Okay, so let’s just gush a bit over the opening of this week’s episode of Feud: Bette & Joan. The scene opened with an amazingly accurate recreation of the trailer for William Castle’s Strait-Jacket, which starred Joan Crawford (and Lee Majors!), which was breathtaking for anyone who has ever seen the trailer. And on top of that, we got a surprise cameo from John Waters as William Castle himself! Well, it was really Waters doing Waters doing Castle (and the producers wanted it that way so no complaints that John looks absolutely nothing like Castle) and it was … sorry, I have to say it … simply divine!
Waters loves movies with gimmicks and he adores the films of Castle (check out his participation in the excellent documentary on Castle, Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story, so he was the perfect choice to step in and play one of his idols. John Goodman, who played a character based on Castle in the movie Matinee, would have also been a great touch, but for this Baltimore native it was pure joy seeing Waters get to play Castle opposite Jessica Lange’s remorseful Joan Crawford, reduced to swinging an ax at audience members while they pelted her with popcorn. Not the high point for this Hollywood diva, and the trauma of the experience caused Joan to throw a huge planter at Mamacita’s head. Mamacita told her if she ever threw something at her head again, she was gone.
The rest of the episode picked up in the aftermath of the Oscars debacle that only made the rift between Davis and Crawford grow even wider. But at least Joan was still making movies, despite their dubious quality (of course the Castle films with Crawford are cult classics today). Joan seemed to get just a bit too much pleasure out of Bette being reduced to taking television work, something at the time considered beneath a movie star. But both women still craved to be on the big screen in quality productions, but none were being offered.
Until Jack Warner asked Robert Aldrich to take a meeting — even though Warner had banned Aldrich from the Warner Brothers lot. Warner was upset that Columbia had scored a hit with Strait-Jacket and Paramount was also doing well with Lady In a Cage starring Olivia de Havilland. Warner wanted Aldrich, who was coming off of the turkey 4 For Texas with Frank Sinatra, to get Davis and Crawford together again for another “hagsploitation” movie. Those other studios could copy Warner, but he wanted the to original “hags” back together again and only Aldrich could pull off such a feat with his story What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?
Neither woman wanted to work with the other but they agreed if Aldrich could meet their demands. Crawford wanted top billing this time, and Davis wanted creative control. After making millions for Warner Brothers and getting absolutely nothing in return, it was time for the stars to exert some force. It seemed like the kick in the pants Aldrich needed to as he “found his balls” and told Warner that his former partner Darryl Zanuck was interested in the property, and he was going to give Aldrich complete creative control including final cut. And with that, 20th Century Fox got the picture Warner so desperately wanted.
As the cast gathered to read the script for the first time, Davis and Crawford agreed to put on a united front but all of that quickly went down the tubes. Sure, the two seemed to agree on their issues with the script — Davis didn’t like how the film opened, Crawford felt there were too many ellipses in the script — but Joan began to get under Bette’s skin, particularly when a photographer was spotted in the wings of the studio. Obviously there for Crawford’s benefit, Davis stormed out — and telling Bob to change the title — leaving Joan to offer to read both of their parts.
While Aldrich finally stood up for himself with Warner, his wife finally stood up to him. Things seemed surprisingly okay between them, but after dinner on the night before they were all to head to Baton Rouge to film the movie, Aldrich’s wife told him she wanted a divorce because the only time he’s happy is when he’s making a movie, and she’s never happy because he never pays enough attention to her. Not the best way to start work on a new production. In fact, on the first day of shooting Aldrich had an emotional crisis that was saved by Bette who told him they would get through this movie alone together.
Meanwhile, Joan was having her own issues. A visit from Hedda Hopper came with a dire report: someone was shopping around a stag film featuring a young woman purported to be Joan. Hedda, who revealed also that she had had a heart attack recently and was looking for one last hurrah with this story, basically told Crawford that she could make a statement to her on the veracity of the claims or just let her find the film for herself and ruin what was left of Crawford’s career.
It turned out that it was Joan’s own bitter brother who was attempting to besmirch her name, basically because he felt she saw herself as better than him and because she moved their mother to California to care for her (but he didn’t see what Joan did as caring). Joan gave her brother some money to keep him quiet but when it wasn’t enough she told him to do what he wanted because she was already at the end of her career. But he suddenly ended up in the hospital for an appendectomy. and paying him a visit Joan gave him a sizable check, courtesy of her new movie role. When she asked him for the movie, he told her there was no movie but she didn’t take the check back.
Fortune smiled on Joan that night, or perhaps it was karma, for when she returned home Mamacita had some news for her … Joan’s brother died during the operation when his appendix exploded. Not missing a beat, Joan promptly called her accountant to have the check cancelled. Ouch! The next day, she and Mamacita arrived in Baton Rouge to begin filming but there was no car awaiting them at the airport, and no room at the hotel. Trying to resolve the issue, who comes prancing through the lobby but Bette, helpfully speaking with the desk clerk to get Joan a room. But she didn’t get the suite she was expecting, instead a dingy little box with two single beds. And a call to Aldrich to let him know she had arrived was met with indifference as it sounded like Bob was just a bit preoccupied with a party.
Could Joan be facing a different united front with Aldrich and Davis now against her? And will Mamacita manage to keep her head? We’ll find out next week in the penultimate episode of the season.