In a poignant scene in episode two of “Feud,” director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) is getting ready for bed with his wife Harriet (Molly Price), and lamenting the fact that he’s lost control over his set. Bette (Susan Sarandon) and Joan (Jessica Lange) forced him to fire a pretty blonde actress, and everyone knows it. He mentions to Harriet his conversation with studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) about leaking a little dirt to the gossip columns about the two to get a little cat fight going on set.
“It could get a lot of good pre-release publicity,” Robert reasons. “And pitting them against each other could be just the way to control them.”
“Bob, don’t you dare. It’s too cruel.” Harriet chides.
Robert fumes about Bette and Joan’s behavior, saying that Jack Palance and Lee Marvin wouldn’t act this way, to which Harriet simply states: “They don’t have to. They’re men.”
This is, of course, exactly what happened to Bette and Joan during the production of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” And while their now-infamous rivalry may have been building before the movie, it was the actions during filming — and the men who set them in motion — that led to the legendary outcome.
In the rest of the episode we see just how Robert, at the encouragement of Jack, played the two women off each other — and off their own already standing insecurities. At dinner with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), Robert — worried about his own flatlining directing career — goes against his better judgement, and leaks the first hit: Joan Crawford pads her bra with falsies, and Bette Davis finds them distracting to work with. This one small, strange item sets off the chain of reactions that is now great Hollywood lore.
Joan lashes out by going to another gossip columnist with a rebuttal about Bette: “She looks old enough to play my mother; and like she hasn’t had a happy day, or night, in her life.” This turns the briefly cordial environment on set ice cold, but it works. Each woman reaches out to her director for comfort: Bette forces Robert to come in on a Saturday to rehearse a scene she’s nervous about and they end up going to dinner. Catching word of this, Joan summons Robert to her house in the middle of the night under a false premise that her boyfriend Peter (Reed Diamond) has just left her, and she can’t go on filming.
Of course, their insecurities play out off the set as well: Joan reveals to Hedda that she’s just about broke thanks to her dead husband’s debts, and that she needs “just a few more good years” to keep her afloat. Seeing her daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) flirting with crew members onset, Bette threatens to send her away to Maine for the rest of the summer — to which B.D. replies with a monologue about how Bette can’t give up the spotlight, and can’t stand to see her get attention from men.
In a cutaway to the documentary with Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates), the two actresses claim they had no idea what was happening onset, but that it made them furious. But even if they had known, what could they have done?
“Women have just as much power today as they did back then.” Blondell claims: “None.”
This, of course, is becoming the true undertaking of the series: not just to examine the infamous rivalry between screen legends Bette and Joan, but to take a wider look at the state of women during the golden age of Hollywood. And, given recent events, it’s hard not to take that last line and point it to our current cultural climate: How much has changed for women today since the days of Joan and Bette? Clearly not enough.
For Robert, insecurity isn’t just onset either: Harriet is keenly aware of Robert’s reputation as a “lady killer.” When Robert tries to defend the idea of controlling Bette and Joan by pitting them against each other, claiming that he can take care of them both, Harriet scoffs. “Don’t kid yourself Bob. Even you aren’t man enough to take care of two women.”
Using this thinly veiled anecdote, she warns that gossip on the set is poison, and it hurts — and he should consider that before starting anything.
In the final scene of the episode, Robert sneaks back into his bedroom after being called away and spending all night with Bette. He comes in, takes off his shoes, and lies down for a minute before his alarm goes off. As he gets up, we notice that Harriet, face to camera, has been awake the whole time, silently fighting back tears.
“Feud: Bette and Joan” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.