Mount St. Joseph University

Review: “Feud: Bette and Joan”, Ep. 1-3

Dateline: student newspaper

By: Josh Zeller

You’d think that after the recent election we would be tired by now of watching major public figures butting heads, but when that showdown involves two Hollywood Queens and vintage 60s glamor, the thirst for blood suddenly returns. FX’s new miniseries Feud chronicles the events surrounding the 1962 release of the budget horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the two stars that made it Oscar-worthy: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Susan Sarandon portrays Davis, who by late 1961 was devoting her efforts to motherhood and acting on Broadway, starring in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. Sarandon absolutely nails Davis’ walk, talk, and mannerisms, including her ability to engage in devastatingly witty repartee; she even looks a lot like her. But because Davis’ personality is so distinctive, she can be easily imitated. Joan Crawford’s personality, on the other hand, is slightly more elusive. Can Faye Dunaway’s campy impression of Crawford in the 1981 film Mommie Dearest really be relied upon? What about the TV interviews she gave, where she is always graceful, cordial, and reserved, tender and motherly? It seems that Jessica Lange has carefully negotiated all of the nuances swirling about Crawford’s character and has settled expertly on a portrayal that is somewhere in between the extremes: as a dignified woman who is capable of great kindness, who has redeeming qualities and occasionally invites our sympathy, yet who is also foulmouthed and has a manipulative, petty side to her. As for the physical similarities, as Sarandon is with Davis, Lange also looks a lot alike Crawford—it’s all in those trademark eyebrows.

In the early 60’s, Crawford had deep financial troubles, a mansion to maintain, and children to support. She had married the wealthy CEO of PepsiCo Al Steele, but he died just a few years later, leaving his wife with debts of $2 million. This was the impetus, according to the series, that drove Crawford to reach out to director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), with whom she had worked on the 1956 film Autumn Leaves. She suggested filming the 1960 horror novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by Henry Farrell. Its basic idea is that “Baby Jane” Hudson (Bette Davis) was a wildly successful child star who got washed up; her sister Blanche began an acting career as an adult, and was just experiencing fame when she was in a terrible accident that left her wheelchair-bound. The sisters now live together in an old Hollywood mansion, as Baby Jane takes care of Blanche, and increasingly loses her sanity.

Film critic Pauline Kael criticized the film for following the growing trend of artistic incomprehensibility in films, saying, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was such a mess that that Time, after calling it ‘the year’s scariest, funniest and most sophisticated thriller,’ got the plot garbled.” It was not known for its acting either (although Davis got an Oscar nomination for her performance). As Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) says on the series as he watches some footage, “There’s so much ham up there I’m going to have to go my rabbi this afternoon to atone.” But the film was a huge commercial success, and for just one reason: because audiences wanted to see two dignified and aging Hollywood stars behave like lunatics, and battle it out onscreen.

In the pilot of Feud, Crawford approaches Davis with the idea of filming Baby Jane, offering her the lead role. She says that it has always been her dream that they work together, and that if they team up, they could revitalize their careers. But in private, she confides to her live-in lover, Peter, that all she wants is to impress the largely unimpressible Davis.

“It took me until Mildred Pierce to be taken seriously as an actress, and when I won my Oscar, do you think I received any congratulatory notes, or bouquets?”

“No,” he answers nonchalantly, while lighting a cigarette.

“But I did,” she says. “From men. Men whose admiration I already had, and whose respect I never craved. But not the women. None of the bitches in this town, least of all Queen Bitch, who always thought she was better than me, more talented than me.”

There is an uncomfortable silence, before Peter smiles suddenly, and says, “You admire her.”

“I admire her talent, and her craft,” Crawford admits, “and I will have her respect.”
     Three episodes in, a unique aspect of the series, which was created by Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens), is the method through which it tells the stories of Davis and Crawford. We suddenly flash forward to interviews given by the brash Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) and the prim Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1978, which recall the past careers of the two actresses. After a brilliant run in the 1930s, Joan Crawford was losing steam, and wanted to play more serious roles. This required quitting MGM for Warner Bros., where Davis was reigning queen. By 1945, the tables started to turn when Crawford won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce; as Crawford took on more and more leading roles, Davis herself was now faced with a slump in her career. Ultimately, Blondell and de Havilland call attention to the fact that Warner controlled both women in order to make millions, just as Aldrich is controlling them now.

The exact nature of the relationship between Aldrich and his co-stars is powerfully illustrated in the opening credits. Overall, the sequence consists of moving, paper cutouts which dance around the names of the actors to a sinister orchestral score, constantly morphing into scenes from Baby Jane and the real-life drama surrounding its development. The style of art recalls the angular and primary-colored film poster designs of Saul Bass, while the theme song is reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s score for the Hitchcock film Psycho (1960). The most unforgettable image is of Aldrich controlling Davis and Crawford like puppets on marionette strings, illustrating the way in which he manipulated the rampant egos of both actresses to get them to do what he wanted, as well as to encourage—at the behest of Jack Warner—the age-old feud between the two actresses in the hopes that the publicity generated by gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons would sell movie tickets. Further complicating matters is the fact that Aldrich apparently had an affair with Crawford while filming Autumn Leaves, and has a one night stand with Davis while filming Baby Jane. But ultimately, the two stars firmly manage to hold their own, as although they must fight hard for their sovereignty, they more often than not get their way.
For example, the young, blonde actress who has been hired to fulfill a minor role in the film as the “neighbor,” comes up to Crawford during the second episode of the series (“The Other Woman”) and asks for an autograph. “It’s for my grandmother,” she says, “She’s loved you since she was a kid.” Crawford (at that time aged 57) signs it, and then has a little talk with Aldrich:

“You know Bob, I was thinking: we need to pack the bags of the girl-next-door; she’s moving out.”

“Well, Joan, I don’t have time to recast,” Aldrich replies, “We’re shooting tomorrow.”

“I have co-star approval.”

“She’s not a co-star!”

“That’s right. And she never will be.”

After Crawford goes off and reminds Davis that Aldrich is a “lady-killer” with a thing for young blondes, and that she has the most scenes with her (standing next to her in her Baby Jane clown makeup, curly blond wig, and doll dress, which Crawford calls “incredibly brave”), Davis has a similar conversation with the director, and the girl-next-door is fired that very day.

While the two actresses are capable of teaming up together, more often they are trying to get under one another’s skin. In Episode 3 (“Mommie Dearest”) the feud is really on, which I—and I think many others—was most eager to see. On one occasion, Crawford wears a weight belt in order to make herself heavier for a scene in which she must be dragged unconscious out of the room by Davis. Davis gets back at her when they are filming a scene where she is supposed to mime kicking Crawford around, but purposefully kicks her for real in the head, as hard as she can. It is the exchanges of searing wit between them, however, that really steal the show. The most venomous example that comes to mind is when Davis finds out that Crawford has told the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper that she expects to be nominated for the best actress category of the Oscars, and that Davis will be nominated for best supporting actress (although they agreed from the start that Davis was to be the star, and that Crawford would take the supporting role).

“I’m going to be the first person to have three Oscars,” Davis screams, terrifying in a fuzzy pink robe with only half of her face covered in Blanche Hudson’s stark white foundation, “even though everyone knows I already should have, because I got robbed in 1950!” Her acclaimed role as Margo Channing in All About Eve had been nominated for an Oscar, but she lost to June Holliday, who won for her role as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday

“That’s certainly ungracious, yes,” Crawford replies coolly, “and dismissive of Miss Judy Holliday’s winsome performance.”

“She won by default! That bitch Anne Baxter (her Eve co-star who also got nominated for best actress)—she pushed her way into my category and we split the vote—that’s why she won!”

“Well, need I remind you that unlike Eve, you and I share equal billing on this. We’re both leads.”

Aldrich breaks them up, and they storm off to their respective dressing rooms, with Crawford screaming, “And it was Gloria Swanson who was robbed in 1950, not you bitch!”

An interesting parallel, considering Swanson, a former silent film star, was nominated for her role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, where like Davis she played a washed-up film star (but unlike her character Norma Desmond, Swanson had made a successful transition to the talkies).
One question I asked myself at the end of the third episode was, “Do I take a side in this unholy feud?” It certainly seems like the series itself does. Maybe this is just because, as nasty as Bette Davis can be, she is shown to be a good person under it all. After some initial weariness over Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess) who plays her unconventional love interest in the film, she accepts his obesity and his homosexuality, inviting him over to her home to practice lines, and even bailing him out of jail after he is arrested in a police raid on a porn theater. Her severity aside, she seems like a good friend to have. Crawford, on the other hand, while cordial and kind on the outside, makes us uneasy with her mental instability—as evidenced by her many breakdowns in private—which is never far from the surface. More than Davis, she engages in shady behavior, feeding gossip to the columnists, and at one point trying to seduce Aldrich in an attempt to get a leg up on her costar. Halfway in, I’m rooting for Davis, but feel that it is too early to entirely take sides, and discount one diva for the other. After all, there are six episodes left for Crawford to redeem herself.