This was might be the finest episode of Feud we’ve seen yet, and it didn’t have any of the really campy good stuff (Joan wearing a weight belt while Bette drags her across the room, Bette installing a Coke machine on set). Visually, it was just stunning. The long tracking shot of Joan at the Oscars, as she walked from presenting Best Director onstage back into the green room to confront Bette is one of the best things I’ve seen on television all year. (I know it’s only April, but still!) Also, what about when Joan puts that clear shield over her face right before a little flurry of silver powder cascades over her hair, or when Bette loses and it’s like a bomb has gone off somewhere inside her gallbladder? Wow and wow.
This episode turned all of its awful, heavy-handed storytelling on its ear and into a positive. Hedda explains to Joan how so many people profit off of her and Bette being at each other’s throats, but then Joan takes her outside and talks about how not being nominated broke something inside of her and robbed her of her self-confidence. It was shattering. Famous director George Cukor just comes right out and tells Joan not to ruin things for Bette at the Oscars; his speech was so sadly on the nose about how she is “bigger than this.” But then Joan turns around and says, “No, I’m not,” and sashays out of the room with a sort of self-possessed ambiguity that I have never see before.
But the biggest negative that turned into a positive was Catherine Zeta-Jones and her wonderful turn as Olivia de Havilland. So far I’ve thought the interview segments set in 1978 were just an excuse for clunky exposition. Then they ask her about her own feud with her sister Joan Fontaine. It was so slight it was imperceptible, but the way she held her face and pronounced that there couldn’t be a feud because she doesn’t have contact with her sister was chilly enough to refreeze the polar ice caps. Thank you Catherine Zeta-Jones for ending climate change. (Here is the photo referred to in the episode where Olivia snubs Joan. It’s not as bad as it sounds.)
We see how she really feels later when she and Bette compare notes on whose Joan is worse. What’s odd about her presence is that, other than Mamacita’s lunch with Pauline last episode, its the only time we’ve seen two women actually supporting each other. Sure, there is Hedda and Joan, but they are just allies against Bette, whom they both despise. Olivia and Bette have no quarrel with each other, and Olivia even goes halfway around the world for her friend, the woman who fought to help her career so many years ago. It’s a rare, almost sweet moment.
Thanks to all the behind-the-scenes Oscars machinations, we got a bunch of great scenes between actresses. Sarah Paulson, who is apparently contractually obligated to appear in all of Ryan Murphy’s media including his annual family Christmas card, has a great scene as Geraldine Page. Geraldine allows Joan Crawford to somehow convince her to stay in New York so Joan can pick up the Oscar in case she wins; Joan tells her how hard it is to get dressed up and go all the way out to Los Angeles. The funny thing is, that is actually Page’s second nomination (she won in 1986 for The Trip to Bountiful) so she knows how the game is played.
Still, Paulson’s delivery was flawless as always, and when she hangs up the phone and says, “Well, she needs it,” it was absolutely wonderful. But the scene ends with the clunker: “Hollywood should be forced to look at what they’ve done to her.” Show, don't tell, right? But we’ll forgive her.
The best actress in the scene between Joan and Anne Bancroft, the eventual Oscar winner, is neither of those two. It's Jessica Lange. She goes from perky insult—congratulating Anne on playing for “half full house”—to sitting in the corner, every visible wrinkle on her face like a gully of regret, telling her the only thing in the world that will bring her pleasure is seeing her rival bomb on a very public stage. What’s sad is that the real award Joan always craved was the respect of her peers. When Anne gives it to her and says she admired Joan’s work in the less showy role in Baby Jane, that’s still not enough for her.
Bette was absent for most of the episode, but Susan Sarandon gets her, well, Oscars moment at the end, when she lashes out in rage and disbelief after losing, thanks to Joan. She also got to deliver that great speech about how sometimes all she has is her Oscar, cradling him in bed at night as she watches TV, remembering, “That perfect night when I won. The whole world stood up for me and cheered and I was loved.”
In the end, that is what this all comes down to: These women gave up absolutely everything for their careers. They lost more than a couple of husbands, nearly every one of their children, most of their friends, and the respect of their peers in order to stretch out their careers as long as possible. And what do they end up with? Nothing but a couple of trophies in an empty house where not even schadenfreude can dull the sting of their loneliness.
The Scorecard, Episode 5:
Marches into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and demands to present at the Oscar ceremony: +5
Gets the Academy to pay for her hair, makeup, and limo ride to the ceremony: +2
Doesn’t even realize how ironic the line “the people at Price Waterhouse are honest to a fault” will one day be: 0
Plays good cop, bad cop with Hedda to sway the Best Actress race: +4
Convinces Geraldine Page to stay in New York: +3
Convinces Anne Bancroft to stay in New York: +3
Bonus points for her clear hairspray shield: +2
Ignores Cuckor’s advice that this will ruin the rest of her career: -5
Turns the green room at the Oscars into her own personal party: +2
Her plan comes together and she walks off the stage with Bette’s Oscar: +10
Stares at someone else’s Oscar on her nightstand and it doesn’t wash away the sadness: -4
Tally this week: +26
Score from last week: +30
Feud total: +56
The frontrunner for Best Actress: +5
The press only wants a cat fight and Bette keeps giving it to them: -1
Has a friend like Olivia to support her: +2
Still has the “worse Joan”: 0
Looks ravishing in her black dress and fur at the awards: +2
“I’m not ashamed to admit I want this": +2
Has a Mexican standoff with Joan in the green room: -1
Realizes that Joan has ransacked her award and there is nothing she can do to stop it: -3
Joan Crawford steals her historic third Oscar: -20
Tally this week: -4
Score from last week: +16
Feud total: +12
Winner This Week: Olivia de Havilland
See Hugh Grant audition for Joan Crawford's role in "Mommie Dearest":