FX and Ryan Murphy create riveting drama with ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ – a recap

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Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange). Photo from FX

Ryan Murphy is one of the busiest men in entertainment, creating anthology shows that roll out fascinating stories of crime, intrigue, or horror. His latest project is Feud, which centers on famous rivalries. In the premier season, Murphy zeroes in on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and their infamous collaboration in the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Murphy’s muse Jessica Lange stars as Joan Crawford and she trades barbs with Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis. The 8-episode season starts with “Pilot” in which we’re introduced to the start of it all. Murphy is a camp aficionado and a camp manufacturer, so it’s not surprising that he aims his talents toward icons like Davis and Crawford, both of whom achieved immortality because of camp. What is surprising is how invested the film is in the characters, and how interested the script is in making Davis and Crawford real people instead of outlandish cartoons.

Working with a script with Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, Murphy veers away from easy cliches about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Yes, the bitchery and the sniping is still there, but he leavens it with desperation and fear. In 1962, both Crawford and Davis were experience mighty ebbs in their careers: Crawford was struggling to pay her gardeners, while Davis was slumming it, in the theater, hamming away at a small part. The film industry – a notoriously sexist and ageist business – had little use of the two women, and this was played out in an early scene at the Golden Globes, where Crawford had to watch the then-It Girl, Marilyn Monroe collect a Golden Globe (“I’ve got great tits,” Crawford sneers, “but I don’t throw them in everyone’s face”).

In the face of such opposition, Crawford seeks out a role for herself. She and her trusty housekeeper Mamacita (a funny Jackie Hoffman) comb the libraries for stories about women. Crawford wisely sums up women’s roles in three categories: ingenues, mothers, or gorgons.” For some reason Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? stands out – mainly for its title – though, if Crawford had read it up to that point, she’d realize that both Blanche and Jane are monstrous gorgons. But she’s hooked and wants to make the film.

And then Robert Aldrich (played by Alfred Molina) enters the picture. A b-movie director in very much a similar situation to Crawford and Davis, he hopes that Baby Jane will enliven his career, sputtering in a morass of tawdry flops. After convincing a very-profane Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci, playing bitchy very well) to distribute the picture, Crawford needs only one more element in her project: a costar.

Unlike Crawford, Bette Davis doesn’t tear through her life crippled by insecurities. Where Crawford is portrayed as paranoid and despondent, Davis is efficient and cold. While Crawford was a great star, she was a so-so actress who could pull off a good performance if coaxed by a strong director; Davis, meanwhile, was a brilliant actress – a skilled technician who often outclassed the material she was given.

But it isn’t just talent that sets these two women apart: it’s also class. Crawford has severe complexes because she believes people see her as jumped-up white trash who made good. Her slightly-vulgar Hollywood mansion has plastic on the furniture, while Davis’ East Coast residence is tasteful. These markers of taste and class weigh heavily on Crawford as she repeatedly laments throughout the film. Her goal isn’t just to merely stage a successful comeback. She wants something far more elusive: industry respect.

The film is presented as a flashback and is introduced by Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Olivia de Havilland (Davis’ costar in the Baby Jane quasi-sequel Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte). Zeta-Jones barely performs – though, she does get a great line, when a reporter asks her to comment on the hatred shared between Davis and Crawford. “Feuds are never about hate,” she corrects him. “Feuds are about pain.”

With that in mind, Murphy, Cohen, and Zam work to create a story that is not only about ambition but about hurt. Crawford is hurt that the film industry is tossing her aside. Crawford is hurt that her peers don’t respect her. Lange does a tremendous job in showing that pain, which never really is successfully hidden by her hollow bravado. Lange could’ve looked to Faye Dunaway’s operatic turn as Crawford in Mommie Dearest, but instead chose to create her own Crawford.

In fact, that is what makes Feud so successful. Both Sarandon and Lange look and sound nothing like the women they’re playing. But instead of working at imitating them – and the two could’ve just YouTubed draq queens doing Crawford and Davis – the actresses set aside accuracy, and instead chose to create characters from the script. Sure, there are stabs at creating physical similarities: Lange sports the Kabuki-like makeup of Crawford, but the actresses are far more interested in developing interesting performances than just to simply sound and look like their subjects.

And that is what saves Feud from being merely an empty camp bitch-fest. The expected one liners are still there – mostly served with relish and venom by Sarandon’s Davis. Also some of the supporting characters pop in with flamboyant turns (I’m thinking specifically of Judy Davis’ broad turn as Hedda Hopper).

As a piece of film history, Feud also works because there is great attention paid to all kinds of details. The sets are wonderful and beautifully-made. And when the filming of Baby Jane starts, viewers get a glimpse of what it looks like behind-the-scenes.

The plot of pilot has Crawford and Davis agreeing to star in the picture together. Even though it would be in their best interest to set aside any petty differences, they begin to snap at each other almost immediately: at a photo-op in which the two divas sign their contracts, they both go for the left chair (to get top-billing in the photo caption), with Davis prevailing (though Crawford looms over Davis’ left shoulder).

When filming finally begins, Davis has a meeting with Crawford and is seemingly supportive, telling her costar that she has the goods to put in a great performance – this disarms Crawford, before Davis spits back “But lose the shoulder pads and cut back on the lipstick. You’re playing a recluse who hasn’t seen the sun for 20 years.”

And though Crawford tries to ingratiate herself with the crew of Baby Jane with presents and a Pepsi vending machine (she’s the soda giant’s “brand ambassador”), Davis manages to upstage her with skill and commitment to her craft. Crawford is vain, worried about how she looks. Davis is all too happy to make herself out to a grotesque. In this script’s version of the events, Davis is the one who creates Baby Jane Hudson’s monstrous look: the tatty white dress, pitiful blond curls, and bone-white pancake makeup. Smearing the white greasepaint on her face, she gleefully turns herself into a horror, and her perturbed daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) is aghast, asking “Do  you really want to look like that.”

But Davis is a pro. Crawford’s a neurotic mess who wants to recapture her glamorous youth when she was a screen goddess, but Davis – never a sex symbol – is more interested in doing the work itself. Though Davis is being a beast about it, she’s right. When the two sit in a screening room, looking at what they filmed, Crawford is immediately thrown into despair at how badly she looks and how much she’s aged; Davis, meanwhile is moved to a single tear (before she quickly wipes it away) because of her strong performance.

Legend has it that Davis and Crawford were horrible to each other, sometimes even resorting to physical violence. That these two over-sized egos are crammed into a single film set is fascinating to watch. Right now, the film seems to lead its viewers to feel sympathy for Crawford who is riddled with self-doubt. As the filming of Baby Jane continues, it’ll be interesting to see how the two will continue to work side-by-side, given that neither trusts the other.

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