The stars settle in for one last round of the only game they know

By Leah Greenblatt
April 23, 2017 at 11:21 PM EDT
Suzanne Tenner/FX
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And now, dear recappees, we’ve come to the end: Goodnight gossip, goodnight Feud; goodnight Mamacita jumping over the moon. Goodnight movie stars, goodnight air, goodnight Pepsis everywhere.

First, the final episode will take us back one more time to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion circa 1978, which is essentially this show’s champagne-upholstered, A-list equivalent of the reality-show confession booth. Except instead of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell wafting in in sherbet chiffons to purr about backlot bitcheries gone by, it’s Bob Aldrich’s long-suffering assistant Pauline — looking mostly the same, only now she’s wearing one of those de rigueur Me Decade turtleneck-and-vest combos, and her days as Bob’s proverbial doormat are long gone.

Years ago, she moved to the Midwest and found her place working on documentaries, where there are actual opportunities for women on the other side of the camera. (Nobody puts Pauline in the corner! Except, you know, basically all of Hollywood, for decades.) And if she ever wondered Whatever Happened to Baby Joan, she found out in a run-in at LaGuardia Airport: Crawford was drunk, alone, and in a wheelchair, her face “a mask of chalk-white foundation.” But the star was also softer and more vulnerable, eager to reconnect with the woman she once dismissed and threatened to have fired. “She seemed very much tossed away,” Pauline remembers sadly.

A little “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” segue, and we’re back to 1969 in Joan’s New York City apartment. She’s microwaving a frozen entree for one, signing old head shots, and speaking to a friend on the phone about the new generation: “That Jack Nicholson,” she asks, “is he vaguely cross eyed?” Turning on the television, she flips right past the bloody news dispatches from Vietnam, but an unidentified old film (it sounds like a clip from Grand Hotel) makes her eyes light up. It’s clearly a lonely life, especially for a star who spent nearly her entire adult life smack in the glittery center of this business we call show. (Can you blame her for getting a puppy? Or even for naming it Lotus Blossom?)

Look who’s back, though! It’s Mamacita at the door with an offer and a suitcase — strictly on a part-time basis, she insists. Guttentag and welcome home, you little German brick. New puppy plus Mamacita: Joan smiles.  But at the dentist’s office, we learn what that smile cost her, literally: As a young actress, Joan had six back molars removed to get a shapelier, more elegant jawline; it’s called “the buckle,” and it’s a bloody reminder that beauty, in Hollywood, is always pain. Buckles, Botox, whatever keeps you young and gorgeous and able to “catch the light.” Because of course, all those missing teeth have left her with terrible issues, and the young doctor suggests fitting her with a denture. That is not a D-word Joan is down with: “I’d rather spit blood into a sink than look like Martha Raye.” Pureed soups it is.

And when her agent gets in touch after months of radio silence, it’s only to tell her about a B-movie script he’s sure she’ll say no to: The role is an anthropologist who has discovered a caveman preserved in ice. It’s called The Missing Link, and he clearly thinks it’s crap, but all she hears is “lady scientist” (in her MGM days, she longed to play Marie Curie), and she accepts. An independent film? She can almost smell the Oscar!

But there’s more: He’s got an offer from Simon & Schuster for her to write a women’s lifestyle advice book. Just the usual stuff: what’s her essential recipe for a dinner party, how she maintains her famous legs. (I think the answer to all of the above is: booze?) She’s skeptical, but he sells her on the endless branding opportunities. Joan Crawford dinnerware, Joan Crawford plastic furniture covers! Sold.

Joan shows up in England for the first day of shooting, and The Missing Link has now become Trog, as in Troglodyte. Which is just the beginning of the bad news: This thing makes The Clan of the Cave Bear sound like Proust, and it doesn’t even have a budget for a dressing room; she has to do her wardrobe changes in the jump seat of a dirty van. Still, she’s determined to be a good team player, and in her downtime she stays busy recording her thoughts for that book. (Among other things, she believes in self-pampering, surrounding yourself with happy colors, and sitting on hard chairs, because “soft ones spread the hips.”)

As much as she tries to keep up, the Doors soundtrack and side-burned hippies on set really drive home how out of her era she is; a flask is her only real friend, and she starts to spend her nights wandering the soundstage alone, like Miss Havisham in coral lipstick and a floral flannel nightie. All that dictation does pay off though: Joan Crawford: My Way of Life goes to print, and a long line of fans show up for the book signing.

But all Joan hears in their questions and compliments is mockery; she can’t even pretend not to loathe them, and with a few (kind of amazing) insults, she walks away. Back home in Manhattan, an unflattering picture in the paper leads her to a final decision: If the crone she sees staring back at her is who she’s become, then she doesn’t want to be submitted for roles anymore; she’s officially done.

Now it’s Victor Buono’s turn in the gold-velvet hot seat at Dorothy Chandler. As Bette’s former costar and now longtime friend, he thinks she’s lost her way, taking every half-assed offer that comes in: “Eight pilots she made. It was like Miles Davis playing jingles for lunch meat commercials.” The worst part? None of them even get picked up.

Why, Bette wonders, is she not enjoying her twilight years like that snobby cow Katharine Hepburn, off doing Albee plays and still picking up Oscar nods? “Am I not every bit her equal? How does she manage?” she demands. “Well, she sometimes says no,” Victor replies drily.

Bette — who, by the way, is now ash blond and wearing berets — meets her visiting daughter B.D. at a restaurant, and two minutes in, their civility caves like a bad souffle: B.D., who is still married to the mostly invisible Jeremy, is now a Pennsylvania farm wife and mother of two boys — one of whom Bette apparently beat (“swatted!”) for misbehaving while she was babysitting the night before. Also, B.D. thinks her mom’s a drunk — to be fair, she is having an 11 a.m. margarita — and lets her know she won’t be staying for the guacamole, or any other avocado in the future.

But the tough love must have worked: Bette is at the doctor’s saying she’s 17 days sober. She’s also smoking like an unfiltered chimney. The doctor thinks going cold turkey on the bourbon is a mistake, but Bette insists she can’t go to rehab; she’s got the Dean Martin Roast coming up. And actually, the roast is the worst kind of sobriety test; Bette puts on her game face, only to be (according to Buono) “demeaned and insulted by fifth-rate celebrities” with awful, unfunny jokes. No star, or human, deserves that.

She also signs on to play the mother of sham evangelist Aimee Semple in the 1976 TV movie The Disappearance of Aimee, and finds a fresh level of costar hell: “For all her complaints about Joan,” Buono confides, “she didn’t know true hatred until she met Faye.” As in Dunaway — Crawford’s soon-to-be avatar in Mommie Dearest, and apparently a bigger, badder diva than the original J.C.

Victor is also the one who tells Bette that Joan is ill and hasn’t left her apartment in months. “Cancer isn’t going to kill Joan,” Bette insists. “She’s a cockroach, just like me.” But Victor still insists that she should call her. And so she does… and then just sits there for a full minute of awkward silence while Joan says “hello” over and over, which made me scream, “SPEAK, BETTE!” like a maniac at the screen. Finally poor Joan hangs up, confused.

We’re all the way up to 1977, and Joan’s daughter Cathy comes to visit with her own kids and to be told that her mother doesn’t want chemo; she’s a Christian Scientist now. Joan also knows that her eldest daughter, Christina, is writing a book. “You have to understand, I was at the height of my career when she was little,” Joan says. “We didn’t have the quality time together that I had with you and Cindy… I worked so hard at instilling the proper values in her. I only wanted her to appreciate her advantages!”

Does she want to read the galleys, like the editor offered? She does not. “Why spend the days of your life reading something that could only hurt you?” And forget wire hangers; now she’s fine with her grandchildren’s scuff marks on the floor. She also wants just one daughter’s reassurance, and she gets it; Cathy tells her she was the best mom in the world, and it really does make her happy.

In the middle of the night, though, a disheveled Joan is woken up by the sounds of a celebration in the living room. It’s Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner, all dressed up and drinking martinis, playing cards by candlelight and giggling like loons while they reminisce. Suddenly Joan’s in pink shantung too, with white gloves, a full face, and dark-brown chignon, because in your own fantasy sequence, you can look exactly as 12 years younger as you want to.

Then they’re all playing the game of Who Had It Harder in Hollywood: Hedda had her 100 years’ war with fellow columnist Louella Parsons; Joan never stopped fighting for what should have been hers. Jack was a Jew! “Well, the expression isn’t ‘Unite and conquer,’” Jack cracks. “Why, why did I need to be conquered?” Joan asks sincerely. And cue a grand entrance from Bette: “What other way was there? Let the animals run the zoo?”

She, too, looks young and fabu. “Tell them, Joan. Tell them what they did to you.” Crawford duly confesses her deepest insecurities: that if she ever showed the real girl beneath the movie star veneer, “I’d go back to that sad little wretch I’d been. So I spent my whole life being Joan Crawford, a woman I created for others. I don’t know who I am when I’m by myself.”

They all agree to apologize on the count of three. One, two… Dead silence. Mad giggles. “Look, Joan, if I really had known how hard I’d made it for you, I… wouldn’t have done a f—in’ thing differently.” Oh Jack, you scamp. “You know, we showbiz folks, all the anger we feel from not being loved, which is the reason we’re in this business in the first place, all the tears and the screaming and the rage, it all disappears. And the public, what they remember, for the most part, is the good stuff — the work, and all the joy that we brought them. Trust me.”

Now it’s Hedda’s turn: “You will always be young, always be beautiful. Bette too, though it pains me to say it.” And of course, she’s right, even though TCM technically hasn’t been invented yet. Left alone while Jack and Hedda go out for reinforcements, Joan and Bette bond over being shut-ins now. Why bother with the Guggenheim when you have The Young and the Restless to keep up with at home?

They laugh, and Joan wonders why she’s so happy to see Bette. “Nostalgia,” Bette shrugs, and suggests a card game: If you pick a number card, you say something you’re sorry for; face cards, you say something you wish you’d done. “It’s the only game I know.”

And so Joan admits that she’s sorry she wasn’t more generous with Bette, and Bette tells her she wishes she’d been a friend to her. “Well it’s not too late, is it? We can start now!” Joan insists, offering up a champagne toast. She’s dreamed about them staying up late like two girlfriends and talking about boys, she says. It’s silly that they’ve wasted so many years like this; won’t she stay the night and start their friendship for real?

She calls on Mamacita for more champagne, and that, of course, is how the illusion finally falls away. Joan is alone again in her nightgown on her plastic-covered couch, and Mamacita’s face says it all. She puts her charge gently back to bed, and Joan understands, but she’s still grateful and glad for what she had.

One week later, Joan is dead. “We embalmed her,” Mamacita says. “We made her look the way she liked, and then we cremated her body.” The documentary crew interviewing her prompts her to talk about how big the funeral was, and how the studios even observed a moment of silence for their once-great star.

But Mamacita is not moved. They showed up to say goodbye, she says, but not when Joan was still alive and really needed their company. Bette learns the news from a reporter’s phone call, and if you thought that shock would make her soft, you have not been watching this show. They want a quote? Here it is: “My mother always said, ‘Don’t say anything bad about the dead. Only say good.’ Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” Well, stitch that on a pillow and call it Lucille.

Now it’s Bette’s turn to face her own mortality. She sits for a portrait, and it’s not flattering. (Also, the artist is gay, and not interested in her after-dinner invitations.) Bette also gets sent a stash of old letters that her mother wrote, and they’re petty and mean: The daughter recalled in them is a selfish, bratty pain in the ass. Bette feels utterly betrayed. “I thought she was my only friend. But actually, I was totally alone.” God, this episode is brutal.

Back to 1978 and the Oscars: Bette is there to present to Charlton (“Chuck”) Heston, and Olivia wants her to sit down with the film crew when she’s done, for the forever-ongoing framing device-slash-documentary about Joan. But Bette won’t bite; just revisit her talk-show archives, she says. There’s plenty of red meat on Joan there, and she’s had enough of this “endless and incomprehensible fixation.”

Olivia insists: “This is not a film about Joan. This is a film about all our lives,” a.k.a. The Old and the Restless. Bette won’t budge: “You’ll want me to say funny, bitchy one-liners about Joan Crawford. I won’t do it. She was a professional, we did one picture together, our lives intersected, that’s it.” But her wet eyes betray her a little bit.

So what really happened when Bette and Joan came together? Flashback to the first day of Baby Jane, and they’re sitting side by side on set. “Bette,” Joan says, “here’s what I really hope for this picture when all is said and done. I hope I’ve made a new friend.” “Me too,” Bette agrees. And off they go to their dressing rooms, to an alternate reality of goodwill and teamwork and a Ryan Murphy show called Movie Stars Who Mostly Get Along.

Finally, it’s time for the postscripts that tell us what happened to all our very real characters: Bob Aldrich went on to direct the 1967 smash The Dirty Dozen; Jack Warner retired in 1969 and died in 1978 at 86, “the last of the great movie moguls.” Victor Buono found success as King Tut on TV’s Batman, then died at 43 of a heart attack on New Year’s Day 1982; B.D. became a born-again Christian and wrote a 1985 book about Bette that estranged them for the rest of their lives; Olivia de Havilland is 100 years old and still going strong in Paris; Hedda died in 1966 at 80. Joan never lived to see the character-assassinating release of her daughter’s book and the ensuing movie for Mommie Dearest, though friends, family, and colleagues at least disputed its version of events.

Bette was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy and then four strokes, which left her left side paralyzed. Until the end, smoked up to 100 cigarettes a day before finally passing away in France in 1989. Her epitaph, and the kicker to every episode of this sad, mad, and mostly glorious series? “She did it the hard way.”

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  • 03/05/17
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