We all have a mother; whether she is who we want or need her to be is less certain. But one thing Feud is certain about, when it pertains to the women who gave birth to us, is that our bonds to them are inescapable.
Thus far, we’ve been given terribly few snippets into the private conversations between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and it’s a great treat to see them given an entire scene together off set. As the gossip rags would like you to believe, they’re just like us; only not because of the cat-fights and head kicking that Hedda Hopper pines for, but because they are behaving as regular women — having a drink, giving each other advice, being (the most they can be) themselves.
They talk about children (Joan gives Bette parenting advice, and it’s not half bad, if a little demanding). They talk about being children (Bette’s mother has recently died, Joan’s mother left her when she was barely a teenager). They reveal the extreme differences in their sex lives: Joan uncomfortably lost her virginity at 11 to a step-father, Davis blames her puritanical New England upbringing for not even considering sex until 25. But their stand-offish attitudes are incredibly similar; nothing is ever said casually or without self-driven purpose, and no matter the cost, the abuse or the trauma, these are the events that made them. And in their opinion, its what perhaps made them great.
Since the first episode, there’s been an insistence by Crawford that the two stars must be allies, which is repeated again in the latest episode. “We don’t need to like each other,” she says, but there is power in their unity. Not just against the studio system, but the gossip, the men… even their own children. For all their differences, Bette and Joan are, at their barest bones, two orphaned women. In their bar conversation, they may be icy, but they are direct about how it is to have been left alone: it toughens, yet it cripples. So, when there’s a petty fight over who’s to be the lead and supporting actress, it’s less about the film than it is about their position in life. To lead is to hold all the power; to support is to be walked on, beaten up and taken advantage of.
Maybe that’s why Joan meets regularly with Hedda to spill the “sand,” if not downright dirt, on her costar. She tells lies and embellishes the truth, but lest you think it’s all insidious, it’s easy to empathize with her when she downs a drink and growls, “I hate this goddamn picture. But if it’s successful, I’ll make a pretty penny.”
And maybe it’s why Davis doesn’t mention her youngest daughter until “Mommie Dearest,” a daughter who’s been institutionalized in Maine, and whom she seems to feel she’s abandoned. Or maybe it’s why when her other daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) proves to be a truly bad actress, she makes sure Aldrich plans to credit her as B.D. Merrill — her adoptive father’s last name and not her own.
When Davis considers how she’ll tell her own child she’s not any good, Aldrich suggests Davis do what any parent would — lie. And she does, but not without a kernel of truth that’s perhaps even worse than the lie: “You looked beautiful,” she tells the daughter who, just an episode ago, told her mother she was old, washed up and should step aside. B.D. does look beautiful in the film — but to her mother, that’s all she has to offer.
Previously, I have written about Feud’s overarching question for these women — whether they’d be able to find a way to rely on themselves or remain silent (therefore under the control of men). Crawford, lamenting the loss of her children (who are tired of their bows, matching outfits and their mother, in general), commits feverishly to learning “how to enjoy ME.” She spends the following scene in bed next to her housekeeper/friend, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), who gives her half a sandwich and keeps her company. And though Davis can’t stand her daughter’s acting, she admires that of scene partner Victor Buono very much, whom she reads lines with at home, sending B.D. to her room to get her “beauty sleep.” Both women share a comfort with their “chosen family” that they simply never get from their blood relations (and probably never will). But, is it at the expense of their own autonomy as they lean on others and never seem to acknowledge that support goes hand in hand with real power?
That idea is doubly reflected in the beach scene of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane that’s lampooned and obsessed over in this episode. In her dying moments, Blanche tells Jane the truth about her accident; it wasn’t her sister that caused her fate at all. “I did it myself,” she reveals. “I crippled myself.” And it’s Jane’s revelation in return that cements the problem at heart: “All this time we could’ve been friends?”
Maybe, maybe not. But either way, their relationship has been an inescapable one. Because they are sisters who once shared a mother, their reality has been shaped by that connection, with all its competition, jealousy and lies.
Bette, Joan, the children, Victor… we all have a mother. And whether we like her or not, she has a part of us.
Alex Landers (@1CriticalBitch) is a critic and playwright writing about women, feminism and truly tasteless horror movies. She received her B.A. in cinema studies from the University of Illinois and an M.F.A. in dramatic writing from Florida State University, believing that great filmmaking is always entwined with great criticism. Also a visual artist, Alex spends time working and painting in Chicago and the east coast of Connecticut. You can read her film criticism weekly at onecriticalbitch.com and get to know the full scope of her work at alexandralanders.com.