Bette and Joan’s Feud goes into the gutter

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This week’s episode of Feud: Bette and Joan speaks volumes to how women are treated in the workplace, in the public eye, and even among private citizens. Hollywood was always a “man’s world” in the early days, and while there are more women in executive positions now, not to mention in the director’s chair, there are very few who could be considered equal to their male counterparts. Strong women are still considered bitches and women are constantly pitted against one another usually over trivial matters (like a man).

This second episode, “The Other Woman,” shows that even two of the once most powerful women in Hollywood have been reduced to afterthoughts as they age out of the roles that once brought them fame, fortune and power. Not even a past Oscar win can stave off the rejection that comes with age in Hollywood. Some say it still exists today (unless you’re Meryl Streep, that is). But here, during the production of the movie that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford hoped would save their careers, the gossip columns and the studio bigwigs still couldn’t resist pitting them against each other for publicity, and in the case of Jack Warner, to put that seething hatred right up on screen.

All because Davis and Crawford appeared to be getting along. The two teamed up against director Robert Aldrich to scotch the casting of a pretty, blonde ingenue who was to play the sisters’ next door neighbor. But seeing the crew fawn all over her after the young woman asked Crawford for her autograph … for her grandmother, Joan alerted Bette to the fact that Aldrich would eventually take to the actress as he had done so many times in the past, giving her more and more screen time and lines. For Bette, the sharpest dig came when Joan pointed out that Bette shared more time with the girl than she did so it didn’t matter to her if the girl stayed. That was all Joan needed to get Bette on her side and the actress was promptly fired. Aldrich could not stand up to either woman, particularly when Bette threatened to go home sick right before her big scene of the day. But that team up was what led to their bitterness to be exploited.

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Warner, excited by the pure hatred he could see on screen, demanded Aldrich feed stories to Hedda Hopper, something he wasn’t comfortable doing since his stars were actually getting along. But he did, off the record, drop a little story to Hedda that Bette was unhappy with Joan’s enhanced breasts, complaining that they were hard as rocks when she had to lay her head on Joan’s chest. Even though she denied saying such a thing, but also jabbing that everyone in Hollywood knew Joan padded her bra, the injurious rumor set things in motion with Joan then calling Hopper’s rival Louella Parsons with another story about Bette. This one was on the record, unlike Hedda’s “anonymous source.”

The infighting between the two — which began, we learned from the Joan Blondell / Olivia de Havilland interviews, when Crawford was put under contract to Warners and then given all of Bette’s roles as punishment for her being “difficult” — put Aldrich in the middle while trying to make a movie that would also salvage his career. Crawford assumed he was fooling around with Davis when she got word of their weekend rehearsals, so she called him to her home with a story that her current beau had abandoned her in the hopes that she could get Aldrich into her bed. Except her boyfriend came home, wanted to know what Joan was up to, and was promptly told to gather his things and leave. To which he replied, “It’s a relief!”

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But the pressures of working with Joan and the she said / she said of the rumor mills was also taking a toll on Bette. It didn’t help that her daughter BD was getting the same attention from the crew as the actress she had fired, making Bette worry that she’s over the hill and making a fool of herself with this part. After a fight with BD that ended with the girl being shipped off, Davis also called Aldrich in the middle of the night to deal with her crisis … but this one ended with the two of them in bed. Aldrich got back to his house and in his own bed seconds before the alarm went off, leaving the episode on a heartbreaking shot of his wife’s tortured expression, knowing what he’d been up to.

“The Other Woman” was a terrifically written and acted episode with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon really fitting nicely into their roles now. I still see Tallulah Bankhead with Sarandon as Davis, but the minute she gets into her Baby Jane drag, she is Bette Davis. Her brief interaction with a reporter wanting a comment about the Louella Parsons story was priceless:

Reporter: “Miss Davis, care to comment on the fact that Miss Crawford says you look old enough to play her mother?”
Davis: “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
Reporter: “Sylvia.”
Davis: “Fuck off, Sylvia.”

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The rivalry between the two women began to manifest itself as more self-doubt in Crawford who called in her old friend Hedda Hopper — who was none too pleased that Joan gave a story to her rival Parsons — to reveal a sad truth, off the record, that she was broke and on the verge of losing her home, saddled with her late husband’s $2 million debt. Crawford was indeed having money issues, but her ploy with Hopper was not to seek financial help, she was using the columnist for one thing — to put Davis in her place and get the Oscar ball rolling in Joan’s direction.

And as an added bonus this week, we were finally introduced to Davis’ and Crawford’s co-star Victor Buono, and got some brief but amazing recreations of the actress’ most famous roles. A great episode all around that, besides giving us the story of the legendary feud between the two actresses, highlights a problem for women that still exists to this day. A nice slice of entertainment with a little food for thought on the side.

 

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