Fox sues Crawford for breach of contract to the tune of $100,000, but Joan is nevertheless determined to keep up the sickness charade. She beams in newsreel footage, posing for photos with doctors, nurses, and fellow patients in her Dior hospital gown. The movie — which by now has been renamed Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte — is bleeding money while production’s been halted. Good. Joan wants to shut the picture down. She’s losing a fortune, but so will Bette, and that’s comfort enough—not to mention that she’s ruining Aldrich’s career to boot. Crawford is convinced that the movie will soon be cancelled, and then she’ll conveniently recover — besides, what actress in town would take a role away from her?
Well, there is one actress. Bette implores Bob to cast Olivia de Havilland, but Davis’ Academy Awards date is reluctant to accept the role. She’s already given hagsploitation a try in the utterly insane film Lady in a Cage (which, not for nothing, features a young, frequently bare-chested James Caan) and found it humiliating. But Bob — taking three planes, a train, and a taxi to the door of her Swiss chalet — manages to talk her into playing his villainess.
In Joan’s flower arrangement-strewn hospital room, she first hears the news that she’s been fired and replaced by De Havilland on the radio. Furious beyond words, she throws her tray to the ground and pitches yet another vase perilously close to Mamacita’s head. That’s it. She’s leaving. Joan desperately pursues her housekeeper — her only friend, really — into the hallway, but it’s no use. “You have done this to yourself,” Mamacita coldly informs her. Joan falls to her knees, wailing.
Bette is thrilled to see Olivia arrive on set, embracing her old pal. It’s not long before the two stars and their director are posing for publicity photos with bottles of Coke. Joan, encased in some kind of oxygen tent, is left all alone in her hospital room.
In a 1978 interview, De Havilland is asked whether she feels “guilty” about ending Crawford’s career. “Time did that all on its own,” she says. “As it does to us all.”
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