Feud: Bette and Joan S01E03 “Mommie Dearest”
Director: Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Starring: Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Alfred Molina
Writer: Tim Minear
A review by Michael Walls-Kelly
Feud: Bette and Joan episode three, titled Mommie Dearest, isn’t playing coy when it comes to the themes of its episodes. So far they’ve been right up there in the titles and the pre-credits scenes have played like a small, self-contained thematic appetizer before the meal. This one introduced the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, specifically Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) relating to her daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) dealing with her children growing older and where that leaves her.
Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina) suggest to Bette that her daughter should take on the role of the neighbour girl in the film and Bette agrees. The unfortunate thing is that B.D. just isn’t that good. She isn’t an actress. In a series of entertaining inter-cuts we see Bette working with Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess) for the first time and being impressed with his skills, we also see her running lines with B.D. and being less-than-impressed. There’s always a balancing act between emulating your parents and branching off in an entirely different direction which this storyline delves into.
Joan and Bette have drinks together so that Bette can float the idea of B.D. playing a role in the film, something that Joan is surprisingly okay with. It’s a scene full of backstory, both women discussing their childhoods and their own mothers. The presentation is less than elegant — “let’s just sit these women down and have them deliver their early biographies, that’ll work — but the writing is good and the performances more than sell it. It seems like another solid bonding moment for these women who should be best friends (as mentioned in the pilot episode, they’re the only women who know exactly what the other is going through) but Joan is working on something else behind the scenes.
In her bid for an Oscar and continued relevance, Joan uses gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) to spread the idea that Joan will be submitting for lead actress awards and Bette will be submitting for supporting actress.
Obviously, all hell breaks loose.
The centrepiece of Mommie Dearest is an amazing montage of the two women letting loose on each other. We get some knockout verbal warfare, concluding with Jessica Lange saying “it was Gloria Swanson who was robbed in 1950, not you, bitch!” and absolutely killing her line delivery. From there, the fighting continues with the best visual gag of the series so far when the camera pans to a new Coke machine Bette uses in order to annoy the Pepsi-sponsored Joan.
There’s a reason why the show is called Feud and some of the most purely entertaining stuff in the show happens when Bette and Joan go at each other like they’re Tom and Jerry. They make snide remarks from off-camera during the other’s scenes, Bette gets a little too into it when she has to “pretend to” kick Joan, and Joan wears a weight belt and ruins take after take of Bette dragging her out of bed and across the room.
It’s just really fun to see Lange and Sarandon imitate these powerhouse performances (in between delivering knockouts themselves) and it looks like they’re having fun too. Although, this would be a good time to mention that if you haven’t seen Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? you definitely should. Both because it’s a damn good movie and also because this episode recreates the climactic scene.
Those scenes show a slight disconnect between the theme of Mommie Dearest and Joan’s ongoing storyline. Bette gets the juicy subplot with her and B.D., both of them knowing B.D. isn’t a good actress and both of them understanding that that’s okay, but Joan is left out of that. She gets the earlier scene in the bar and she opines about her absent children to Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), but Joan is mostly dealing with her growing insecurity about her age. This is especially prevalent when she’s filming her death scene on-location at a beach. She’s surrounded by younger women and she constantly returns to her trailer to drink, perk up her breasts and pull her face back. Her vanity, however understandable, ruins the scene and causes Jack Warner — Stanley Tucci basically playing a prostate with a cigar — to demand reshoots.
Joan’s connection to the episode’s main theme snaps into focus when she goes to an adoption agency and gets turned down, being told she’s “simply too old”. Her children are grown up or growing up and there’s no longer a younger presence for her to live vicariously through. It’s a blunt, harsh scene and it’s absolutely devastating.
Keep watching! The show continues to be a weekly dose of Old Hollywood and, so far, the quality of each episode hasn’t wavered. The writing and acting are still top-notch, the production design continues to be lush and the subject matter intriguing enough that I’m sure it can sustain for 5 more episodes. The two leads are obviously the main attraction but the side characters are interesting enough — with B.D. and Victor Buono getting a lot of focus this week — and performed by good enough actors that Feud is a fully-fleshed out series that’s worth the wait each week.