We gave it a B+
Welcome back, kitty cats, to the land of carefree female friendships, rock-steady sobriety, and unshakeable self-esteem, where nice ladies sit around sipping Pepsi-Cola and braiding each other’s hair. As episode 2 opens, a peach of a blonde who’s just been cast as the neighbor girl in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? scampers up to Joan with an eager request: “Miss Crawford, can I please have your autograph? It’s for my grandmother — she’s loved you since she was a kid!”
Well, that one lands like a hot poker to the uterus. And if the 50 shades of suppressed rage that play across Joan’s face don’t earn Jessica Lange another Emmy, I will eat a wig. Anyway, it takes about one hot minute for Joan to make it clear to director Bob Aldrich that this supporting role will be hitting the cutting-room floor, ASAP. (She’s got costar approval, after all.) Joan also wastes no time taking her case to Bette; if they don’t unite, she promises, there will be more where that one came from. “The cookie that’s playing the neighbor?” Bette laughs dismissively. “I saw her, she’s no threat.”
Undeterred, Joan invites her to imagine how it will all crumble if/when Bobby inevitably starts shtupping the cookie. Well, that does it. Bette threatens to go home “sick,” Bob realizes he’s been railroaded, and the peach is out the door. Adios, dollface! At least you got yourself a nice souvenir for Grandma.
The credits roll, just like her pretty little head, and we’re back to Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell circa 1978, explaining the roots of B&J’s animosity: “They didn’t need a reason, it was chemical… But things didn’t start to boil over until the ‘40s, when they were in their 40s.” Flashback to Joan on set, fighting for more meaningful parts. “She’d had it up to here with the slatterns and shop-girl roles that had made her a star,” Blondell recalls; what she really wanted to play was Marie Curie. But laying an ultimatum on a stone-faced studio head backfires when he calls her bluff. So, she signs on at Warner Brothers instead, at a very deep discount.
According to Blondell, Jack Warner only really took her on to use her as “a cudgel against his problem child,” Bette, who was “difficult, expensive, and far too powerful. Especially for a woman.” But Joan’s not mad at picking up Bette’s scraps; that’s how she lands a major comeback — and a gorgeous little gold man — in Mildred Pierce. And Bette, now doing her own barrel-scraping, no likey. (Which is maybe just an excuse to show Sarandon recreating Davis’ legendary “What a dump” line from 1949’s Beyond the Forest? Whatever, it’s worth it.)
The real winner here, of course, is Jack — who’s playing his superstars against each other like two chain-smoking bugles and feeding off the dividends. Back in the Baby Jane present, though, his former archenemies are bonding over bad dialogue (they agree the breakfast scene needs a rewrite, stat) and showing up arm-in-brocade-arm at a press party. And Jack can already see the magic manifesting onscreen: It’s f—in’ electric!” he tells Bobby; he’s decided he’s going to take the picture wide, 400 screens. But in the meantime, he still wants the ladies at each other’s throats, just to keep the volts zapping. And what could be safer than sticking a knife in that toaster every morning?
Bob reluctantly agrees, and tells his wife (Molly Price) that stoking the bad blood between his leading ladies is totally okay, because he’ll be there to hold it all together. She is not a fan of this plan, dubbing it unnecessarily manipulative and cruel: “Don’t fool yourself. Even you’re not man enough to satisfy two women.” She also calls him out for his “strudel” on the side, some little SAG-card Pop-Tart named Gretchen. Sing it, Susan-Sharon! (It took a deep Google, dear reader, to realize where I recognized her from.)
Chastened, Bob takes a power lunch with Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, murdering yet another hat-bird) and tries to make peace. But Hedda, mistress of subtlety, impugns his masculine ego until he coughs up a delicious little nugget of a blind item: Joan’s bosom is “too perky.” She’s apparently been wearing falsies on set, which offends Bette’s artistic sensibilities and makes her fear she’ll chip a tooth on those granite boobies in the beach scene. Hedda’s giddy, and Bob looks like he wants to vomit, which he should.