Feud: Bette and Joan: “Mommie Dearest” Season 1 Episode 3 Review

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A stirring, and often quite funny, Feud shows just how much Bette and Joan had in common… even as they continued to butt heads.

The final scene of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—still a cult classic after all these years—is quite a doozy. Blanche lays on the beach, ready to die, and makes her final, tearful confession to her sister that she crippled herself and let Jane think she was responsible. Jane looks down, with Bette Davis’ signature wide-eyed stare, and says, “You mean, all this time we could’ve been friends?”

It’s a line that now contains a great deal of meta significance on Feud, as this episode shows just how alike Bette and Joan really were. Yet, the mud-slinging, gossip-spewing industry that is Hollywood never faltered, and so the two were at each others throats despite all of their similarities.

“Mommie Dearest” delights in these moments of rivalry, mining the reportedly true stories of Bette and Joan’s on-set antics for some great comedy. In a zippy montage, we see Bette bring a Coke machine to the set, much to the chagrin of her Pepsi heiress co-star. Joan secretly wears weights underneath her costume so that Bette almost throws her back out dragging her across the room. And, of course, Bette “accidentally” kicks Joan in the head while filming one of Baby Jane‘s most dramatic sequences.

The most enjoyably devious part, however, arrives during the filming of the final scenes on the beach. Joan, self-medicating with her private stash of “water,” continuously retreats to her trailer in order to make herself look younger and younger as the day goes on. Director Gwyneth Horder-Payton smartly intercuts this with a scene of Joan meeting with Hedda for dinner, constantly ragging on how unprofessional Bette is being. As you might have guessed, her diva behavior does not pay off. Everyone is aware of what she’s doing, and the ending needs to be re-shot. Robert even commends Bette for her natural youthfulness during her dancing sequence, making it clear once again why he chose to sleep with her over Joan. He’s not interested in her movie star brand.

The actual feuding in this episode of Feud is very fun to watch, but it’s tinged with a bit of melancholy as the story draws back the curtain on both Joan and Bette’s private struggles as single mothers. Joan’s diva behavior is very over-the-top, but you gain an understanding for her desire to cling to glamour as long as possible once her horrific upbringing is revealed.

The most important scene in “Mommie Dearest” occurs early on when Bette invites Joan out for drinks. The two share their rags-to-riches stories, and it turns out that Joan had it much worse. The deeply unsettling story of her relationship with her stepfather at age 11 is enough to make the constantly deadpan Bette do a double-take. What’s even more disturbing is how, even after all these years, Joan still thinks the relationship was consensual, even though there’s no way it could have been at that age.

This scene sets the stage for the episode’s examination on these two women’s mothering styles, which is fascinating considering that both of them had salacious tell-alls written about them by their children. Joan—whose daughter’s scathing memoir is the basis for this episode’s title—was on her own at a very early age, and essentially had no basis for what proper mothering was supposed to look like. Her need for children becomes clear with how upset she gets that her twin daughters are away at camp. This is a woman who spent most of her childhood by herself, and so she’s desperate to avoid that kind of isolation again.

Bette appears to genuinely care for her daughter B.D., but, as she stated in last week’s episode, her first love will always be her work. A bit of pseudo-sibling favoritism occurs when she begins to rehearse with Victor Buono at the same time that B.D. is cast in the role of the neighbor girl. Victor clearly has talent, while B.D., unfortunately, does not. Bette tries to comfort her daughter as best she can, but her lack of enthusiasm to rehearse with her versus her eagerness to do so with Victor speaks volumes. At one point, Bette tells victor that “the only real legacy is children.” It’s a bit insulting to Victor—Buono was gay, and obviously wouldn’t have been able to procure children of his own in the 1960s—and a great deal ironic, because in 1985 B.D. defamed her mother with her book My Mother’s Keeper. So much for that legacy.

Still, “Mommie Dearest” does an excellent job at looking past both of those books and finding the humanity within Bette and Joan’s flaws. Both of these women came from nothing, and they both wanted to be good mothers and renowned actresses. Yet, they existed in a time and in an industry that refused to let them win. As Joan so aptly puts it when Robert says there’s room for them both to succeed, “In this town? Are you nuts?” Grade: A-

 

Some Other Notes:

  • Susan Sarandon got some of the best comedic moments of the episode, but my favorite is in the beginning when Joan tells her that B.D. is corrupting her twins by teaching them how to smoke. Bette looks her dead in the eyes and says, “She knows she’s not supposed to smoke,” before taking a long drag on her own cigarette. Iconic.
  • There is no Greek chorus of Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones this week. While I do hope they return, “Mommie Dearest” had plenty of material to fill its hour with in their place.
  • It was a small part of the episode, but Victor getting busted for cruising at a seedy porno theater was an impactful reminder of how awful it was for the LGBT community in the 1960s.
  • Speaking of which, Dominic Burgess, with some terrific help from the costuming, hair, and makeup departments, looks like a clone of the late Victor Buono.
  • You’ve gotta love Jessica Lange’s elongated yells. “It was Gloria Swanson who was robbed in 1950, not YOUUUU, bitch!”

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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