These legends are trying to play nice. It'll never last.
Gird your loins, lovers, for the WWE of midcentury divas, the stone-cold Olympics of bitchery; there will be blood. (Mostly metaphorical, at least in episode 1.)
Fade in, after Hitchock-mod animated credits, on Catherine Zeta-Jones as actress Olivia de Havilland circa 1978 — resplendent in petunia-pink lipstick, yards of black chiffon, and an ozone-depleting blond bouffant: “There was never a rivalry like theirs. For nearly half a century they hated each other, and we loved them for it.” She is speaking (meowing) of course, of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis: towering icons of the silver screen, Hollywood contemporaries who came together only once on film, infamously, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. “What happened afterward,” de Havilland confides, “Well, that was a story, and a feud, of Biblical proportions… But feuds are never about hate. Feuds are about pain.”
And suddenly here we are at the 1961 Golden Globes, with Marilyn Monroe rushing to the stage in red sequins and Crawford (Jessica Lange) sneering spectacularly in white mink (“I’ve got great tits too, but I don’t throw them in everyone’s face”). That’s not hate, though, you see — it’s pain! Pain, as Marilyn flutters onstage and Joan’s sneer turns to choked-back tears. But emotions, and Eastern European facials, wait for no woman; early the next morning, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, dodo-feathered and honey-badger mean) comes calling chez Joan, looking to corner her on the previous night’s sloppy end; did Joan not stumble out of the show, booze-soaked and inconsolable? Hedda’s not buying that her cup runneth over strictly with Pepsi-Cola, and she’s happy to threaten and cajole her way into getting a nasty quote, if that’s what it takes. Joan obliges. (Try harder, Joan.)
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So what does a fiftysomething girl have to do, anyway, to get a decent part? She can start by plonking her Oscar statuette on her agent’s desk and demanding better scripts. He tells Joan it’s Elvis’ mother or nothing; if she wants a great role, she’ll have to dig it out herself, even if all she sees out there for women are three options: “Ingenues, mothers, or gorgons.”
Hold the phone, though: what’s that in the pile of paperbacks loyal housemaid Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) drags home for inspiration? Two clues: There’s a Baby in the title, and a Jane. No gorgons. And director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) sees potential too, or at least his Girl Friday does, when Joan messengers it over special delivery. He’s game, and Joan has a few casting ideas. Enter Bette (Susan Sarandon), finally, in denim dungarees, vamping her way through a supporting role on Broadway in Night of the Iguana, but clearly hungry for a bigger fix.
NEXT: An offer Bette can’t refuse
And at last our two weather systems meet in Bette’s dressing room: A few solid volleys of passive-aggressive banter and aggressive-aggressive f-bombs later, the gauntlet is thrown/seed planted/choose your own analogy. Crawford sets up the pitch (“we need each other, Bette”), and later on the phone, Aldrich brings it home (“Joan’s name gets us distribution. I need her to get the picture made, but I need you to make it great”). And: sold! To the woman with the Bette Davis eyes. Not that her yes is actually verbal, yet.
But bigger problems await Bob; one studio wants Hepburn — not Katharine, Audrey — and Doris Day to star; another wants to beef up the part of the “sexy neighbor girl.” So bring on the last resort: Jack Warner (played by Stanley Tucci and his amazing technicolor hairline). He has a bad history with both women, and it basically makes him poop daggers just thinking about getting back into bed with them both, business-wise, but he’s a bottom line guy and the money makes sense. So it’s a go, and on to a fantastic power-struggle square dance of a press conference, as Joan and Bette battle for the better chair, Joan flogs her Pepsi contract, and then accidentally-on-purpose finds out in front of all the cameras that Bette’s getting $600 more a week in expenses. But hey, that’s cool, she’s easy! Hahahaha just kidding. She wants $1500 or she walks.
And because it’s not a Ryan Murphy cast without Kathy Bates, here she comes as contract player Joan Blondell, to fill us in on the respective home lives of B & J, which come off about as cozy and restorative as a barbwire daybed stuffed with scorpions. Still, they both seem to have extremely understanding men in their lives, because Hollywood is magic.
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Then it’s off to Day One of Baby Jane production. Joan comes ready to kill with kindness, and bribe her way to better lighting with pink-paper-wrapped gifts for the crew. But who cares! It’s Mad Men’s Sally (Keirnan Shipka) as Bette’s daughter B.D., here to do… not much apparently, so far? Never mind. And it’s looking like there won’t be a Day Two at all if these two ladies don’t stop antagonizing each other like mad raccoons with only one garbage can to share. Somehow, though, the dailies show it’s working; there’s chemistry in that crazy.
And so we come to the episode’s final scene: a lunch invitation from Hedda that feels like a trap — and not just because she’s serving fish in aspic, which also explains how everyone stayed so thin in the olden days: because food was gross. But whatever shade is on the menu, Bette and Joan won’t bite; they post a united front and play it sweet until Hedda surrenders (“We’re skipping dessert. I’m already getting diabetes”) and settles for a mild snip in print about these two stars now in the “Indian summers” of their careers who never got to know one another in their primes: “Now, they’re about to.” Cut, print, and scene. Until next week, babies.
Bette lunging for her first cigarette of the day at 5 a.m. like a nicotine fiend running down the gangplank after a transatlantic flight
Stanley Tucci demanding “a lunch thing. And my clothing!” after a massage.
Joan in her first Baby Jane scene, overcome by “watching” herself onscreen, followed by the first time Bette goes full Baby bonkers in the makeup chair.
“I told them that it is an honor to prune Ms. Crawford’s bush and to shut up.” — Mamacita, on Joan’s unpaid gardeners
“You have a very short goddamn memory, Bobby. That bitch Davis sued me in 1936 to get out of her contract… Bobby, I was so upset about it that I got an ulcer and hemorrhoids from it! I still have ‘em! I’ll show them to you.” — Jack Warner, complaining to Robert Aldrich
“You wanted me to starch your shirts and greet you at the door with a martini in hand and a, ‘How did your day go, darling?’ I’m the one who needed a wife.” — Bette, to her ex
“Cut back on the shoulder pads, and lose the lipstick. You’re playing a recluse who hasn’t seen the sun for 20 years, for Christ’s sakes.” — Bette to Joan, on the first day of production
“Welcome to the house that fear built. Come on in.” — Hedda Hopper, greeting her guests