Blackmail, hatchet jobs, D-I-V-O-R-C-E: Things are turning nasty for Baby Jane's biggest players
Axe her no questions, she’ll tell you no lies: Joan Crawford came to slay, but not, like… literally. And yet here she is as episode 6 opens, mean-mugging and man-hatcheting her way through the trailer for Strait-Jacket — a (very real) schlock thriller with the caps-mad tagline “SO FRIGHTENING It SLASHES Through the Limits of SUSPENSE!”
How did she get here? It’s almost as if we never saw her end last week’s episode with the box-office triumph of Baby Jane and a brand-new Academy Award by her bedside. (Okay fine, she was technically only playing Oscar foster mom for Anne Bancroft. But still.) And as kicky as it is to see John Waters pop in to play Strait-Jacket’s director, William Castle (apparently, he’s a lifelong fan), there’s no joy in watching poor Joan being forced to enter a premiere screening with her prop axe swinging, dodging fistfuls of stale popcorn and looking exactly as existentially wrecked as she feels. If this is some kind of karmic comeuppance for past bad behavior, she is clearly feeling the burn.
“I don’t think I can do it anymore, Mamacita,” she wails, stumbling home and straight toward the sweet relief of her living-room liquor cart. “Jesus Christ, why did I say yes to any of this?” Then she answers her own question: because she’s gone nine months with no offers, and even Mommie Dearest has electric bills. In disgust, she hurls a vase of chrysanthemums, and Mamacita finally hits the wall: “I tell you now this: The next time you throw something at my head, I leave you. Then you will have nothing.”
“Be careful going up the stairs,” she adds disdainfully. “You are blotto.” So Joan decides to just hang where she is for another sippy-sip or seven. Why not? But hey, it turns out that Strait-Jacket isn’t even doing too shabby; Jack Warner is legitimately jealous when he sees the weekend numbers, and he wants to know what the secret sauce is with all these “hag” movies. Apparently, it’s degradation: “You take some movie queen of yore who was once too beautiful to screw us, and you make her suffer.” Wait, is that even degradation, or just straight-up sadism? After talking through the topic and engaging in a little light underling abuse, Warner sends out for Bob Aldrich. Clearly, the Tucci wheels are turning.
Hedda Hopper is back too, dressed like Cruella de Vil on a down day, and soon we find out the reason for her relatively restrained look: She confesses to Joan that she’s had a serious heart attack, and the doctor says there will probably be more. The cold bitch-slap of mortality has apparently made her reflect — not on the careers she’s nurtured, as Joan suggests, but the ones she destroyed: “The reds, the queers, the whores, the cheaters and dopeheads. The ones who cursed me, sued me, offed themselves.” She’s been considering them all, she says, “And I felt…. good that I’d contributed to our moral economy.” Haha whoops, never mind! Maybe there’s still time for a “No Regrets” lower-back tattoo before she goes.
But that’s not the only reason Hedda’s come by; she also wants to tell Joan that she’s been made aware of a certain “stag picture” a very young Crawford once made, and she’s not the only one who knows. She’s also not going to not write about it, if it’s true. Her offer is on the table: If Joan cooperates, she can turn it into a tale of redemption. “Not a bad way for either of us to go out,” she reasons. “And the perfect final scoop for my readers.” Joan takes a hard pass, and Hedda pushes back with her own veiled threat to go to print; if squints could kill, there would be two dead doornails in this room right now.
Cut to a frustrated Bob Aldrich in mid-coitus, which looks uncomfortably like a scene from the “Before” bit in a Cialis commercial. Mrs. Aldrich lays it out straight: Bob is struggling because he’s depressed — “morose,” actually: “You wear slippers ‘til lunch, and you smashed all of my Sinatra records.” Which tracks with the fact that Old Blue Eyes is currently making a mess of that crap Western he’s directing, though Harriet thinks this is really about Baby Jane, specifically the embarrassing fact that Bob found his greatest career success with a “women’s picture.” He needs to put his ego away, stop moping, and pull it together, she says firmly, like the life coach she should be getting paid to be.
Jack Warner agrees: He’s still pushing his stack of “premium hag scripts” on Bob, and he really, really wants him to pick one, stat. He also allows himself a rare vulnerable moment, admitting that pop culture is passing him by: “I’m in the twilight of my days, Bobby. I know that. But I would just like to keep the sun from going down a little bit longer.” Bob has a solution for that: It’s a script called Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?, which sounds like a fantastically original concept for everyone involved. So what’s not to love? Apparently, his choice of costar: Bob wants to pair Bette Davis with Ann Sheridan (Angels With Dirty Faces); Warner says only Joan and Bette together will do. But they hate each other! Aldrich protests. And he knows that they all barely survived Baby Jane. Well suck it up, Bobby, because Jack, much like honey badger, don’t care.
So Bob pastes on a hopeful grin and visits both ladies (if you’re keeping track, this is definitely the furthest we’ve ever gone into an episode without seeing Bette; did Susan Sarandon have a scheduling conflict this week?). Anyway, Bette still blames Joan for the Oscars chicanery and makes it clear that she “wouldn’t piss on her if she was on fire.” (Which, considering all the alcohol and flammable fabrics, isn’t exactly out of reach.) Joan is equally unmoved, and both women lay out their litanies of misery as the camera cuts back and forth. Finally, though, they come around — with conditions: Top billing and a signing bonus for Joan, creative control for Bette. See? Easy.
Meanwhile, Joan’s still got this stag-film fire to put out, so she pays a visit to an old acquaintance — apparently, a guy who already shook her down years ago for that step-daddy sex stuff when she couldn’t hook him up with the acting gigs he demanded. She hands over a stuffed envelope, but it’s only half what Hedda’s rival gossip columnist Louella Parsons is offering, he sneers; can the Pepsi queen really not afford to match it?
And that’s when he reveals that he’s not just a world-class dirt weasel; he’s also her older brother. “I’m at the end of my career,” Joan spits. “Go ahead and call Lolly Parsons. You want to ruin me? I don’t care.” He tells her he just wants her to remember where she came from and how lucky she is. “I have never been lucky,” she snaps back — clearly not, at least when it comes to this rotten family tree.
Speaking of shakedowns, that’s exactly what Bob’s doing to Jack; he’s taking Cousin Charlotte to Warner’s nemesis, Darryl Zanuck, and unleashing months of pent-up rage while he’s at it: “It might be twilight for you, Jack but it’s not for me. From where I’m standing, it’s a new dawn!” Jack is unamused: “If the speeches in Charlotte are all as shitty as that one,” he snarls, “Zanuck can have it.” But Bob still gets the last word! (It’s about balls.)
At the first Charlotte table read, the ladies waste no time getting reacquainted. Before they’re even out of the parking lot, Bette’s playing Fashion Police: “You can go straight from day to night in that getup,” she purrs at Joan. “You probably have plans after this to accept another award — maybe the Nobel Prize on behalf of Dr. King?” Boom.
But Joan is more conciliatory; she wants to burn the past (literally; she brought a symbolic matchbox) and start fresh, beginning with an apology for what happened on Oscar night. Bette treats it as the sorry-not-sorry it is and counters with her own demand: She wants a promise that they present a united front once they step inside. “I’m your sworn ally,” Joan replies. “Good,” says Bette. “It serves us both.”
But it’s a rough read from the start: The script is all hack dialogue, bad Baby Jane callbacks, and decapitated heads bouncing down the stairs. “There’s a fine line between art and trash,” Bette warns. “And that line is plausibility.” Also, our leading ladies can’t keep the peace for longer than it takes one of Joan’s beloved Pepsis to go flat. Even Bob playing Angry Dad can’t corral them, and Bette’s right: What they need is a way better script. Until that happens, she’s out. So she walks, and Joan’s reaction is classic: “I’d be happy to read both parts.”
Later, she pays another visit to her rat brother, who’s in the hospital to get his appendix out. He gets a big cut of her Charlotte advance, and about a thousand papercuts to her heart when he says, “Hey look, I get it. I was the golden boy everyone loved, and you were the runt Mother didn’t want.” Joan can’t just let that one ride, and soon they’re viciously relitigating the past, hissing at each other like two pine snakes even as he’s being wheeled off to the OR.
The night before Bob leaves for the Charlotte shoot in Baton Rouge, his wife drops her own truth bomb: She wants out — of the trip, the marriage, everything. She’s tired of living her life through him, when all he really lives for is the movies. It’s a great moment for Molly Price and a powerful reminder that her character isn’t just an eternally beleaguered Mrs. (Hang tight, Harriet; The Feminine Mystique will be on the bookshelves of fed-up housewives everywhere within a year.)
Back at the Crawford manse, Mamacita also has news: Joan’s brother didn’t make it through the surgery; his appendix exploded. But before she grieves, Joan’s got a check to cancel. Bye-bye, Hal! Rot in pieces. Mamacita suggests that now that she’s off the hook blackmail-wise, she can extract herself from the Charlotte mess. But Joan doesn’t exist without the work, she says, so guess who’s still heading to Lousiana?
It’s a night shoot in Baton Rouge, and antebellum Bette is not pleased with her scene, so she flounces out in her hoopskirts to yell at Bob, who’s taking a “nature break.” He finally confesses that Harriet has left him, and that he’s devastated. “I’m not going to candy-coat it,” Bette replies. Divorce is rough, and she would know: “I’ve been through it four times. But I survived, and so will you.” But he doesn’t know how to be alone, he protests. “We’ll be alone together,” she replies. Like a good foundation garment, she can be just the right kind of supportive sometimes.
Joan finally shows up to set, and they’re not exactly rolling out the red carpet for her arrival: There’s no one to greet her at the airport, and the hotel suite doesn’t even have a gift basket. Also, it smells like garbage. But Joan is determined to shake it off. (“It’s Louisiana. Everything has the sweet smell of rot.”) When in the South, do as Scarlett O’Hara would do — because tomorrow is another day, no? And she will come to it with the proper positive attitude. Except when she calls Bob’s room to give him the good news, he’s too busy popping champagne bottles with Bette to care. And so here we are are with Joan — alone again, naturally.
“Does a Ringling Brothers elephant have a gay old time?” — Joan, when Hedda asks if she’s enjoying her press tour for Strait-Jacket
“He’s five years older than me, and he’s hotter than I’ve ever been. He’s winning awards for My Fair Lady and I’m pimping myself out to William Castle.” — Joan, on her director friend George Cukor
Let me explain something to you, all right? Goldwyn is finished, Mayer is dead, and Selznick is just one pastrami sandwich away from a coronary. But Jack L. Warner still runs Warner Brothers… And incidentally, how many brothers do you see standing in this room? I’m the last goddamn dinosaur.” — Jack, schooling Bob Aldrich on the Hollywood mogul power structure
“Now she’s doing television? I mean, really. Is that a face America wants in its living room at dinnertime? I don’t think so.” — Joan, on Bette
“Every time I agree to a back end, that’s exactly where I end up getting it.” — Joan explaining her philosophy on salary asks
“I didn’t come here for your cigars… I came here to get my balls back. You hear ‘em clanking?” —Bob, to Jack Warner