Joan takes a risky professional gamble, Bette plans a wedding, and Mamacita takes a stand
Welcome to the second-to-last episode, my lovely Feud-alists: Physically, we’re shooting What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? in New Orleans. Emotionally, we’ve flown straight into the Bermuda Triangle — or at least some kind of unholy Mean Girls trinity, in which Bette and director Bob Aldrich conspiratorially whisper and giggle and probably wear pink on Wednesdays, and Joan is the forlorn outcast, forever wondering what inside joke or off-set intimacy she’s missing this time.
Won’t they throw her a bone? Because Bette’s definitely getting one: “They’re like bunny rabbits,” Joan grumbles, glaring at her hotel-room wall. “It’s past midnight, they’ve been at it since we got home from dinner… How can I sleep when my director and costar are engaged in some tawdry bacchanal 30 feet away?” (Incidentally, Mamacita is rolling plastic sheeting off the bed this entire time, which is fascinating. Is that a standard Southern ‘60s hotel thing? A Howard Hughes germaphobe thing? Inquiring minds!)
Mamacita offers to sing her a lullaby, but Joan believes revenge is the best Ambien and resolves to report the rutting rabbits to the front desk. Then she changes her mind again and decides to express her concerns in person. But what she sees isn’t a wild sex party; it’s just Bette and Bob and half the crew, hanging out and playing records and — in a moment that burns Joan to the core — mocking her performance earlier in the day, though in a way that’s more teasing than outright cruel. (Incidentally, this is also where we learn that the movie’s name has officially been changed to the far superior Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.) Victor Buono also points out to Bette that whether she meant to or not, she’s surrendered the best part: “Joan’s playing the villain. Villains always have the meaty roles. She’s the mastermind.” If that’s true, she’s a very lonely master.
All those empty hours do leave Joan plenty of time for micro-managing her makeup routine — the woman examines false-eyelash options like a diamond merchant checking for carats and clarity. But once she finally arrives on set, things go sideways fast. Bette has no problem telling her she’s way overplaying the role; Bob agrees, and Joan balks, icily informing them that she needs to process their notes… “in my trailer.”
Joan’s pissed that Bette’s sitting in on a scene she’s not even in, as if she has director privileges; Bob counters that Bette’s a producer and can say what she wants. “You have no idea how much harder I have to work to be taken seriously as an actress!” Joan wails. “I didn’t get my start in the theat-uh like Miss Bette Davis. I broke in shaking my fringe in nightclubs. I’d come home after a gig with Scotch on my dress, and I’ll always have that stain on me.” (So Lady Macbeth! Out, out, damn Scotch.)
Later, at a rowdy cast party, Davis reminds us where her own beef with Crawford comes from: She hasn’t forgotten how it felt to be the Ugly Bette to Joan’s movie-star beauty so many years ago. “I wish I had known for a single day what it feels like to walk into a room and knock ‘em out without a single word,” she reflects tipsily as Bob undresses her. Has he ever been rejected for the way he looks, she wonders? No nubile starlet’s ever said no to that beer gut, as long as power and the promise of movie parts still stood behind it. “I don’t make the rules,” Bob replies, busily unbuttoning her blouse.
But she’s not done, and we get a crucial piece of backstory: Recalling her first screen test years ago with Jack Warner, she recounts how she hoped he would see her talent, her unique approach to the material, so she hid behind a door to hear his reaction. And she got it: “He said I had zero sex appeal. He said, ‘Who would want to f— that?’ I was 22, and nobody ever had.” The kicker? He also said he wished she looked like… Joan Crawford. Finally, Bob seems to understand. He puts her to bed tenderly and heads back to his own room.
The next day on set, everyone is melting in the Louisiana heat, and Bette tells Joan not to worry about sticking around for her off-camera scene. So Joan retreats to the sweet relief of her trailer and her trusty flask. Hours later, she wakes up sozzled and sad, with the whole day gone. So she makes the wise choice to confront Bette in her hotel room. “This entire production is an elaborate opportunity for you to humiliate me, isn’t it? You, Bob, the whole f—ing crew abandon me out at that plantation!”
“What a fool I was to sign up for this picture, and a bigger fool to think I could ever trust you,” she rages on. Then, the mighty insult duet begins: Joan’s a vain show pony; Bette’s a try-hard, flop-sweating pity case. (Can we agree that Joan is way, way the meaner one in this particular situation?). As Joan walks away, Bette asks, sincerely, “How did it feel to be the most beautiful girl in the world?” “It was wonderful,” Joan replies. “The most joyous thing you could ever imagine. And it was never enough.” Joan throws the same question back at her, replacing “beauty” with “talent,” and gets the same reply. If this scene doesn’t make the For Your Consideration reel, I will eat a hat.
Finally, New Orleans is in the Spanish-mossy rear-view mirror, and it’s back to L.A. Except Joan is seeing the script revisions, and she’s not thrilled. Where are her monologues? Her strategy is to check in to Cedars-Sinai with something “respiratory,” but Bette calls her bluff in a hot minute. Anyway, she has her own problems: 16-year-old B.D. informs Bette that she needs her to sign some consent forms — so she can marry her poncey 29-year-old British boyfriend. She doesn’t get the signature, but we do get a few excellent mother-daughter zingers before the thwarted not-yet-newlyweds flounce out.
And look who’s not dead yet, friends: Hedda Hopper, still on the job, like a snake reporting for grass duty. She writes of trouble on the Hush… Hush set due to Crawford’s “mystery ailment” — or as Hopper calls it, “a case of the B.D.s. As in, Bette Davis.” But of course Hedda’s still fully team J.C. and basically taking dictation from Joan’s hospital bedside, printing only quotes that make Davis look like the desperate one.
Really though, could Joan really not have predicted that her master plan might backfire? Bob shows up for a visit (as Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” trills in the background; touché, Mr. Music Supervisor) and lays down a hard truth: It’s been 12 days of forced delays and shoot-arounds, and if she’s not back on set tomorrow by 7 a.m., the studio is pulling the plug.
So Joan decides this is an excellent time to share her thoughts on script changes: She wants more suitors! Fancier transportation! Maybe just a wee little costume ball? Bob counters with what happened last time he let an actor call the shots: disaster, via Hurricane Sinatra. Flat out, Bob can’t afford another bomb, so he lays it out nice and delicate: “If Charlotte doesn’t work, I’m back making crap TV. So I suggest you put down your f—ing script, and pick up your f—ing contract, and give that a close f—ing read.”
Well, look who found their alarm clock: It’s Joan, on set at the dot of 7 (albeit in a wheelchair), and she gets an ovation just for standing up. Bette’s even got a gift for her: Joan, do you accept this rose? She does, warily. But it’s too late to make nice: Bette criticizes a scene, Joan plays the fainting goat, and the day is over before it’s hardly begun. Bette brings her bad mood home, though it’s actually good news for B.D.: She tells her can get married if she wants — as long as she lets Mom take the wedding reins.
At a studio conference the next day, the guys in suits lay out the situation: It’s been 29 days since Joan completed a full day’s work, and since her condition doesn’t seem to be improving (damn that goat move!), they’re releasing her from her contract, unless she submits to an independent medical examination. “Tiny Tim over there isn’t going to let your doctors get anywhere near her,” Davis snorts. “She’s gassing us all with her Vapor Rub for show. She’s not sick; she’s on strike until Bob accepts all her loony script changes and makes her the star of Charlotte.” The suits don’t love that color commentary, but they’re holding firm on Joan: get the exam, or be sued for costs.
Turning her attentions to her daughter’s wedding plans, Bette thinks she’s offering sage advice, but B.D. has her own surprise: They already did the deed down at City Hall the minute Bette signed the consent forms. And she doesn’t want this big fancy ceremony at all. Joan’s not doing much better with her exam; she tries her best to tickle the handsome young doctor (a stray hand brush here, a whoopsy-daisy drop of the paper gown there) but no dice: She’s fit to serve, and fully busted for her seduction attempt.
Pauline begs her, as a fan, not to lose every last ally. She will get sued or fired or both if she doesn’t quit her reindeer games. Joan imperiously threatens to call Bob and have her fired, and Pauline fires back: She can say whatever she wants, but she’s a delusional narcissist and she’s blowing it. Also, she’s been served — literally: The next day, breach-of-contract papers from the studio arrive, via smiling golly-gee messenger.
Joan puts on a million-dollar show — and that’s just the diamond necklace draped over her scrubs — for the newsreels and refuses to back down; she’s happy to lose the money as long as it costs Bob and Bette too. But why? Her friend George Cukor wants to know. “I’ve always been valued for my beauty, and more times than not, nothing else,” she replies. “But now the only bed I can find power in is this hospital bed.”
Fellow former A-listers Loretta Young and Barbara Stanwyck both won’t touch it because of loyalty to Joan, but guess who will? Bette’s old friend Olivia de Havilland (welcome back, Zeta-Jones), after some intercontinental convincing by Bob. Joan hears the news on radio exactly when the rest of the world does and smashes up the place, which is her second terrible mistake. Mamacita warned her that the next time Joan threw something at her head, she’d go; that vase of irises counts, and she’s done.
“Please Mamacita, no! You can’t leave me, not after what they’ve done to me!” she wails. Mamacita, that Teutonic rock, doesn’t even turn around: “You haff done this to yourself.” And Joan collapses, suddenly the star in the worst, most tragic melodrama she never meant to audition for. Regrets? She has a few. But look who has none: Bette, Olivia, and Bob, happily raising their sponsored Coca-Colas. So farewell Joan, and sayonara Pepsi: The queen is dead. Long live the queen.