Feud: Bette and Joan: “The Other Woman” Season 1 Episode 2 Review

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Bette and Joan are pushed into respective corners once the men in their lives realize how profitable it will be to have them at each other’s throats.

“We have to support each other, Bette. I’m worried our director isn’t taking care of us, so we have to take care of each other.”

So says Joan Crawford to Bette Davis at the start of this week’s episode. It’s in response to Robert Aldridge casting a lithe young blonde to play their next door neighbor, a move made all the more precarious after she has the gall to tell Joan that her grandmother is a big fan. In a rare moment, Bette and Joan decide to band together to stand up to their director and tell him they want a recast. Later, the two giggle away after they tell him they feel the scene they’re working on is too expository. If only this friendship could have lasted longer. Imagine how much they would have accomplished.

Episode 2 of Bette and Joan presents the true antagonist of the series, and it isn’t either of the titular characters. Jack Warner, the smarmy, sexist studio head is revealed to be an out and out villain. Though his character dips into mustache-twirling territory at some turns, his power is no less menacing. Jack comes up with the idea to pit Bette and Joan against each other, as it will be good for pre-release publicity. He wants to open the film with a wider release, and so the pressure is on Robert to deliver the drama.

Robert is a fascinating character, and “The Other Woman” gives a lot of insight into the many balls he had to juggle while heading this production of Baby Jane. Though Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange are still excellent in their roles, it’s Alfred Molina who really steals the show this week. His performance is wonderfully nuanced, as we see Robert in a constant battle for control of his own project…and his own life.

Robert isn’t a cut and dried bad guy like Jack is, but his gray area ethics are just as unsettling. It’s clear that he cares for Bette and Joan, but he cares about his movie doing well a little bit more. He too, needs this to be a success so his career can get back on track. This is why the scenes of him deciding to go down Jack’s dark, twisted path are so compelling. We see him—thanks to Molina’s great work—really grappling with the decision.

There’s an especially poignant scene where he tries to justify his decision to cause this catfight to his wife Harriet, saying that he needs to regain the respect that he deserves as a director. “Jack Palance and Lee Marvin would never pull this shit,” he says. “Yeah, they don’t have to,” she calmly replies. “They’re men.”

It’s true that Bette and Joan are trying to steer the reigns on Baby Jane, but it’s only because they want to orchestrate their comebacks in just the right way. When the feud actually begins—started by a “blind item” about Joan having fake boobs—both actresses immediately worry about how this will affect the outcome of their film.

As in the pilot, each actress worries for a slightly different reason. Joan, the consummate movie star, is much more worried about her public reputation. Bette, meanwhile, is anxious that her performance is less a result of her understanding her character, and more about her being so angry with Joan. This is a particular draw for Robert, who considers himself a true artist as well. It isn’t until his conversation with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper that you realize just how much he also has to prove.

Speaking of Hedda, Judy Davis is another scene-stealer in this week’s episode. She takes on her real-life counterpart’s larger-than-life personality with the perfect amount of camp, even when she tries to comfort Joan after she reveals how much debt she has. Hedda is another figure who seems to genuinely care for Joan, and yet she’s also very much in it for herself. Unlike Robert, though, Hedda wears her self-interest right on her sleeve…and her immaculate feathered hats.

“The Other Woman” ends with a mesmerizing conversation between Robert and Bette. She’s just been told off by her daughter (Kiernan Shipka, no stranger to playing a daughter that torments her parents) for being past her prime, and invites him over in a moment of desperation. The true unfairness of Robert’s scheming, is that it’s so much easier for him to regain power than it is for Bette and Joan. His plan to cause a rivalry between them has left them both so alone that they practically hang on his every word, craving for some sort of positive reinforcement.

Yet, as I said before, it’s difficult to completely write Robert off as a monster. His final scene with Bette is heartwarming and earnest, as both parties lament about how much they’ve sacrificed for their careers, and how much is on the line with Baby Jane. This is also, of course, what attracts these two to each other. Earlier in the episode, Joan tries to seduce Robert in an attempt to gain some sort of leverage, but she isn’t what he wants. He’s not interested in Joan’s glamorous vanity, and is instead enticed by Bette’s authenticity.

The final kiss that they share smartly cuts away to Robert’s return home to Harriet, who is still wide awake and visibly upset. Robert may be fighting his way back up just like Bette and Jane, but all of his moves are going to spell out trouble for everyone else but him. Unfortunately, that is often par for the course for women in Hollywood. Grade: A-

 

Some Other Notes:

  • I wasn’t a huge fan of the documentary Greek chorus last week, but I very much enjoyed it this week. Olivia De Havilland and Joan Blondell give some great insight into the history of Bette and Joan’s tumultuous relationship, which—surprise, surprise—was mostly orchestrated by Jack.
  • Their scenes also served to show how this particular feud is indicative of the larger mistreatment of women in Hollywood, and how dog-eat-dog the entire industry was. I was particularly intrigued by Kathy Bates’ line: “Women will do what they always do when they’re backed into a corner. Eat their own…and then pick their teeth with the bones.”
  • “What’s your name, sweetheart?” “Sylvia.” “Fuck off, Sylvia!”

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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