The biggest Hollywood event of the year doesn’t mean that Bette and Joan have set their feud aside. It’s Oscar night, and the drama is high!
To say that I was anything less than incomprehensibly ecstatic at just the thought of what Ryan Murphy would do with a vintage Oscar night would be an outright lie. And, ohhhhh boy, he did not disappoint. We begin with a TV package entitled “The Path to the Oscars,” a special that immediately tells us the biggest race is that for Best Actress. We get a tiny peek at all of the nominees, which include Anne Bancroft, Katherine Hepburn, and Geraldine Page as played by fan-and-life-favorite, Sarah Paulson. When we get to Bette (of course, a nominee herself), we see her at a press event. A reporter asks Bette to comment on Joan’s lack of nomination, and Bette responds by snapping, “Define snub.” Which, honestly, is a pretty badass response of which I would be STOKED to come up with in the moment and then forever henceforth congratulate myself on.
Back in docu-land, Cathrine Zeta-Jones de Havilland discusses how the 1963 Oscars became “the point of no return” for our women. She explains that too many people had been benefiting from their drama for anyone to want it to end. The producer of the doc then grills Olivia about her own relationship with her sister, and try to get her to label it a feud literally WHILE she’s talking about how the press promotes drama between women for their own gain, so that’s cool and fine.
In the “present day,” Joan Crawford pays a visit to the head of the Academy to offer her services as a presenter. Meanwhile, Olivia calls Bette to talk about the sure-to-be fateful night. Bette wants Olivia to be sitting right next to her at the ceremony. She laments that the press continues to drag her, and Olivia reminds her that all they want is a continued catfight. They then talk about Olivia’s disagreements with her sister, which turn out to be quite feud-y but COME ON, AMORPHOUS DOC PRODUCERS, WE DON’T NEED THAT TO COME FROM YOU!!! Bette continues to plead with her to accompany her to the awards, saying that if a woman of comparable stature openly supports her, the press won’t continue to tear her apart and label her as difficult.
In another, more sinister part of town, Hedda hatches a plan with Joan to sway the Academy. Joan initially resists, not wanting the move to be interpreted by the press as “sour grapes.” Naturally, Hedda (very easily) agrees to do the dirty work to convince the Academy not to vote for Bette. Joan and Bette begin calling members — Hedda spreading rumors and trashing Bette, and Joan working to talk up the other nominees instead of mentioning Bette at all.
After they’ve had their fill of manipulation for the morning, they move on to alcohol. Joan admits to Hedda that she’s been in constant battle with Bette her whole career EVEN THOUGH she was the bigger star and her pictures made more money. Joan had worked hard for Hollywood, and made sure to be a real member of the community, while Bette basically spent her career flipping off the people who made her. And still, Joan’s self-confidence has now been completely destroyed and she feels utterly broken by Bette and the lack of respect from their industry. Hedda promises to Joan that Bette won’t walk off the stage with the Oscar — Joan will.
Joan calls Geraldine Page, and even though they’re not in the same room, the Lange/Paulson reunion was as magical and exciting as if we were back in season 2 of American Horror Story. Joan talks to Geraldine about a role she’d previously played that Joan believes had been based on her. She also tells her she was glad she got a nomination, but immediately goes into a discussion about her pre-Oscar diet and the gowns and jewelry she’ll need, in order to intimidate her. Geraldine gets visibly nervous thinking about the stress of the night as Joan talks about how she’s representing Hollywood.
Next, she tells Geraldine that she’d stayed home from the Oscars the year she won because she was too anxious. Geraldine asks her if she thinks she should stay home, and Joan offers to accept the award for her, should she win. Geraldine concedes, though it’s clear she doesn’t actually want to. She appears to be very aware that she was swindled by an actress of a much higher stature, and was simply too scared to stand up to her. As she hangs up, Geraldine’s man-friend tells her she shouldn’t have let Joan do that. But Geraldine insists that “Hollywood should be forced to look at what they’ve done to her.” Honestly, give Sarah Paulson an Emmy for those 4 minutes even Susan Sarandon agrees with me BYEEEE!
A bit later, Anne Bancroft is backstage after a show. A shady but determined Joan Crawford pays her a visit. Joan butters her up by saying she doesn’t know how “theatre girls” do what they do night after night. She then, again, immediately with no chill asks Anne about her intent to attend the ceremony. Luckily for Joan, Anne won’t be in attendance, as she’d have to miss too many shows. Joan brings up the fact that Patty Duke was set to accept the award on Anne’s behalf, but Anne tells her the Academy had shut that down.
Anne then requests that Joan accept it for her, saying it’d be an honor to have someone of her stature fill that role. Joan OBVIOUSLY agrees, and Anne tells her that even though Davis “had the flashier role, you made that movie work.” Goddess bless these young Hollywood women.
The day is finally here, and it begins by Mamacita bossing everyone around at Joan’s house and reminding the gaggle of folks not to talk to her because of what day it is. Elsewhere, Bette is casually reading congratulatory notes and assuming she’ll win, though in her defense, everyone is agreeing that she’s the shoo-in.
Joan is aggressively getting ready, and has decided to wear all silver because she’s suddenly decided that she finds gold to be tacky. I, personally, am obsessed with the shade. Anyway, Joan’s date for the evening arrives and warns her not to do what he knows she’s planning to do. He tells her it’ll surely be seen as petty, and no one will want to work with her again. He reminds her that she’s bigger than this. She slowly creeps up to him and looks him in the eye before telling him: “No, I’m not.”
Bette and Olivia are just about ready to leave together when Olivia notices one of Bette’s Oscars has its gold-plating rubbed off. Bette admits that she holds him in bed as she watches TV. Sometimes, she does it just to remind herself of that night she won when the whole world stood up and recognized her as someone who mattered. Before she leaves, she tells her Oscars to wait up for her. Why? Because she’ll be bringing them a baby brother.
The red carpet gives us another look at all of the nominees, though the most important is still Bette. As she’s interviewing with Olivia, who is asked if she’d flown out just to present Best Picture, Olivia tells the reporters that she’s there to be with Bette. Bette tells the cameras that she’s not ashamed to say she wants the award. Joan arrives, in head to toe sparkles, and is also interviewed. When asked who she’d voted for in the Best Actress race, she simply says, “The winner.”
Upon arrival inside, Joan shoves her way backstage and tries to make it into her own personal green room. She sets up camp while Bette and Olivia discuss the night. Olivia reminisces on how Bette helped her feel like more than just a pretty face at the beginning of her career. Bette remarks that now Olivia is there to support Bette at the end of hers. She then suggests they should get a drink in the greenroom, but Olivia warns her NOT to go to there. Bette storms in and the room goes silent as she sees Joan holding court. Joan marches up to her, very dramatically, and … wishes her luck. Joan then leaves to present an award. Bette, visibly nervous, pours herself a drink. There are still ten minutes until her category is announced.
Joan takes the stage, clad entirely in silver with a perfect petty smile, to present the Best Director award. After the winner accepts, she leads him back into the press room because she suddenly has become the ambassador to the Academy Awards even though literally no one has asked her to do so. Joan struts around back to the wings, as they’re ready to present the Best Actress award. Bette stands watching in the wings as well; Joan is a few feet behind her. We see that they are both equally and heartbreakingly, for different reasons, shaky and nervous.
They announce that Anne Bancroft has won. Bette lurches forward as though all the air has physically been knocked out of her. Then, they announce that Joan will be accepting for her. She sashays onto the stage to snatch the award. And she makes her way back, she passes Bette, who can’t and won’t make eye contact. Bette finally takes her first breath in since her name wasn’t announced. It is a truly equal parts beautiful and harrowing moment to behold onscreen.
Joan is somehow in the press room getting her photo taken with all of the other, actual winners. Again, she’s managed to become the queen of an awards ceremony she has nothing to do with. She’s out of her mind proud of herself. Olivia and Bette are back at her house, and Olivia is completely shocked still. Bette is seething and also mumbling to herself about how she could’ve made history. Olivia tells her she still can, and Bette snaps at her: “In what part? In what picture?” She apologizes, admitting she had thought she was back in the game.
Joan arrives back at her home. The mood isn’t as celebratory as it had been right after the win. She sits on her bed with a drink, the Oscar on the bedside table next to her, and takes a long, sad look at it.
And so ends Oscar night. The night was a celebration, and the glamorous production of it all was not lost on modern audiences. But without a doubt, the best, most resonant, and most legendary moments were those wherein we saw the humanity of the two larger-than-life icons. The portrayal of their vulnerability within the context of their status in the industry that is celebrating itself is startling, intimate, and necessary as hell.
Keep up with Culturess all week for Bette and Joan coverage. Tune in every Sunday at 10/9c on FX for more!