In the penultimate episode of Feud: Bette & Joan, production has begun on Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and things are going swimmingly … until Joan arrives, unaware of Bette Davis’ elevated position on the production. In order to get Davis to sign on to work with Crawford again, director Robert Aldrich had to give her more control so she was granted an Associate Producer credit, a vanity title really but one that Davis took to heart and made sure Crawford knew she wielded all the power.
While the episode focused on the jealousies between the two women, there was also something brought out here to show that it just wasn’t a pure hatred the two felt towards each other manifested from professional jealousy. These were two women who were constantly pitted against one another by Hollywood and that is what fueled their bitter acrimony.
This was depicted a couple of times in the episode, first when Crawford went to confront Davis at their hotel. After endless parties in Davis’ room that kept Crawford from getting any rest, Joan marched herself over to let Bette have it. But the conversation truly revealed the seed of their feud when Joan blew up at Bette for thinking that to make oneself unattractive on screen meant just making themselves uglier. That was a pretty shocking moment, and you could see it in Davis’s face (and Susan Sarandon’s beautifully subtle performance) of how deeply that remark cut.
Bette was able to gather her wits and come back with “I’m a character actress” to justify what she did with Baby Jane and now Charlotte. And then she got back at Joan by asking her what it was like being the most beautiful girl in the room. Joan replied it was wonderful, but it was never enough. As she walked away, Joan turned and asked Bette what it was like being the most talented girl in the room, to which she replied the same way. And here we have the explanation for the feud — for these two women, it was always beauty versus talent in the eyes of Hollywood. Crawford has always lived in Davis’ shadow because she was just regarded as the pretty one, regardless of her talent. Crawford began her Hollywood career as an MGM showgirl, and while Davis (who arrived in town after Crawford) was getting all the dramatic roles, Crawford was stuck as nothing more than an MGM beauty.
Later when Davis and Aldrich are alone, she tells him about working for Jack Warner and his telling her that he wished she looked like someone else … Joan Crawford. All of this adds up to why the two women had so much dislike towards each other, always being compared and contrasted but rarely given the chance to just be seen for their own worth. One has to think that Crawford and Davis could have been friends, and put up a united front, if it weren’t for the wedge the men in control drove between them.
But the feud only deepened during the production of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte as Joan felt ignored and belittled. Her reception upon arrival was not greeted with much enthusiasm (she started working five days after everyone else), and Davis’ constant “constructive criticism” of Crawford’s performance wasn’t helping, basically running roughshod over Aldrich who listened more to Davis than his own instincts, virtually allowing Bette to direct Joan’s performance, something that did not sit well with Joan one bit.
Things got to such a point that Joan suddenly “became ill” after a couple of days of shooting, and then being abandoned in her trailer in the middle of nowhere at the filming location as she recovered from the Louisiana heat and humidity. Did they leave her there on purpose? It was the last straw and Crawford checked herself into the hospital with a sudden case of pneumonia once they were back in Hollywood, holding up the production once Aldrich had shot all he could without her, even using a body double to shoot her character from the back. (All of these incidents are documented in the book Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud, and the reality was even crazier than what we’ve seen in the series.)
But as long as Davis was still in control, there was no way Crawford was coming back to the set unless she was given more control as well. It got to the point where the studio was losing money as everyone was still being paid during the shutdown, and they ordered Joan be seen by one of their own physicians to determine if she was well enough to go back to work. When she was given the all-clear, she still refused because of course the studio’s doctor would say she was well. All Joan wanted at this point was to get the picture cancelled causing Davis and Aldrich a huge financial loss (even at the expense of her own finances). Crawford’s stubbornness was brought to her attention by Aldrich’s assistant Pauline, who begged her as a fan not to self-sabotage her career and get back to work. But when Joan threatened to have this “secretary” fired, she told her not to bother because she was done with the narcissism of Hollywood. The next day Joan is served with breach of contract papers.
Which set the stage for her complete downfall. Davis was not going to let Crawford win and urged Aldrich to contact someone she could actually work with and trust … Olivia de Havilland. Aldrich called her at her Swiss chalet but she turned down the role due to her recent work in the tawdry thriller Lady in a Cage, another “hagsploitation” picture inspired by the success of Baby Jane. But Aldrich persisted, making his way to grovel in person, so she accepted (in reality, Davis did call de Havilland, who turned her down, and then Aldrich visited her in person). As Joan assumed she had the upper hand, she heard the news of the recasting while still “recuperating” and didn’t take it well, hurling the nearest flower vase towards the window … and Mamacita’s head. As she reminded Miss Joan after the last incident, the next object thrown at her head would be the last and she walked out, Joan wailing in the hallway for Mamacita to not do this to her. As she walked away, Mamacita said, “You’ve done this to yourself,” leaving Joan in so much distress she’s actually placed in an oxygen tent while whatever dignity she had left quietly dies.
The episode leaves us wondering who we should be rooting for. The Charlotte rancor was a direct result of Crawford’s stunt at the Oscars, an incident for which Davis still felt Crawford orchestrated to take that moment away from her. Davis was not able to let go, even when she begrudgingly complimented Crawford’s ability to manage several complicated actions during a single take (something Davis could not replicate), so she really is at fault for how this whole event played out. But Crawford is not without sin here. Instead of being the bigger woman, she allowed Davis to get away with her shenanigans and her vicious desire to take down the film completely doesn’t engender any sympathy from the audience. It really just makes us feel sad for the both of them, knowing that forces greater than themselves conspired to create headlines over anything else.
Next week in the finale, we’ll see how far Joan falls with a glimpse at her last film Trog.