With production on 'Baby Jane' underway, Bette and Joan form an alliance, but outside forces conspire against them.
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.
Alas, it works. Hedda prints it, Joan is livid, Bette scoffs it off, and Israel and Palestine will probably kiss and make up before these twains shall meet again. Forget it, Joan, Bette’s just jealous! So says Bob. Channel all that hurt and rage into the role, he says, because Bob is a tricky bitch. And also, more than a little bit desperate. He knows he needs a hit or his career is DOA.
When Joan retaliates with a nasty, petty comeback in the columns, Bette sweeps into her dressing room to read her the riot act, and it is glorious. (Every time a Bette bell rings, a future Real Housewife gets her wings.) She’s come to remind Joan that it’s only about the performance, see, not the melodrama that happens off screen. And when it comes to actressing, Bette will wipe the floor with Joan. In fact, she’s already done it, everyone on set agrees. Even the gaffers!
Jack Warner certainly does; he’s dying over the dailies — “pure, naked rancor; I love it” — and wants more ugliness, more rage, more gladiator blood in the sand. Turn those hate knobs up to 11. Bette’s not so sure, though. She meets Bob alone on a Saturday to ask: Should she invite Joan to dinner, make peace? Bob says no way; the road to her next Oscar is paved with rank antagonism; it’s the only way! Trust me, he says, and she does. Also, he has some lovely beachfront property in Phoenix, if you’re interested. But in the meantime, he’ll coach Bette through her future-legendary “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” number.
Their new closeness does not go unnoticed by Joan. She cooks up a fake midnight emergency, invites him over, and calls him out: “Weekend rehearsals, my ass! How long have you been sleeping with her?” Well, if that’s how it is, she’s quitting the picture! No, she’s not, silly. She just needs to know she’s No. 1 again, in his heart and in his pants. She gets neither, but the show goes on. And poor Peter gets dumped like a day-old French fry.
Meanwhile, Hedda is furious Joan has given a scoop to her “mortal enemy” Louella Parsons, but Joan has a plan. She’s broke, she tells her in the strictest confidence, $2 million in the hole. Flattering, confiding, appealing to her sympathies, Joan makes her play: Woman to woman, can’t Hedda understand? Game recognizes game; or game just got played like Yahtzee. Either way, the ploy works: Advantage, Joan.
And that chunky guy Bette thinks is working craft services? It’s her new costar, Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess). “I was expecting someone…” she trails off, nonplussed. “Thinner? Less homosexual?” he replies drily, before biting into a doughnut like a bikini model housing a burger in a Carl’s Jr. ad. “Mmm.” And finally, we get another dose of Sally Draper: Here she is again as Bette’s daughter, B.D., flirting with the crew and furiously pushing back when Bette promises to pack her off to Maine for the summer. “You can’t take it that your turn is over, so you’re punishing me!”
The stars who came before Bette, like Claudette Colbert and Norma Shearer, had something she doesn’t, B.D. says: dignity. “They moved aside with class after their spin on the carousel was over, and that’s something you refuse to do. And now look at you. You’re single, lonely, and doing this ridiculous role, because you can’t live without being in the spotlight… So, fine, I’ll go. Gladly. Anything to get away from you and your sadness.” Woof. Did you just reach for the bourbon? Because Bette did.
Cue another midnight call to Bob, and more emergency triage: this time for a legitimate crisis, not a crafty seduction attempt — Bette’s wrecked and just wants a friend. When he comes over, they talk like real adults about their hopes and fears, and it’s kind of lovely. (Also, we learn that Bob’s grandfather was a U.S. senator and his cousin is Nelson Rockefeller. Pedigree!) That it does end in sex is sort of okay; they’re comforting one another, not making yet another power play. Poor Mrs. Aldridge, though; she knows he’s been doing the dirty when he creeps home at 6 a.m., and it hurts.
Will Joan realize it, too? Is Victor the worthy costar Bob promised? How many new caftans are getting ready for their close-up? Tune in next week.
“You’re casting with the wrong head, Bob.” —Bette to Bob, on his choice of nubile blondes
“Oh, come on, Joan, let’s cut the ‘Daddy’ shit. It might have worked on that fat f— over at MGM, but you’re working for me now.” —Jack Warner to Crawford
“I don’t need subtext, Bob, I need good text.” —Bette, complaining about the script
“They’re not getting along! They’re just teaming up, it’s like the Hitler-Stalin pact.” —Bob to his wife, on Bette and Joan’s newfound friendship
“Women will do what they always do when they’re cornered: eat their own, and pick their teeth with the bones.”—Joan Blondell
“There’s so much ham up there, I’m going to have to go to my rabbi this afternoon and atone.”—Jack Warner, after watching the dailies
“I think it’s time to recast — recast you. Your lines are stale, your delivery’s predictable. I’m going downstairs. When I come back, I’ll want you gone.” —Joan, to freshly exed boyfriend Peter
“Bette, listen. You’ve had a brilliant career. Me, I’m still on the B-list. Working like a dog to keep a roof over my family’s head, I missed my kids growing up, and now my wife wants to give me the heave-ho. At least you’ve got an Oscar!” —Bob, comforting a distraught Bette
“Two.” —Bette to Bob, smiling