It's finally Oscars time for Joan and Bette; let the backstabbing begin (and the drinking, crying, and cage-fighting continue).
Dateline: Hollywood, California. It’s Oscar night 1963, and while Lawrence of Arabia and The Music Man duke it out for Best Picture on their own masculine, sandy plain, “The real trouble in River City,” an excitable newsreel voiceover intones, “and the race everyone is talking about, is the contest to see who will be crowned Best Actress.”
Hello, montage of Lee Remick, Ann Bancroft, and Geraldine Page! And goodbye, because we don’t care about you. Or at least not as anything more than the woman-shaped obstacles standing between our Bette and her rightful awards-show destiny. (Seriously: Katherine Hepburn isn’t even a person; she’s just a picture of a Keep Out sign somewhere in Connecticut. But wait, is that Sarah Paulson jauntily waving in that three-second Geraldine intro? All signs point to yes.)
At a flashbulb-popping press conference, a journalist asks if Bette has anything to say about Joan being snubbed for her part. “Define snub,” she replies drily. Next question. And after the credits sequence (which is still just the best, isn’t it?), Catherine Zeta-Jones is back as Olivia de Havilland circa 1978. Fully chiffoned and as languid as a Xanaxed cat, she’s recalling exactly how it all went wrong on that fateful night 15 years before, “the point of no return for both Bette and Joan.” (Though we’re also treated to a brief nod to her own famous issues with her estranged younger — “well, not that much younger” — actress sister, Joan Fontaine. Feud season 3?)
Anyway, as Olivia recalls, Joan isn’t going to let “a tiny detail” like not being nominated keep her sidelined. Especially not when she has a fantastically feathered orange halo and a flaming-red skirt suit to wear to the Academy president’s office, where she will demand a recount. Or at least pivot when that approach immediately fails and offer her services as a presenter instead — “either Best Picture or Best Director, you decide which.” Also, they will pay for her hair and makeup and a car and a chauffeur, and they will like it.
Flash to Olivia in Paris in 1963 receiving an anxious, martini-assisted phone call from Bette: The press is killing her, and she needs her old friend by her side at the ceremony. “I should be kinder, I want to be,” Bette admits of her continuing friction with Joan. “But she sets me off.” And “no comment” won’t cut it. Now we’re back in ’73, and Olivia is talking about how Bette had always seen her as “Melanie Wilkes to her Scarlett O’Hara,” except it’s really hard to concentrate on what she’s saying when the couch she’s sitting on is quietly stealing every part of this scene. It’s like a creamy, champagne-velvet slice of fluffy deliciousness: furniture tiramisu.
Back at the Crawford manse, Hedda Hopper (containing her hat game with a relatively restrained green swoopy thing) is playing wingman/human support hose to Joan, and hatching a plan to poison the well against Bette’s win: a good cop-bad cop routine of subtly (or not at all) undermining Davis’ chances while simultaneously boosting the other candidates. Out comes the all-star Rolodex, and the campaign of phone-call slander begins.
It sounds like maybe it’s working — they’re telling a litany of A-listers that an ungrateful Bette already uses one of her two statuettes as a bathroom doorstop, among other things — and yet, Joan still despairs over drinks with Hedda on the veranda: “It’s a fool’s errand; she’s already won. I don’t mean today, or on Oscar night. I have been in competition with that goddamn woman for my entire career. A constant battle for men, for roles, for magazine covers. And I don’t know why. I was the bigger star!” She’s basically calling Bette a succubus, a beast who has spent decades leeching her self-confidence from her bit by bit, like a vodka-fortified vampire squid.
Hedda has a plan though: As God (wait, why does “God” have horns and smell like sulfur?) is her witness, Bette won’t walk off with that Best Actress statuette — Joan will. Well, that sounds perfectly sane and sensical considering Joan is, of course, not freaking nominated.
But there she goes, calling Geraldine Page (yay, Paulson! You were worth the wait) and psyching her out harder than a KGB agent. She’ll help her with her Oscars dress! Her jewels! Or, you know, she could just stay home in New York and let Joan accept her award on her behalf. Amazingly, in some kind of Jedi mind meld, it works. Just not the way Joan thinks. “You’re actually going to let that high-strung show pony represent you at the Oscars?” Page’s boyfriend asks incredulously after she hangs up. “Well, she needs it,” a heavy-hearted Geraldine replies. “And besides, Hollywood should be forced to look at what they’ve done to her.” Oof.
Next up on the menu: Anne Bancroft, who legitimately can’t go to the ceremony because of her New York theater commitments. Except she guesses what Joan’s there for before she even has to ask. Would it make her happy to accept the award for her as well, if she wins? Yes, “desperately.” So she says she’d be honored, and Joan’s eyes well up with the most sincere gratitude we’ve seen so far this season.
Finally, the holy day arrives, and there’s Mamacita playing General Patton as the reinforcements arrive to dress Ms. Crawford in a fantasia of sparkling silver. Her date is legendary director George Cukor, played here for some reason by a guy who is a dead ringer for Dick Cheney, and he tells her she looks “wonderful, like the first frost of fall.” (Honestly, she looks more like she just mugged a gay robot, but that’s nice of him.) He also has some hard truths for her, as an old friend: “Listen. Don’t do this.” “Do what?” Joan asks innocently. “Try and take it from her — the night. It will be seen in all quarters for exactly what it is: a petty act of revenge from a woman scorned… Joanie, you’re bigger than this.” Except she isn’t, she tells him sadly.
Bette’s having a more lowkey pre-party with Olivia, who asks why the enamel has rubbed off one of her old Oscars. “Every night when I watch television in bed I hold it,” Bette confesses. “He’s the perfect companion — he doesn’t talk back, he’s patient, he listens. And sometimes when I need it, he reminds me of that perfect night when I won it, and the whole world stood up and cheered, and I was loved. God, that’s sad.” Olivia disagrees: “As a woman heading toward her second divorce, I get it. I get it completely.” And they’re off, with one last farewell to Bette’s little gold soulmates: “Wait up for me, boys. Tonight I’m bringing you home a baby brother.”
Annnnd it’s showtime: Lights! Glamour! Passive-aggressive red-carpet press! Joan is asked who she voted for for Best Actress; her answer, with a Cheshire-cat grin and a stone-cold side-eye? “The winner.”
Backstage, Bette paces: “What a fool to care about anything this much,” she chastises herself, “or to want anything this much.” She’ll settle for a drink, without realizing that the green room has already been coopted by Crawford, who is busy telling wide-eyed Supporting Actress winner Patty Duke that it isn’t “ladylike” to bring her good-luck-charm Chihuahua to the ceremony. (Whatever. It worked, didn’t it?)
Enter Bette, and the tension between the two of them is MMA-level intense. But before anyone can land a double-leg takedown, Joan is called to present Best Director (well done, Lawrence of Arabia guy, with your eight-word acceptance speech!), and then we follow Joan again in a sweeping Goodfellas-style tracking shot as she sashays through the bowels of backstage one more time, anticipating the moment we’ve been waiting almost 40 minutes (and truly, five episodes) for: Best Actress.
Surprise! If you haven’t already Wikipedia’d it (or lived through it the first time): It’s Anne Bancroft, and the news literally takes Bette’s breath away, in the worst way. Can you blame her? The entire world goes slo-mo as an exultant Joan strides onstage to accept for her (remember, she has permission; Bancroft’s back in New York doing her theater thing). Joan, bathing in the flashbulbs like Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi fountain, has clearly already decided to forget that this isn’t actually her prize, and gleefully poses in the winners’ circle.
Back at Bette’s house, it feels more like a wake. “I could have made history,” she laments. “Coulda, woulda, shoulda.” “You still can!” Olivia insists. “Really, Livvy? In what part? In what picture?” a devastated Bette howls, then apologizes: “I’m sorry. I just thought for a moment that I was back in the game.” A nomination is nice, but it won’t bring all the boys (or the scripts) to the yard.
Joan crawls into bed as the sun rises, placing “her” new statuette next to the old one on her nightstand because apparently there’s no security protocol for taking these things home. (Don’t worry, Joan: one day, about 54 years from now, they’ll make a way worse mistake with Best Picture. This is only petty larceny!) But look closer: That’s not triumph on her face — it’s the dawning of the day after, and a realization of exactly what she has and hasn’t won. Beating Bette might have tasted sweet in the moment, but it’s still a hollow victory.
“It’s an honor just to be nominated. Again.” —Bette, in a press conference
“My Joan is way worse than your Joan.”—Bette to Olivia de Havilland, comparing Crawford and Fontaine
“You always did stink at math, Joanie. Not a third Oscar: her tenth nomination, her eighth loss. That’s the way you gotta think about it.”—Hedda Hopper to Joan, on Bette’s awards arithmetic
“Well I was lucky enough to see Ms. Bancroft play it on stage. And do you know, Loretta, her Annie Sullivan seemed even more blind onscreen!”—Joan, campaigning for Ann Bancroft-slash-against Bette
“When we were young, you were one of the first one to make me feel like more than a pretty face. You taught me how to fight. And boy, did you fight for me at the beginning of my career.” —Olivia de Havilland to Bette
“And now here you are, fighting for me at the end of mine.” —Bette