Anyone who knows anything about Joan Crawford is sure to know about the infamous tell all written by her daughter Christina which was made into the notoriously (unintentionally) campy, now cult film Mommie Dearest, from which this episode borrows its title. While neither Christina or Christopher are featured here, Christina is mentioned as being about to make her Broadway debut and Mamacita has taken the liberty of ordering flowers to send to her along with a card. Joan, however, reminds Mamacita that her own mother never sent her flowers or a card or gave her any kind of acknowledgment, so why should she afford Christina such a thing? But the look of disappointment on her twins’ faces and the disdain clearly on Mamacita’s face makes Joan reconsider, signing the card “Love, Mommie Dearest.” And thus while the episode features the last days of filming on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it also delves deep into the women who informed Joan and Betty, and how they have informed their own daughters’ lives.
In what looks like a moment of truce between the two stars, Bette asks Joan to join her for drinks after work, her treat, so of course Joan didn’t turn her down. The women connected as first Joan spoke of her mother who basically abandoned her at the age of 12, leaving Joan to fend for herself, scrubbing bathrooms to earn a living. But she also revealed a deep, dark secret — that she had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 11. This bombshell shocked Bette, who said she had not had sex until her wedding night at the age of 27, but it also made her feel real empathy for Joan, gave her a better understanding of what makes this woman tick.
For her part, Bette’s mother sent her off to boarding school because she had to work and could not take care of her. Bette said they were best friends though and being away from her mother was heartbreaking. When she finished school, they basically never left each other’s side until the day her mother died, which was just a year before the filming of Baby Jane started. These vastly different experiences really show how these two women became who they were.
Because of a lack of authority in her life, Joan became the ultimate authoritarian and probably because of her early work life, cleanliness also became paramount to her. But because she felt so abandoned by her mother, she always felt it was her calling to give motherless children a home. The problem was she never really knew how to love them as a mother should. She wanted them around, missed her twins terribly when they went off to camp, and was incensed when the orphanage told her she was too old to adopt, but she never really knew how to be a proper mother to them. She was more a drill sergeant.
Bette, on the other hand, tried to be a supportive friend to her daughter B.D., but she was also strict. She wasn’t thrilled when Joan reported to her that B.D. was teaching her twins to smoke, and Bette feared she was losing control of B.D. But with the firing of the actress who was to play the Hudson sisters’ next door neighbor, Bette saw an opportunity to get B.D. in on the act (and was the real impetus for inviting Joan for drinks). But Bette wondered if Joan would be angry about her daughter getting the part. After all, her Christina was an actress, but director Bob Aldrich told her that Christina was too old for the part. Bette made a hilariously snide comment that since Christina was adopted she just might have talent. Ouch! But, sadly, Bette discovered that B.D. had none as her line readings and screen tests bore out. But, Bette stood behind her daughter, even when B.D. (and Bette insisted she be credited under her real last name) feared she ruined the film. As Bette told her, “If Joan couldn’t ruin the movie, neither can you.”
And Joan tried mightily to get under Bette’s skin. During the episode’s brilliant recreations of scenes from the movie, Joan intentionally blew take after take of Jane dragging a dying Blanche out of bed, forcing her co-star to drag her dead weight several times, not realizing Joan had strapped a weight belt around her waist. Payback, perhaps, for Bette “accidentally” kicking Joan in the head. But Bette did her best to unnerve Joan as well as she would intentionally stand in Joan’s eye line behind Aldrich while she was doing a dramatic scene. Interestingly, it was during these recreations that we finally hear Susan Sarandon doing that familiar Bette Davis voice. These scenes were hilarious and lightened up a heavy episode.
Interestingly, Bette took a liking to her co-star Victor Buono. She wasn’t sure of his at first, particularly as he ate his way through the craft services table, but she saw his talent and she appreciated that. In fact, he became her project in a way, running lines with him at home, but ignoring B.D. when she wanted to do the same before her big shoot day. But Bette also became a mother figure to Victor, whose own mother apparently was not as supportive of him because of his homosexuality. Victor appreciated that Joan had embraced his “tribe,” and she told him she didn’t even know they loved her until she saw the female impersonators doing her, and she loved that. And when Victor found himself in a bit of trouble after a raid at an underground adult movie theater, it was Bette who bailed him out, using her star power to blind the police and convince them that he was there to get information for a role.
Of course all this camaraderie between Bette and Joan couldn’t last forever, thanks to Hedda Hopper. After Joan had given her a story about Bette’s body odor, she asked that it not be printed after their night out. She began to understand Bette and didn’t want to push any more knives into her back. But, something Bette said about supporting the film and Joan led to a story that shattered their delicate truce. When asked to comment, Aldrich asked Bette if she said she was going to accept a Best Supporting Actress nominee and give Best Actress to Joan. That did not sit well when Bette know Joan twisted her comment, and the feud escalated to the final day of shooting at the beach.
As we saw Joan doing everything possible to make the shoot as difficult as it could be — her being late, her returning to her dressing room after every take delaying the shoot while keeping Bette sweltering in costume — we hear Joan telling Hedda how impossible and unprofessional Bette was that day, making sure Hedda would still support her in securing her a Best Actress nomination (and all this before the picture was even wrapped). But Aldrich noticed something about Joan each time she returned to set: she looked younger each time because Mamacita was pulling her skin back each time. Even Jack Warner noticed it while watching the rough edit. He said Blanche was supposed to be dying but she was doing “Camille in reverse,” ordering Aldrich to reshoot the beach scene on his own dime. This time, Joan nailed it and the actresses went their separate ways. But Bette had her say with Hedda, basically raking her over the coals for her poison pen column that fed the desire to pit two strong women against each other for her own gain.
But with the movie wrapped there’s still a long way to go in this story, so stay tuned.