Audiences are loving 'Baby Jane,' but the movie's success does more for Bette than it does for Joan
In the first five minutes of any Feud episode, our leading ladies tend to get at least one harsh reminder that in the Hunger Games of Hollywood, they’re not just human chum, they’re fossils: old, irrelevant, tragically dusty. And “More, or Less” (why the comma? We, shall, see!) sets a new land-speed record for humiliation: Hardly five seconds in, Bette learns that the eager young man she takes for a Boy Friday is in fact her new agent. He’s “almost 23,” and he looks like a Boy Scout ventriloquist dummy with a bowtie fetish. Bette has handbags older than this kid.
In the boardroom at William Morris, Joan is getting her own bad news: Nobody cares that she’s about to open Baby Jane in 400 theaters, and they’re definitely not banging down the agency’s door looking for a “mature actress.” (At least, unlike Bette’s guy, the board doesn’t suggest dinner theater, or maybe a nice guest spot on Perry Mason.) From both ends, they also learn at least one more reason why the roles aren’t pouring in: Industry gossip is saying that Baby’s already got a stink on it; that it’s a bad B-movie neither star will recover from.
Joan, who could teach Sheryl Sandberg about 47 things about Leaning In, has a quick answer for that, and for her agent’s condescending reassurance: “F— you, Marty. If I have to find my own projects and wait for you to field offers instead of drumming them up, I don’t see the point in having an agent. Or a rooooom full of f—ing agents. You’re all fired!” Bette takes a slyer tack, placing a tongue-in-cheek ad in the trades under Situations Wanted (“Thirty years experience as an actress in Hollywood, more affable than rumor would have it… References upon request”) along with a headshot that leaves no doubt where Boy Scout Dummy stands.
Bob Aldrich is across town checking out Baby Jane’s final scenes, and clearly he’s heard the rumors too; he looks like a man who just had to shoot his own dog. But of course, it has serious repercussions for him too if this thing tanks; he’s in “hock up to [his] eyeballs” and can’t afford another flop. (Mrs. Aldrich says don’t worry, they can always sell the house… And the kids too, though they’ll probably get more for the house. It’s nice to see her laugh again.)
Bob’s right-hand lady, Pauline (Alison Wright), shows up at Joan’s place with a proposition for Joan’s own right hand, Mamacita. If she can pass along the pitch, there’s a potential great role for Crawford in a movie called The Black Slipper. The plot sounds sort of like Showgirls, with a reverse Black Swan ending. Sold! The twist? Pauline wrote it, and she wants to direct it too. Mamacita promises she’ll make the case.
First, she has to wait for Joan to tell her life story to a maître d’. But when she finally gets her shot, Joan tells her she has no interest in a woman director; apparently vaginas are incompatible with film cameras. Does that mean the whole idea’s D.O.A.? Mamacita’s side-eye says a thousand words.
At a special early preview for Baby Jane, there’s dread in the air. But wait! They love it! Standing O. And in the lobby, Joan gets her fan-mob scene just like Sally Field at the mall in Soapdish. The stink is gone. And… it’s montage time: Here’s Bette on The Andy Williams Show in turquoise sparkles, selling Baby Jane with a literal song and dance; here’s Joan walking into a restaurant to wild applause; and tickets: tickets tickets tickets, selling like hotcakes. (Because back then everybody actually ate carbs. Even actresses.) It’s great news, except of course Joan can’t help being miserable because Bette’s the one getting most of the critical raves.
Jack Warner, on the other hand, is very pleased with his investment, and he wants more Babies like this one. Bob has his own ambitions, ones that don’t involve a Baby Jane knockoff, but Jack slaps him down by somehow comparing him to… an Italian who lays tiles? He’s a journeyman, basically, is what he’s saying. Still, Bob stands his ground and they leave it at a standoff.
Joan invites Pauline over to tell her that she won’t be doing her picture, and why: Ladies can’t get movies made, because they can’t get financing. Also, this: “I’m not turning you down because you’re a woman. I’m turning you down because you’re a nobody. And at this late stage of my career, I don’t have the luxury of putting myself in the hands of a nobody. I have very few chances left, and my last chance is not going to be your first.” She can really articulate a thought when she wants to.
And look who’s back: Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland circa 1978, woman-splaining once again what it was like way back then for a lady in the business, and why Joan wasn’t saved by Baby Jane’s success. It doesn’t help that she’s home having a cocktail party for one instead of hitting the promotion circuit; when Jack Warner comes by for a visit, she’s pickled (“like a herring”) and raving, a wrecking ball in a green silk housecoat. Success doesn’t suit her, but it looks great on Bette, who is loving her return to the spotlight and saying yes to pretty much everything. Surprised by a sloshy late-night phone call, she tells Joan to relax and enjoy it, that half the success belongs to her; Joan slurs back, “Well then I’d appreciate it if you would enjoy it half as much.”
Turned down flat by Joan, Pauline brings The Black Slipper to Bob instead; he’s actually kind of amazing and supportive, and he pledges to help her get it made without any quid pro quo or weird sexual overtones. Yay Bob! When he swings by to see Bette, who’s shooting a guest spot on Perry Mason, she’s got her own pitch for him — something about a movie where she’ll play twins — but he shoots it down as a retread. She opens up to him about her worries that an Oscar nomination won’t be enough to get her back to the real work she loves, and he promises to write her “a big fat f—ing hit” if she doesn’t. She nods sadly and stubs out her cigarette; that’s exactly what Joe Mankiewicz said after All About Eve.
And ooh, look, it’s Frank Sinatra! Or at least an actor who looks maybe 60 percent like him, if you squint and have like three shots of schnapps. He’s the star of Bob’s next big Western, and he’s got some cuckoo costume ideas: He wants to wear a top hat in Act 3 and a gold silk ascot in a fight scene. ”Think of the dust!” Bob pleads. And the horses—. Sinatra doesn’t do horses—, son. But he does know how to be an absolute ring-a-ding pain in the ass on set: short-tempered, nasty, and physically abusive. Joan’s tipsy tantrums are starting to sound like a dream.
The trials on set have not escaped Jack Warner’s notice. (“I hear the Sinatra dailies are unwatchable. I also hear he’s treating you like a half-wit toilet attendant.”) But he’s also got a treat for Bob: “further tales of old hags” — a.k.a. script options for Bette, if he can make it through the Sinatra thing alive. And with a few more casual career insults (who knew there were so many ways to tell a guy he’s a B-list hack, and always will be?) he’s gone.
Beaten down, exhausted, and at the end of his rope when Sinatra bails for an unannounced jaunt to New York, Bob takes his rage out on poor Pauline, telling her she’s delusional if she thinks she’ll get to direct a movie, ever. She goes to Mamacita for comfort and acknowledges that Bob might be right; she’s got a good thing going, and why should she wreck it for a pipe dream? In an amazing monologue that’s basically the analog version of a PowerPoint presentation, Mamacita explains what she’s learned from her days at the library with the twins when Joan is too hungover to move: Men are becoming a minority in the U.S., and the Hollywood studios will have to start making half the movies by and for women if they’re more than half the population: “It only makes eek-oh-nomic sense.”
Cut to Joan waking up, possibly still drunk, with every phone in the house off the hook — and Mamacita standing in the foyer with ominous instructions: “Ms. Joan, I want you to sit down.” Exterior shot, anguished scream. And that, my puppies, is the episode… more, or less.
“You hear that whistling sound? It’s a bomb falling. It’s gonna land in 400 theaters, all at the same time.” —Bob Aldrich on Baby Jane’s prospects
“This is America. Nobody can tell you you’re crazy.” —Mamacita
“It’s just like 1937 all over again.” —Joan, to Mamacita
“When Hitler took Austria?” —Mamacita
“No, when they labeled me box-office poison. I couldn’t get arrested in this goddamn town.” —Joan
“I don’t think there was even a girl camel in that one.”—Joan Blondell on the dearth of women in movies like Lawrence of Arabia
“When those nominations come out, I want you to be shaking hands and sucking cocks, even if you yourself are not nominated… It is your goddamn fiduciary responsibility.” —Jack Warner, to Joan
“It’s saying nothin’ but tits and fist fights and me lookin’ like a real cool Daddy.”—Frank Sinatra (Toby Huss) to Bob, about what their movie’s “message” is
“On frontier, is only men. Like bathhouse.” —Mamacita, explaining male migration patterns