Feud: Bette and Joan – What a Hoot!

The first season of the FX series “Feud” revolves around legendary dragons, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, starring Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, and their 1962 film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” .

Catherine Zeta-Jones in

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland

The show opens with Olivia de Havilland dishing on Bette and Joan in an interview with a guy named Adam. Their feud, she shares, reached “biblical proportions.” When asked why the two stars hated each other so much, Olivia says that feuds are never about hate. They’re about pain.

Cut to Joan Crawford, getting drunk while angrily watching Marilyn Monroe pick up her Golden Globe for “Some Like It Hot” in 1961 (Marilyn really got that award in 1960). Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper shows up at Joan’s home the following morning to demand a quote about Marilyn for her column. If she doesn’t get it, she will have no other choice but to publish an item about the valet who saw Joan stumble out of the awards show.

Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper

Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper

Joan gives her a quote about how audiences would rather watch actresses with good morals, like her. “That’s not the only difference between you and her,” Hedda cattily snipes, “she’s getting roles.”

The wolf isn’t quite at the door yet but he’s on the way and the gardeners don’t think it’s an honor to prune Miss Crawford’s bushes for free. So Joan sends her trusty assistant, Mamasita, off to find books on women. They can be divided into 3 categories: ingenues, mothers or gorgons. They find one that fits the latter category. Joan thinks it might work, only she needs Bette Davis to play the gorgon.

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis

Bette is currently appearing in a Broadway play in a role obviously far beneath her stature. Joan drops by her dressing room and the first thing you notice is how she calls Joan “Lucille.” Contemptuously, you might say, but you might say that about almost everything Bette Davis had to say. It doesn’t seem to ruffle Joan and she doesn’t call Bette by her real first name, “Ruth,” in return.

On the topic of them almost working together in the past, Bette recalls a vehicle where Joan wanted to play “the pretty young servant girl” and Bette was supposed to play “the hag of a wife.” “Forget it!” she snorts, um, contemptuously– between deep drags on her Lucky Strikes. Throughout the episode, Bette chain smokes non-filtered Luckys like a fiend while Joan drinks like a fish out of a flask she keeps handy, although the running gag is how much she loves Pepsi Cola, her late husband’s company.

Joan tells Bette that while great pictures for women may come back in fashion, they won’t. So if they want something to happen, they have to make it happen. If the two of them team up, the studio execs can’t say no. She plops the “Baby Jane” book on Bette’s dressing room table and as she is walking out, drops the news that she’s letting Bette have the title role. “The lead?” Bette marvels. “You can call it that,” Joan responds, believing that Blanche is the better role.

Bette talks to producer and director Bob Aldrich who butters her up even more. He needs Joan to get the picture made, but he needs Bette to make the picture great.

Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner and Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich

Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner and Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich

After a lot of wrangling for finances, promising to pay Jack Warner first and taking out a second mortgage on his home, Aldrich has his two stars sign contracts when Joan finds out that Bette is getting $600 more in expenses a week. She shoots Aldrich a look across the room that he knows means trouble.

Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon

Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis

She didn’t sign the contract and tells Aldrich that she can’t go into the project feeling resentment for her co-star, particularly when it was her idea to “throw this party in the first place.” Joan moved so close to Aldrich’s face, that he had to physically move her back a step, reinforcing another unpleasantry about aging in Hollywood. Seductiveness doesn’t look good on older women. So Joan ups the ante: she wants $1500.

Another interview is shown, this time with actress Joan Blondell, telling Adam how Joan barreled through the 1950s, not caring one whit about younger co-stars, while Bette tried to make a go of married life with her “All About Eve” co-star Gary Merrill. Joan complains to her current man about she had to marry Franchot Tone just because Bette made a play for him. We really don’t know if that is true, but we do know that Franchot’s name was pronounced “Fran-shot” and not “Fran-show.” Here is a video from TCM with host Robert Osborne talking about their relationship.

On the first day on the set of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” the clash of the egos began in earnest. It does seem like Bette has the larger ego, at least in terms of self-assurance. Joan seems to need constant reassurance that she is still a legend. Joan almost cries when Bette asks her to do her best because when Joan is good, she is great. Then Bette proceeds to make sure that Joan’s best is going to comply with her standards. She also creates Baby Jane Hudson’s “demented” look, horrifying her daughter, B.D., and shocking Joan. Bob Aldrich thinks it’s just what the character of the aging child star should look like and applauds her creation when she dramatically reveals it to the crew. Joan stalks off, no doubt to plot her next move.

Susan Sarandon as Baby Jane Hudson

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson

The episode closed at “the house that fear built.” Hedda Hopper invited the two stars to a party where they were the only guests and sprang a tape recorder on them at a dinner of fish aspic, “something substantial, but transparent.” But Hedda’s motives are as transparent as her fish to these tough broads. This film is as important to them as it is to Bob Aldrich. Hedda may be out for blood a little too early. This is just the pilot and we’re sure there will be plenty of blood, sweat and tears to come, accompanied by oodles of booze and cigarettes.

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