Ladies and gentlemen, please meet your new feminist icon: Mamacita. Bow down at this queen’s feet. She orders liver and onions with the same aplomb as when ordering luscious desserts. She knows dancing whilst vacuuming is the only way to get that chore done. And when Pauline (Alison Wright was born to play a strong ’60s chick, no?) comes to her for advice on how to get Joan interested in a script she wrote and wants to direct herself, Mamacita takes up the cause immediately. Pauline knows it’s a hard sell, but Mamacita reminds her this is America! Dream big, girl!
Unfortunately, Mamacita might be the only one to believe in Pauline’s dreams of becoming more than Bob’s assistant. Pauline knows she’s good — but she also knows a studio won’t just hand her the reins to a motion picture. A man, they’d hire on potential alone. A woman needs experience. It’s why she went out and made a project for herself. It sounds a lot like someone else we know, huh? One would think maybe that connection — sisters doing it for themselves — would appeal to Joan’s sense of camaraderie (if she has one). But this is Joan Crawford we’re talking about here.
Joan turns Pauline away without even reading the script. She goes on to explain it’s not because Pauline’s a woman. It’s because Pauline’s a nobody. Way to cut to the core of someone, Joan. Sure, it’s hard to watch Joan turn down someone who is facing the same problems as she is, but Joan’s not here for a charity cause. She’s ambitious and she knows how to play the game of the Hollywood boy’s club. She’s got few chances to restart her career, and she isn’t spending one on a rookie. It’s harsh, but this is business, people.
For a moment, it looks like Pauline may have some hope with Bob. But it’s too good to be true. When she first asks him to produce her film, he’s all about it. Times have changed, he says! You’re one of the best, he says! But later, after his own dreams of directorial greatness are smashed to tiny pieces by Jack Warner’s “you’re a tile maker, not Michelangelo” speech, he lashes out at his trusty assistant. Poor Pauline, you guys! It’s a one-two punch of soul-crushing rejection. Naturally, it leads her back into the arms of Mamacita.
Oh, Mamacita! When she and Pauline head to the diner for some pie, she sees Pauline’s sense of defeat and tells her to stuff it. You see, Mamacita is a new citizen of the good ol’ U.S. of A, and as such, she spends a lot of time researching her new motherland. She’s discovered an interesting fact: In 1910, men outnumbered women by 2 million. However, projections show that by 1970, women will outnumber men by 6 million. They’ll be over half of the population. Pauline is basically like, “I didn’t come here for a history lesson, I came here to eat my feelings.” But then Mamacita makes her point: Eventually, studios will have to make movies for women, by women. It would be economically imprudent not to. So, Pauline shouldn’t give up. Her day will come. No one in the diner stands up to applaud, but you can tell they were all thinking about it.
The speech is empowering and also extremely depressing. Mamacita may have thought studios would realize how ridiculous it is to not take women seriously as both creators and an audience, but she is wrong. Fifty-plus years later, women are still fighting to be taken seriously in Hollywood. Pauline may walk away from that conversation full of dessert and ready to take on The Man, but boy, IF SHE ONLY KNEW.
Our main gals are dealing with patriarchal bullshit as well, but what’s new, really? Both Bette and Joan go to visit their agents to see what new offers have come in since they’re now headlining a big studio release. The answer is … none. As Joan’s agent puts it, “The landscape hasn’t changed.” Meaning: You’re still an older woman, Hollywood has no parts for you. Neither take the news well. Jessica Lange gives the most perfect line reading of, “Fuck you, Marty” in the history of television before Joan fires her entire team of agents. She’ll stick to finding her own work, thanks. Bette mostly just seems sad about the whole thing. The Doogie Howser Child Agent that she’s been passed off to announced that What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is going to bomb and her career is over. Her only real options are a guest spot on Perry Mason and dinner theater. DINNER THEATER, YOU GUYS.
For a hot minute, it looks like things might change. Miracle of miracles, Baby Jane is a huge success. Ticket sales are soaring. The kids are into it. The critics are raving. Unfortunately for Joan, the critics are mainly raving about Bette’s “brave and naked performance.” She tells Hedda that she would’ve rather the film tanked than this travesty. And don’t even get her started on what will happen if Bette Davis gets an Oscar nomination and she doesn’t. Heads will roll.
So, in the midst of all the success, Joan takes to the bottle. She refuses to promote the film and reads Bette the riot act for going on talk shows and referring to them both as “old broads.” Her spirals seem dangerous, but also fabulous. Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford drunk at 11 a.m. and reaming out Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner for supporting Bette more than her, all while wearing a very comfortable-looking green coat and/or dress number is basically perfection and I would like to live in that scene. Sure, it’s depressing as all hell to see the power Joan’s insecurities have over her, but you just can’t look away.
Bette Davis, on the other hand, is reveling in the success. She’s tossing Baby Jane dolls into packed movie theater crowds. She’s appearing on talk show after talk show. She even takes that guest spot on Perry Mason. Bette’s living it up while she can because she knows all of this may be fleeting.
Bette knows this because even though she just opened a big, successful movie, she’s still not getting offers for parts. She’s out there hustling for herself, so she brings a new project to Bob where she’d be playing a set of twins. Bob declines — he’s done with B horror films and wants to focus on war movies and westerns, like the western he’s currently developing with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. (Frank’s causing more drama on set than Bette and Joan ever did, but who cares, he’s a man!) At least Bob acknowledges how unfair it is that he gets to move on to bigger things, while the two leads of Baby Jane are still scrounging around for parts. He acknowledges, but he does nothing about it. He promises Bette that if she doesn’t find anything, he’ll write her another great part. Bette’s heard that one before. Promises like that are about as useful as the dumb little ashtray present he just gave her. Thanks for nothing, Bob.
There is still one last bastion of hope for these ladies to refuel their waning careers: an Oscar win. Nomination morning rolls around and Joan wakes up to find all of the phones in her house off their hooks. How curious! But as hard as Mamacita works to shield Joan from the news, what’s to come is inevitable. When Joan finally finds Mamacita, she asks her to sit down. Fear takes over Joan’s face and we cut away to the outside of the Crawford mansion. All we hear is Joan’s blood-curdling scream and we know her worst nightmare has come true: Bette Davis is nominated for an Oscar and Joan Crawford isn’t.
Looks like this feud is getting all gussied-up and heading to the Academy Awards.