The third episode of FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” entitled “Mommie Dearest,” does something that the 1981 camp classic of the same name failed to do. Written by Tim Minear and directed by Gwenyth Horder-Payton, the episode balances moments of campy melodrama with scenes of tenderness and regret that humanized its subjects. Filming on “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” is almost finished, but the actresses’ mutual dislike for each other is complicated by parental issues. Bette Davis‘s (Susan Sarandon) daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) is given a part in the film, and her struggles in front of the camera cause Davis to be torn between what is best for the film and being supportive of her child. Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), on the other hand, is distant from her older daughter Christina, while the absence of her twins triggers a deep sense of loneliness and a longing to adopt another child — a hope that is crushed when the actress visits an orphanage and is turned down due to her age. Below are the Top 5 moments from “Feud: Bette and Joan” Season 1, Episode 3:
Christina, Darling — Crawford and Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) are out to dinner with Crawford’s twin daughters. Mamacita hands Crawford a card to sign for older daughter Christina’s opening night. Crawford shows no interest in signing a card, claiming that she never got any kind of encouragement from her mother and that she prefers to wait until Christina’s reviews come out. A stern look from Mamacita gives Crawford pause, and she reluctantly writes a small note expressing how proud she is of Christina, signing the card “Mommie Dearest.”
Dinner and some history — A tense dinner between Davis and Crawford uncovers hidden secrets about their pasts which greatly informed the women they grew up to be. Crawford casually reveals that she had incestuous relationship with her stepfather when she was just 11 years old, a relationship that Crawford says she welcomed because of her mother’s general disinterest in her. It’s a shocking disclosure, but Crawford argues that the affair was one of the few times she felt “cherished.” She talks about going to live with nuns, who taught her discipline and “the importance of cleanliness and order.” Davis reveals her own history living at a boarding school run by what she calls “Puritan Yankees,” but she also fondly remembers her recently deceased mother, whom Bette calls her only true female friend. The entire scene is a study in opposites. Crawford’s disturbing revelations contrast with Davis’s emotional remembrances, and both Lange and Sarandon play the scene with a subtle pathos that is both devastating and haunting.
Category Placement — The truce between the actresses is short-lived once Crawford tells Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) that Davis offered to compete in the supporting category at the Oscars while Crawford would compete in lead. Davis furiously rejects the idea, proudly declaring that she will be the first person to win three Oscars, even though she argues that everyone knows that she already should have won her third Oscar in 1950 for “All About Eve,” a loss that she blames on “that bitch Anne Baxter,” Davis’s co-star whom Davis argues pushed her way into the lead category and caused a vote split. Crawford argues that Davis is being dismissive toward the winner in that category, “Born Yesterday” star Judy Holliday. Besides, Crawford argues that it was Gloria Swanson of “Sunset Boulevard” who was robbed, not Davis. The scene is a glorious wink to awards lovers everywhere, as we get not only a glimpse into the world of one the great Oscar upsets in history, but also a chance to see both Sarandon and Lange acting the hell out of the perfect diva throwdown.
Bette to the Rescue — After some initial dislike, Davis begins to respect and even care for her leading man Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess). The two run lines at her home where they discuss his homosexuality and his relationship with his mother, while Davis reveals that she has a mentally challenged daughter housed in an institution. Later, after Buono is arrested in an underground gay porn theater, Davis uses her name to get her co-star released. She admonishes Buono to be more careful, but he hates keeping secrets and lying. Sarandon practically channels Davis in her response: “Lying is what we do for a living, kid.” Sarandon and Burgess have a strong chemistry in their scenes together, and Burgess has clearly done his homework. He not only looks and sounds like Buono, but he also has a sweetness and vulnerability that fans of the late character actor will clearly recognize. These scenes also provide an insightful and sometime heartbreaking look at what is was like to be gay and closeted in Hollywood in the 1960s.
A Diva Smackdown — Some of episode’s strongest sequences detail the lengths both actresses went to to get under each other’s skins. Davis installs a Coca-Cola machine next to Crawford’s Pepsi machine, and taunts Crawford further by drinking a Coke and standing in Crawford’s sight lines while performing her scenes. Crawford, meanwhile, sabotages Davis while she attempts to drag Crawford across the stage, first by repeatedly breaking up during a take, then by strapping extra weights to her body and causing Davis to strain her back. Later they film Davis’s Jane kicking Crawford’s Blanche, and Davis throws in a real kick to Crawford’s head. When it comes time to shoot the film’s final sequence on the beach, Crawford first shows up drunk, then makes repeated trips to her trailer to pad her bra and pull her face back to make her appear younger. The strategy backfires and director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) is forced to reshoot the entire sequence on a soundstage. Aldrich finally gets the performances he needs and the film is wrapped. All of these scenes have a fast-paced and sometimes comic bent to them, but they also highlight both the actresses’ petty childishness as well as their undeniable acting chops.
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