selenak: (Kate Hepburn by Misbegotten)
[personal profile] selenak
Having watched „American Crime: The People vs O.J. Simpson“ some months ago, I moved on to this year’s Ryan Murphy endeavour, „Feud: Bette and Joan”, several episodes of which were scripted by Tim Minear, aka he who was largely responsible for most of Darla’s episodes at Angel, for which I’ll eternally appreciate him. Now I had actually read the book this particular miniseries draws much of its material from, “Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud”, and among other things, it was interesting to see how Murphy and his team shaped the same raw material into a different type of story. The book is very gossipy, but in a way that doesn’t favour either woman about the other, and does point out when there are several conflicting accounts. Narratively, though, it feels like a collection of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford anecdotes, without overall themes or specific conclusions. The miniseries, otoh, goes for the the Sunset Boulevard (btw: there’s a great little reference to it during an escalating Davis/Crawford argument) approach of witty, biting and ultimately tragic Hollywood on Hollywood; if Bette Davis comes across as the more “likeable” of the two women, it’s ultimately Joan Crawford whose tragedy it is, and who has the most clear cut narrative arc, from her decision to find a project for herself and Bette Davis in the series opener to her death in the finale.



Any attempt to tell a story about two screen legends stands or falls with its leading ladies. It’s not for the faint of heart to embody an actress who not only has left plenty of material of herself in everyone’s collective memory but who also has been parodied a thousand times, which is true of both Davis and Crawford. I’m happy to report that Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford are both fantastic. The rest of the cast sparkles as well – Stanley Tucci has obviously great fun as dastardly studio boss Jack Warner, Judy Davis is all unrepentant malice in a series of glorious hats as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (who, btw, has a cameo as herself in Sunset Boulevard - she’s one of Norma’s card playing pals, and one of the media people commenting in the final scene), Jackie Hofmann is Joan’s long suffering housekeeper/companion Mamacita (which was Joan’s nickname for her; as the series itself points out, the lady in question was actually German, not Hispanic), Alfred Molina is down on his luck (during the relevant period) director Robert Aldrich, and Alison Wright who endeared herself to me as Martha in The Americans is the one important OC in the miniseries as Pauline, who starts out as Aldrich’s Girl Friday but has ambitions to make it as a scriptwriter and ultimately director as well.

If The People vs O.J. Simpson uses its rl material to tell a story about racism, sexism, the way public perception makes people into caricatures and the battle of different narratives, Bette and Joan deals with the uphill battle of being a woman in a system designed against you which you are also a part of, and have partially internalized. Which is a very theoretical way to describe a story that’s anything but. It manages the trick of moving from witty one liners to raw emotional bleeding and back, and doesn’t offer easy solutions or explanations. Yes, Hollywood in the early 1960s is an even more overt patriarchy than it is today, with middle aged female stars out of work and/or unforgiven for aging while their male colleagues are paired up with women decades their juniors, and yes, the few women getting into a position of (temporary) power regardless are encouraged to regard this as a zero sum game and encouraged to hate each other to the benefit of the men. But the series doesn’t let our heroines of the hook in terms of personal responsibilities for their choices, either. For example: Joan is clear sighted enough to know good roles will never come her way again if she leaves it to other people; she’s the one who has the idea of teaming up with her arch rival, who finds a project for both of them with two good roles, who finds the director. But Joan is also the one incapable of letting things go, the one who responds to feeling slighted and powerless by destroying another woman’s chances.

Not all of the scriptwriting choices worked for me; there’s a framing narration, excerpts from a pseudo documentary in which mainly Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell are interviewed about the Crawford/Davis feud, and mostly it exists to get exposition about Bette’s and Joan’s decades in Hollywood pre-Feud across to the audience. Otoh, Olivia de Havilland is played by Catherine Zeta Jones and Joan Blondell by Kathy Bates, so we get even more great actresses, plus Olivia de Havilland later enters the main story as a minor supporting player in her capacity as Bette Davis’ friend. Still, except for one pseudo documentary scene, about which more in a moment, I think we either didn’t need them or the exposition in question could have been brought across in a different way.

(The series even illustrates how; in one of their temporary truces, Bette and Joan are drinking together, and we get to hear some key parts of their respective backstories without this feeling clumsy; au contraire, the reveals in question make sense as part of their dialogue at this point.)
The one pseudo documentary excerpt which I can’t imagine coming across as well in a different way is when it’s said that one of the reasons why Bette Davis got on so well with Olivia de Havilland was that she never saw her as competition, but as an admiring supporter. Quoth Olivia: “The Melanie Wilkes to her Scarlett O’Hara.” Pause, perfectly timed beat. “Of course, I actually was Melanie Wilkes.” Leaving pointedly unsaid that Bette never was Scarlett O’Hara. (But really really wanted to be; she was a top contender for the role back when all actresses in Hollywood wanted to play Scarlett. In the same episode, Aldrich dares to suggest Vivien Leigh as a possible Joan replacement in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Bette thunders that Vivien Leigh can’t play a Southern Belle. Bob Aldrich is all, um, she already did. Bette: Unconvincingly!.) What makes the moment for me is that Olivia does admire and support Bette, we see her doing it in this and the next episode – but she can’t resist slipping that little dig in. (Oh, and then there’s the earlier bit where Olivia is asked about her own feud with her sister Joan Fontaine, and she sweetly replies there’s no such thing, as for a feud to exist one needs to be in contact with the other person.)

Aldrich is told at one point by Joan that he doesn’t know how women can get under each other’s skin, and that, too, is a red thread through the series. Not solely in the sense of competition, mind you; Mamacita – who is Joan’s main emotional support, but not to the point of being a doormat, she has her lines drawn – cheers up Pauline at a key moment (hooray for supporting players with ambitions!), one of the most touching scenes is between Joan and a young Anne Bancroft who when Joan attempts a power play-cum-manipulation sees the deeper reason behind it and responds with kindness and grace, and one of the constantly captivating, exhilarating and frustrating things about our heroines is that each of their scenes together, whether they’re firing off cutting one liners at each other or having the odd moment of bonding, only underscores how much they spark.
Tone wise, I often felt reminded of those female centric 30s and 40s pictures – very apropos -, and George Cukor, who directed several, in one episode does show up as Joan’s old friend. (Though, as she bitterly notes: he’s five years older than her and as much in demand as a director as ever…) Both with the wit and the emotional drama. Murphy does the occasional directorial nod to the movies in question, as in the morning when Joan wakes up and finds that all the phones are off the hook, courtesy of Mamacita (because the news just got out that Bette was nominated for an Oscar and Joan was not), but most of the directorial flourishes are very much of this day and age, as in the long uncut take of Joan leading David Lean after his Oscar win through the entire confusing backstage area without stopping or turning back once.

Of course, this is tv, not cinema. And there’s some sly meta here on various actors and directors regarding tv as the talent graveyard when of course the miniseries itself is just the type of project Joan and Bette were hoping to get through and after Whatever happened to Baby Jane? but didn’t: female-centric (in fact chock full of female roles, not solely the leads, whereas the sole male characters of narrative importance are Warner and Aldrich, and they’re not even in all the episodes), with meaty, three dimensional character roles. Which means you can introduce Bette with her queen of the realm, no fucks to give persona versus Joan playing the publicity and glamour game, and you can reveal, not in the next scene but bit by bit, that both have tremendous insecurities beneath and are painfully aware of the incredible high stakes, and that there are few chances left for them, if any, in the business that defines them. Bette calls Joan “Lucille”, Joan Crawford’s original name, in an ongoing dig at what Bette sees as Joan’s phoniness, but it’s not until episode 3 we find out what being Lucille had been like (hint: imagine the worst and then some when it comes to Joan Crawford’s childhood), and not until the finale that Joan confesses she has no idea who is left if you take away “Joan Crawford”.

One last thing: both Lange and Sarandon are decades older than Crawford and Davis were at the time of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. You don’t notice, except for the bit where Jessica Lange as Joan looks older than Susan Sarandon as Bette (does she have a portrait in her attic?), when in reality Lange is younger than Sarandon. (Bette Davis insisted JoanCrawford was five years older than her while Joan Crawford insisted they were born the same year.) Because the miniseries doesn’t just cover the Baby Jane era but moves forward until Joan’s death in ’77, we see them age, and in close up. It’s the kind of thing actresses still get called “brave” for while male actors don’t, because the media at large still tends to treat the aging female body as the ultimate horror experience. Which is depressing. This miniseries, for all that this double standard is a theme, is not. It’s far too captivating to be. And even, at the end, offers emotional release, and a bittersweet sense of grace.

Date: 18 Jun 2017 00:49 (UTC)
thawrecka: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thawrecka
I think this is the first round up of this series that actually made me interested in watching it. It sounds fascinating.

Date: 30 Jun 2017 19:41 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zahrawithaz.livejournal.com
I have to echo this. I'm generally allergic to anything even remotely Hollywood-meta, but you make me want to track this down asap!

Date: 20 Jun 2017 15:55 (UTC)
frelling_tralk: (Default)
From: [personal profile] frelling_tralk
I haven't been sure about watching Feud, I was under the impression that it would be a bit soapy and focused on catfights, but your write-up makes it sound really interesting!

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