“The only real legacy is children,” Bette tells Victor, as her co-star lavishes praise upon the star he so admires for both her work and for embracing the gay community. It’s a new insight into what makes Bette Davis tick, and plays into the episode’s theme. In “Mommie Dearest,” a new side to both Bette and Joan is explored: that of mother. Is it a little heavy-handed? Sure. That doesn’t mean that getting a better look at our girls beyond their personas as larger-than-life actresses is any less welcome. It adds new, arguably softer layers to their motivations. A lady can be a boss bitch and still be vulnerable. The best of them are usually both.
Before we get into Bette and Joan’s parenting techniques, a round of applause for the best scene of the episode: Bette and Joan sitting down together for drinks. Whew, boy. I never wanted this to end. This scene proves that Feud’s use of the documentary framing device to dole out exposition is so unnecessary. Bette and Joan can get their own backstories out just fine, thanks. Also, when Bette and Joan open up to one another about their mothers and their own childhoods, it allows each woman to see her rival in a new light. For a hot minute, Joan even tells Hedda not to run a story about Bette’s body odor, since now she understands they are both single mothers working in Hollywood. But don’t worry — it’s only a momentary lapse in their burning hatred for one another.
What did these two chat about? Joan matter-of-factly discusses losing her virginity to her stepfather at age 11, and how he really loved her — something her mother could never do. She craved real love and affection as a child, and that explains a lot about her needs as an adult. Not to mention that her stint at school with nuns offers an origin story to her extreme discipline and cleanliness. Bette is legitimately shocked that Joan doesn’t recognize (or worse, doesn’t care) that what she experienced was child abuse. Bette goes on to talk about her closeness with her mother, who she suspects was her only female friend, and her tough upbringing at boarding school. Honestly, Feud could just be long, extended scenes of Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange circling each other in conversations that go from real to hostile and back again. Okay, there should also be some door-slamming, and definitely people putting on and taking off their sunglasses while smoking. But mainly, it can be the conversations.
Both of these revelations carry over into Bette and Joan’s story as mothers. If Joan seems overprotective and strict (!!!) with her kids, it’s because no one cared about her well-being as a child. Much has been written about Joan Crawford’s relationship with her oldest daughter, Christina — most infamously the controversial memoir, Mommie Dearest, from which this episode borrows its name — but Feud takes place when Christina is off making her stage debut, and Joan is at home with just her twin daughters, Cindy and Cathy. According to Bette, the twins are like a pair of “well-trained Pomeranians.” Joan dresses them alike, as if they’re her own little dolls. She doesn’t want to admit that they’re getting older. Steak instead of fish sticks?! Where does the time go?
One evening, she comes home from work to an empty house. She calls for her girls, forgetting that they’ve gone to camp for two weeks. She’s upset and confides in the only person left: Mamacita. She’ll just have to get used to this — the silence. It’s the plight of so many women, she realizes, that your husband leaves you, your kids grow up, and you’re left all by yourself. Joan attempts to pull herself together, to “embrace the change of things to come,” but she still winds up watching a movie and eating sandwiches in Mamacita’s bed.
Joan refuses to be left behind, and later marches herself over to the local orphanage. She wants to adopt another child. Unfortunately, she hears a response she’s heard all too often by now: She’s too old. They’re rejecting her application. Joan is gutted. And furious.
Bette, meanwhile, is having a bit of a different experience with B.D. After Bette and Joan forced Bob to fire the hot neighbor girl, Bob (who is totally on the same page as Bette regarding never sleeping together again) suggests they let B.D. have the part. Bette worries about Joan’s reaction to the news for maybe three seconds — those aforementioned drinks were meant to stop Joan from making a scene — but still agrees to it. B.D.’s never acted before, but it’ll at least give her more of an appreciation of what her mother does.
Well, turns out Bob is totally wrong and the apple falls very, very far from the tree. B.D. is terrible, and Bette realizes it immediately. They run lines and Bette looks horrified. After watching some dailies, she makes sure Bob knows to credit her as B. D. Merill, not Davis. It’s her adopted name, she says. Please, God, let no one realize she’s my daughter, she thinks.
Meanwhile, Bette learns that the person she was afraid of being totally terrible (“I’m sure his Falstaff is the talk of Tijuana”) is actually talented. And so it is Vince, not her own daughter, who wins a coveted rehearsal with Bette. She can barely look her daughter in the face. But after a visit from Hedda, who — after Bette refuses to give into her prodding for more gossip about the mood on set — threatens to run a story about B.D. being so terrible she’s going to ruin the film, Bette shows her true feelings. Yes, she insults B.D. in the process, but she also makes sure her daughter isn’t dragged through the papers.
B.D. is wholly unaware of her lack of talent. After she wraps, she cries to her mother. She wanted to do a good job; she doesn’t want to ruin the picture. Her mother makes it look so easy. Maybe it’s because Bette got exactly what she wanted from the experiment, or maybe she really does feel for her daughter — probably a bit of both — but she goes to B.D.’s side and reassures her that she did so well for her first movie. Plus, she adds, if Joan Crawford can’t ruin the picture, no one can. It’s odd to see Bette so tender (and even more so when she calls her mentally challenged daughter, Margo), but it’s a great reminder that these women aren’t caricatures. They’re human, flaws and all.
What About the Picture, Bob?
• What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? wraps, but not without some top-notch feuding for us to go out on. Any goodwill between the ladies after sharing stories from their past is lost, when Bette reads a Hedda Hopper column about her apparently having let Joan have the Best Actress category at the Oscars, only submitting herself for Supporting Actress. Joan attributes it to Bette’s kind offer to support the movie in any way possible during their gab session. It is deliciously devious. Bette goes ahead and shows just how supportive she can be by having a big Coca-Cola cooler wheeled onto set. So, yeah, things are about the same.
• Their animosity toward one another is on display in a glorious montage set to “Mama Said.” It’s full of takes ruined on purpose, Joan wearing weights during a scene where Bette has to carry her around, and Bette “accidentally” kicking Joan in the head. The kick we’ve all been waiting for, certainly.
• Their fighting continues even as the production goes on location to shoot the final scene of the film: Joan’s big beach death scene. If you believe the story Joan tells Hedda, you’d think Bette was the one causing all the problems that day. But as we see, it is quite the opposite … because Joan is completely drunk. She holds up production repeatedly because she keeps driving back to her trailer to have her neck tightened. Joan can’t control her kids getting older or being left alone, but she can certainly control this.
• When Bob and Jack watch the scene back, they are quite dismayed. Joan’s character is supposed to be dying, but every time they cut back to her, she looks better and better. They end up reshooting it in the studio and we hear dialogue that is a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to talk about the Bette–Joan dynamic: that these sisters spent their entire lives fighting one another, but all along, with a little healing conversation, they could’ve been friends. Too bad we’ve already watched Bette and Joan have a conversation, and it is clear they’ll never be friends.
• When production wraps, both women leave the studio without saying anything to each other, but with the film’s impending release and award nominations to quickly follow, this war is only getting started.