Category Archives: celebrity

Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon cinch Emmy nominations in the final ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ recap

The last episode of the first season of Feud is suitably sad and free from the delicious camp that made the first few episodes so enjoyable. But that’s okay, because the end of Joan Crawford’s and Bette Davis’s stories is so sad. Since last week’s episode covering the filming of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Bette and Joan became estranged from each other. Both their careers took ignominious turns, with b-movies and cheapie “indies” in Europe. The final episode takes its title – “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?” – from Bette Davis’ final line in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. It takes place in 1969, when Joan Crawford is living a solitary existence in a tiny appointment in Manhattan. She just took a role in Trog, a notoriously bad horror flick about a scientist who tussles with the missing link.

The filming of Trog makes up a depressing sequence of scenes because the film is a shitshow of corner cutting. Crawford is years from her heyday as the Queen of MGM or Warner’s, but she still has her standards. And seeing Crawford humbled by the shoestring production – she has to change her clothes in a van and freshen up in a public toilet – is hard to watch. Her manager urges her to turn down Trog, but Crawford’s desperate enough that the tawdry film appears to be a viable comeback vehicle. Just a few years ago, Crawford was able to demand perks and salary hikes, but by 1969, she was past her prime.

Along with her career troubles, she’s also very sick. Jessica Lange is physically transformed into a wreck. Instead of the raven hair and Hollywood tan, she’s sporting chalk-white foundation and unflattering red hair, and later a fright wig of gray. And when she sees a terrible picture of herself in a newspaper, she vows to never appear in public again. As her health starts to fade, she takes stock of her life, and it’s all very depressing. She feels bruised because daughter Christina is about to publish Mommie Dearest, which accuses her of physical and emotional abuse. The show doesn’t take sides in this case: she’s a loving mother to Kathy and a tolerant grandmother to her children; but when a teary Joan broaches the subject of Christina, she doesn’t actually deny the abuse charges.

The centerpiece of the Joan Crawford scenes is a dinner party scene that takes place in Crawford’s fevered imagination. Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner, young and untouched by time, are trading quips and playing cards. Crawford, looking awful, in a billowy nightgown and her bedraggled gray hair, shuffles to the table, instantly transformed to her prime, glamorous in a gorgeous red gown. Bette Davis joins the party, too, also Hollywood glossy.

The conversation is far more honest and piercing than anything these characters have said to each other before. Because it’s all in Crawford’s head, the exchange works to figure out why Crawford’s life and career has been marked by pain and anger. Warner sums it up as movie people are looking to make up for their insecurities by gaining the approval of their audiences. It’s a little clichéd and too pat. But once the imaginary Hedda and Jack leave the table, it’s just Bette and Joan. For much of the episode, Sarandon is a reduced presence (more on her later), but when the two divas have a tete-a-tete alone, it’s a rallying moment of beauty. Crawford’s neediness creates a scene in which both admit that they would like to be closer friends. It’s painful to watch just how kind Davis is to Crawford, and when the latter leaps up in joy, you almost believe this is actually happening, until Mamacita interrupts the scene and we’re back to a scraggly, sick Joan Crawford, sitting alone in her living room.

This episode will cement Jessica Lange’s chances of an Emmy nod. She’s masterful in this episode. It’s difficult to pinpoint which moment she’s strongest, but when she dissolves into grateful tears after Kathy insists that she was a good mother, she packs a wallop. Susan Sarandon is every bit Lange’s equal, though, because Bette Davis had a far more even keeled approach to life, her story is less tragic and operatic. But the finale does put Davis through her paces, too – especially when it comes to B.D. (Kiernan Shipka), who, like Christian Crawford, has a jaundiced view of her childhood.

Like Crawford, Davis is going through a career valley. Unlike Crawford, she’s able to maintain a semblance of dignity because at the end of the day, Davis is a workhorse, who can still fall back on her talent. Because Crawford’s major draw was her beauty, she felt that once it fades, she’s at a disadvantage. Though Davis is piqued by her career misfortunes, she knows that she can still deliver fantastic performances (and she’d pull out of her career dumps in the late 1970s with a string of well-received TV movies).

But it’s hard.

It’s hard because by 1969, Bette Davis is no longer a vibrant movie queen, but an ossified legend. She’s not seen as a vital actress, but one who had an iconic past. She’s frustrated that her repeated attempts at TV pilots have all failed, and is looking at Katharine Hepburn as her new rival. Unlike Davis, Hepburn managed to maintain a consistent film career. When Hepburn refuses to pose for a Life magazine cover with Davis, Sarandon does a great job in conveying the hurt and humiliation that Davis must’ve felt (and the hurt and humiliation that Crawford must’ve felt). It’s a telling moment that shows that even though Davis sees herself as the efficient, “together” one, she is full of insecurities, too.

And that’s what Feud is all about: insecurities. Both Davis and Crawford nursed some serious feelings of doubt about their place in their industry. Sexism and misogyny factored largely in the obstacles the two women had to overcome, but much of what they battled – aside from each other – was their own feelings of self-worth. When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was filmed, both Davis and Crawford were on the precipice of the end of their career; unfortunately, Crawford wasn’t able to capitalize on the film’s success nor was she able to use the success to find personal happiness. Davis, on the other hand, may have pulled off a second career with Baby Jane, but like Crawford, her personal life was still sad and unsatisfied.

Throughout the show’s 10 episodes, critics were praising Jessica Lange’s performance, insisting that she should make some room on her groaning mantle for another award. I think Lange’s work on Feud has been superb, some of the best work she’s ever done. But Susan Sarandon shouldn’t be ignored, either. Her role was harder because Ryan Murphy and company had envisioned Feud to be really Joan Crawford’s story. Crawford is the character who changes the most and has to suffer the most – all of this giving Lange a wide range of emotions to sell. Bette Davis could have been a caricature, but Sarandon seemed to shy away from the famous mannerisms and speech patterns until the last few episodes. Also, Feud depicts Davis’ life as much more stable and Crawford is much more tragic. Speaking of award-worthy performances, it would be remiss if Stanley Tucci, Alfred Molina, Jackie Hoffman, and Judy Davis were all shut own – each was wonderful, holding his/her own against the titular titans. Kiernan Shipka and Kathy Bates were great, but their presence was far too brief, while Catherine Zeta-Jones was just weird in the choices she made as Olivia de Havilland (though Feud could do a spin-off in the third season and have it be Feud: Olivia and Joan (Fontaine). The writers – for the most part – did a masterful job in creating a compelling drama and not just a by-the-numbers biopic.

The ending of Feud: Bette and Joan show the two divas laughing right before filming starts – right before all of the backstabbing, sniping, fighting. Crawford extends an olive branch of sorts and hopes the two can become friends. Davis takes a beat and concurs. It’s a shame that these two ladies never got on, and it’s a shame that their industry thrived on pitting women against each other; by only offering a few choice roles to women, the film industry made natural enemies of people who should be colleagues. As fun and campy as Feud got, it also was a serious social critique on misogyny and sexism and the havoc it can wreak.

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, Celeb, celebrity, commentary, movie, Television, TV, Writing

Bette Davis plays boss and Joan Crawford overplays her hand in “Abandoned!” ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ recap

Abandoned thumbnailThe end of the penultimate episode of Feud: Bette and Joan is the ultimate insult to Joan Crawford. Unceremoniously dumped from Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Crawford has to see Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) waltz in and steal her part, but worst of all: for a publicity shot, Bette Davis and de Havilland pose on top of a Coca-Cola machine.

“Abandoned!” is a very sad episode and it really charts the end of Joan Crawford’s career. Increasingly Lear-like, Crawford is stalking the set of Charlotte, paranoid that Davis and Bob Aldridge are out to get her. As on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis is the queen bee, intimidating and bullying Crawford with efficiency, workmanship, and talent. Crawford – no slouch – just can’t keep up with her costar, and every tiny speck of vulnerability is amplified. Aldridge is a referee trying to finish up the film, but he sees that he cannot control the filming of Charlotte. Davis – a producer of the film – starts to flex her creative muscles behind the cameras, and even though her intentions are often to screw Crawford over, her suggestions are on-point. In fact, in certain moments, it looks like Davis should take over directing the film.

This episode was directed by Oscar and Emmy winning actress Helen Hunt. There’s some interesting meta stuff going on, having an actress direct an episode of a TV show that’s about how Hollywood treats women like shit. We saw in an earlier episode how Aldridge’s right-hand woman, Pauline (Alison Wright) was rebuked from her colleagues and peers when she tried to venture into directing and directing. And Hunt, Sarandon, and Lange seem to be exceptions to the rule that the film industry still abandons actresses once they reach middle age.

Beauty is a minor theme in the film. Both Crawford and Davis care about beauty – namely because Davis was always told she wasn’t beautiful (which is nonsense, she was gorgeous) and Crawford was always told beauty was all she had (again, nonsense). Crawford is in a precarious situation because her looks have faded, but she doesn’t have the respect for her talent that could mitigate the loss. Because Davis was an artist first, so she had a touch more space to age (though she was facing an industry unwilling to accommodate for women of her age).

When Crawford and Davis face off, Crawford hisses, “You don’t make yourself more attractive by making yourself uglier.” But Davis rears back and announces grandly, “I’m a character actress.” Then screenwriters – Jaffe Cohen & Michael Zam – lift some dialogue from Barbra Streisand’s 1996 comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces, when Streisand asks her onscreen mom, Lauren Bacall what it was like being beautiful. Davis asks Crawford what was it like being beautiful, and Crawford sighed, “Wonderful…but never enough.” When Crawford in turn, asks Davis what was it like being talented, Davis answers, “Great…but never enough.”

Despite all that these women share in common, “Abandoned!” is all about their mutual distrust of each other. It seems that no slight is too petty. Crawford’s treated very badly on Charlotte. Her performances are constantly undermined by Davis, who also seems intent on pruning down Crawford’s role to a cameo. The most ignominious moment was when the crew and cast left Crawford, drunk and passed out in her trailer, all by herself on the plantation set.

It’s no surprise that Crawford plays sick to punish the set. But Ryan Murphy’s vision of the Crawford/Davis feud has Crawford as the underdog. The ploy to be sick blows up in her face and she’s fired from the film, left to rant and rave in her hospital room when she learns that de Havilland glided into the role. When Crawford, in a pathetic fury, lobs a vase at poor Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman, Emmy worthy), she is left alone to twist in misery as her faithful servant makes good on her threat to leave.

Though Davis is setting the rules on the film set, she has her own personal travails, namely with her daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka, also, Emmy worthy), who wants to marry Elliot Hyman, nephew of the owner of the production company that made Baby Jane. Initially against the wedding, she acquiesces, and decides to orchestrate an extravagant wedding  It appears as if B.D. is allergic to her mother’s attempts to reach out, and the two have a fantastic fight that ends with B.D. admitting that she and Hyman eloped. Bette Davis suffering whilst trying to plan an elaborate wedding reminded me of her 1956 drama The Catered Affair.

I watched Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte years ago. It was a great movie, despite its Grand Guignol trappings. And as sad as it was when Crawford was dumped, it was better for the film: Davis was predictably great, but de Havilland was the better choice. At this point in Crawford’s career, her acting had calcified into an unwatchable Kabuki, and she wouldn’t have been able to give the character the necessary complexities to fool the audiences (I won’t go into the twist of Charlotte).

Feud: Bette and Joan is stunning in its consistency. All of the episodes were strong, with strong writing and brilliant acting. Next week is the final episode – we see moments of Trog (I can’t wait to see that). Ryan Murphy and company have been able to construct a wonderful plot arc that is coming to a logical and constructive end.

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, Celeb, celebrity, commentary, movie, Television, TV, Writing

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange step aside and let Alfred Molina lead in “Hagsploitation” ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ recap

Hagsploitation thumbnailWhen I first heard about Feud: Bette and Joan, and its premise, I assumed that the whole 10-episode show would be about the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but that period only took about three episodes. Instead, the film is merely an episode in the ongoing feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, respectively). Despite their feud, the two women benefited greatly from Baby Jane because during the early 1960s, their careers were in free fall. And because Baby Jane was such a big hit, it’s easy to see why Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) is hoping for a follow up.

The title refers to the ugly way Warner characterizes the Grand Guignol genre – a particularly ugly film genre that takes former movie queens and puts them in exploitative horror films. After Baby Jane, both Davis and Crawford, along with their colleagues like Olivia de Havilland, Shelly Winters, and Debbie Reynolds all settled for cheapie b-thrillers to keep their name in the public, and to get paid. In “Hagsploitation,” Bob Aldridge (Alfred Molina) is tasked with directing the Baby Jane sorta sequel Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Davis and Crawford are reunited, though the two are making fresh demands: Crawford’s concerns are primarily financial (she was screwed by the alleged backend deal for Baby Jane), while Davis’ are professional. Crawford gets a generous advance, while Davis gets creative control.

But even though both Crawford and Davis (as well as Lange and Sarandon) are oversized personalities, “Hagsploitation” is primarily Alfred Molina’s show, and he’s a great lead. Aldridge is having serious professional and personal troubles: his wife is leaving him, and he hasn’t had a hit since Baby Jane. Making Sweet Charlotte is key for his personal and professional lives: it’s his way of proving to Jack Warner that  Baby Jane success was primarily due to his direction and if the film succeeds, then his marriage didn’t fail in vain. Telling Warner off is particularly satisfying for audiences who had to watch Aldridge grovel. When Aldridge says with a smirk, “I came here to gety my balls back…you hear them clanging?” Molina swishes the line like a delicious wine.

Though “Hagsploitation” deals primarily with Aldridge, Crawford is still a dominant figure. She’s on tour pushing a terrible piece-of-shit film, Straight Jacket, she has to put in personal appearances in theaters, popping up, wielding an ax in evening gown. The goofy gimmicks include Crawford pretending to chop Straight-Jacket director William Castle’s (John Waters in an awesome cameo) head. It’s tawdry in a way that made Bette Davis singing on Andy Williams’ variety show seem like Brecht. The trailer for Straight-Jacket reveal the movie for the crapfest it is – and the film does a commendable job in recreating it:

Davis’ career is in a similarly dismal state, and she’s bitter about the Oscar fiasco, blaming Crawford’s machinations. Both need Sweet Charlotte in the same way they both needed Baby Jane, but the movie’s success was a mixed blessing, because the financial windfall and career resurgence just did not materialize. Davis was seen as a movie monster, while Crawford’s performance was overwhelmed by Davis’. The scenes of Aldridge working Davis and Crawford separately to convince both to make the movie is technically brilliant: the quick shots show both interviews at the same time, intercutting both Davis’ and Crawford’s reactions, edited seamlessly to blend both conversations into one.

As if career worries aren’t enough, Crawford is dealing with her shit heel of a brother, who is bitter about his failed acting career as well as his sister’s affected airs. He’s a constant reminder of her working class past and is an extortionist, blackmailing her to keep her unseemly secrets safe. When Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) warns her of alleged stag films, Crawford suspects her brother, who works at a fleabag hotel. The two share little love with each other and snipe at each other. And while she gives him the money that she can, he isn’t satisfied. Their relationship hits an awful low when in the hospital, he reminds Crawford of her poor past, spitefully spitting accusations of snobbery at her. When he dies, she reacts by canceling the check she wrote out for him.

Though Crawford’s showdown with her brother is disturbing, it’s nothing compared to her war with Davis. The two are mortal enemies (I wouldn’t piss on Crawford if she were on fire!” Davis roars). When they meet for a table read of Sweet Charlotte, the two vow to present a united front, but that quickly dissolves when it’s clear that Davis has some strong ideas and vision for the film and Crawford is yet again, out of her intellectual depth. While Davis is highlighting the script’s technical issues, Crawford is dimly pointing out nonexistent grammar issues. To prove a point, Davis uses Straight-Jacket as an example, much to Crawford’s consternation. The reading sputters to a stop, with Davis stomping away in righteous fury. Crawford is able to posit herself as the amiable trouper.

But Feud doesn’t want Crawford to have the upper hand for too long. Flying to Louisiana to film Sweet Charlotte, Crawford is reminded again of Davis’ queen bee status. Upon arriving at the airport, she’s discovers that the film production fails to send a car for her. At when she finally makes it to the hotel, she is rebuffed by the front desk clerk who doesn’t realize Crawford’s in the film; it takes a falsely gracious Davis who intervenes on Crawford’s part to right the snafu.

Of course, as soon as filming starts, Davis is causing trouble for Aldridge, Pauline (Alison Wright), and the others with her imperious manner and her demands. (her initial choice of playing Charlotte as both young and old shows that she’s as vulnerable to terrible acting choices as Crawford; her concession to that choice’s absurdity shows why she’s the better actress of the two) Though Aldridge started the project as a victor, vanquishing that asshole, Jack Warner, he’s reduced to crying underneath the poplars, mourning the end of his marriage. He would have a kindred spirit in Crawford, if he only would recognize it; she, like he, is vulnerable, feeling put out and snubbed by her inauspicious arrival to Louisiana. Trying to continue her role as the workhorse, she calls Aldridge from her ugly hotel room to report to duty, but is politely dismissed by him (with Crawford clearly hearing Davis cackling in the background)

We know that Crawford will leave the film, only to be replaced by Olivia de Havilland, who got great reviews for her performance. The filming of Sweet Charlotte cannot be as dramatic as Baby Jane, because Crawford cuts out too soon. Still Feud seems more interested in exploring the complex psychology that drives the feud, than the film itself. “Hagsploitation” is a great episode because it gives Molina a chance to carry an episode. Though Lange and Sarandon clearly own the series, Molina is an integral part of the show’s success, and he does a beautiful job playing the conflicted, sympathetic, though oft-unlikable Aldridge. Lange will dominated when it comes to award season, but it would be a huge oversight if Molina is ignored.

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, Celeb, celebrity, commentary, movie, Television, TV, Writing

RuPaul’s Drag Race goes Sisters Grimm

The problem with reality show competitions is that sometimes the show runners struggle to come up with meaningful challenges, but often fail, coming up with stupid ideas, instead. Project Runway is a repeat offender (making dresses out of garbage, designing mail carrier uniforms, using material from hardware stores). RuPaul’s Drag Race has some goofy challenges, too – and “Draggily Ever After” is pret-ty goofy. The queens are tasked to create fairy tale princesses, and in a nod toward Disney (though I don’t think the House of Mouse was ever mentioned in the episode), each princess gets a sassy sidekick, too – sort of like the singing rodent or bird that keeps Disney princesses company.

So the queens have to be creative as well as glamorous, and not surprisingly, some queens fail, most do okay, and a couple hit the mark. During the workroom scenes, the queens chat about makeup, until the talk turns to the tragic Orlando Pulse shooting. I was nervous about the inclusion of the tragedy because often reality shows exploit tragic events to manufacture emotion; I also worry when people bring up tragic events and try to center themselves into the narrative, however tenuous their connection is to the tragedy.

It was a relief then, when the queens shared their feelings of Orlando, and it became about how the tragedy impacted the queer community. Cynthia has real, concrete stakes in the tragedy, having lost a good friend. The discussion turns to the feelings of empowerment that is integral to drag. These ladies are flouting societal rules, thumbing their noses at the patriarchy, and as Sasha Velour so sagely said, “It’s so important as queer entertainers to lead the way. We need to come together and be proudly, visibly queer.” I’ll be curious to see if the election will find its way in the show, as well, seeing how political RuPaul has been during the election year.

And even though Orlando has imbued the show some gravitas, the show is still a competition with drag queens, so there were huge doses of absurdity. When the queens were given templates to create their sidekick characters, the challenge took on a Mad Libs kind of tone, with Kimora struggling with the assignment, wondering aloud what an adjective is (Cynthia, putting on her teacher’s cap, did a great job explaining what the word meant). Kimora smugly said, “Thank god I’m pretty…”

Kimora is gorgeous, but she isn’t suited for the competition. She seems a touch bored and not up to the challenge. That she’s in the bottom two is not surprising, and I think that it should’ve been she not Jaymes that should’ve gone home last week. Jaymes was a nervous wreck last week, but I think she would’ve done better with this challenge, at least in creating the sidekick.

But Kimora’s sidekick character to her Tarzan-inspired princess was a boring, robotic mess; she read her nonsensical spiel like she was reading a ransom note.

The other queen on the bottom was Aja, who like Kimora, struggled to make any sense with her sidekick story. Choosing to be some kind of volcano princess. Though she was livelier than Kimora (which isn’t saying much, ‘cuz the RuPaul wax figure was more lively), her makeup was awful – too dark and messy – and she made the tacky mistake of wearing chaps.

The two lip synch to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” a choice pick. Neither queen did great, though, Kimora’s phoned-in performance sent her home. It’s always funny when gorgeous, snotty, know-it-alls go home early.

As for the winner, Trinity wins with an under the sea outfit, topped by an impressive headdress of seaside paraphernalia.

I have to say that even though Kimora’s cartoon was a disaster, none of the characters were good because the premise was destined to fail: these computer cartoons had the queen’s face inserted, and each had to give a stupid monologue to explain the relationship each sidekick has with its princess. None of the queens have displayed the kind of comedic talent of Bianca Del Rio or Pandora Boxx, but Charlie Hides’ British fairy godmother comes close to the wit the challenge was hoping to achieve.

The guest judges this week were singer/actor Cheyenne Jackson and YouTube sensation Todrick Hall, whose made a career out of creating Disney-inspired music videos, so it’s super appropriate that he’s a judge, though both Hall and Jackson have such limited screen time, that neither makes a big impression. (which is a shame, because Hall is a fabulous talent, and should be tapped to be a permanent judge)

“Draggily Ever After” is the kind of Drag Race that highlights the show at its best and its worst, and it shows off its contestants at their best and worst. The runway, for the most part, was serviceable and eye-popping, and the creative part of the challenge was a messy hot mess.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celeb, celebrity, Comedy, commentary, music, Nonfiction, Television, TV, Writing

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ eliminates its first contestant, gives viewers a cheer, and teases us with Lisa Kudrow

When the trailer for the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race aired, I was very excited to see Lisa Kudrow. I was looking forward to see how she’d do on the show – I assumed she’d probably be some kind of mentor or coach for the comedy challenge (Cheri Oteri and Kudrow’s Groundlings pal Kathy Griffen were great teaching the girls the ins and  outs of being funny).

So, it was very disappointing to see the brilliant comedienne pop by the work room for a minute, throw out some great Comeback catchphrases, before dashing away, leaving the contestants in a daze. Instead of the great Lisa Kudrow, the second episode of Drag Race features the great B-52s as guest judges, joining Ross Mathews, Carson Kressley, and Michelle Visage to watch the contestants participate in a nutty cheerleading challenge, and then parade around in drag that is inspired by White Parties.

The queens are broken up into two teams, and are tasked with making a splash and stand out, despite appearing in a crowded and messy cheerleading routine. Immediately, we see that poor Jaymes Mansfield is struggling, which is a shame because she seems to be the only comedy queen (in last week’s premier, she announced her arrival with a puppet). Initially, she wants the character of Floozy, but fails to imbue the character with enough sex appeal, so she takes on Snoozy, which has unintended irony has her performance throughout episode two is a bit sleepy; it’s a bit of a wonder that she doesn’t do well, because she’s a very funny queen.

The other queen to struggle is Kimora Blac, a stunner, who has a stank attitude throughout the proceedings, especially when the queens are putting together their cheerleading costumes; she’s pissed and bored that she has to stud her uniform with jewels, and pouts throughout the activity. She also fails at the White Party runway challenge, recreating her leather Cher “Turn Back Time” look from last week, only this time in white (with a tacky Red, White & Blue bustier).

Valentina, the newbie, is the winner. She performs well during the cheerleading competition, but really rocks the White Party runway challenge by channeling a gorgeous virginal bride. Despite being a drag queen for only 10 months (she’s chosen last team captains were building their teams), she has the beauty and the confidence to be a contender.

Shea Couleé and Trinity Taylor also perform well during the cheerleading challenge. Shea is a Chicago queen (I’m from Chicago so I’m rooting for her), and she performed beautifully, doing some great tumbling

The cheerleading challenge was stupid – the kind of stupid that is a highlight of the show. The girls are jumping all over the place, trying to stick with the choreography. I find it amusing that the judges were supposed to assess who these ladies were performing, because the challenge was messy and a bit nuts, as 14 drag queens were flailing around, throwing their bodies around and launching into dodgy somersaults.

Because of the who was guest judges were, the lip sync was to “Love Shack.” Kimora Blac and Jaymes Mansfield are in the bottom, and are squaring off – both do okay, Blac manages to edge Mansfield out a bit, because she’s just more confident at this point (though Mansfield’s va-va-voom performance is fun). My partner pointed out that “Love Shack” is a silly choice because Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, and Fred Schneider each have solos, so it’s a bit unclear whose parts the queens should lip sync to. The queens just sort of mouth to all the parts, and Kimora is able to save herself.

Poor Jaymes Mansfield leaves and that’s too bad because comedy queens are often the most fun to watch: Biana Del Rio, Jinkx Monsoon, Pandora Boxx provided some of the best moments of Drag Race (they were great during the snatch games). Right now, Charlie Hides seems to be the only comedy queen left, and he was in the bottom three, so hopefully, he’ll be able to improve as he goes along.

Because I missed the first two Friday airings, I had to wake up hella early on Saturday, setting my alarm for 8 am so that I could catch the repeats (VH1 should follow FX’s rerun schedule of Feud and air Drag Race at decent times).

One thing that I noticed with this season of Drag Race is that two of the contestants are YouTubers. While the YouTube celebrity was a thing since the beginning of the show’s first season, the stars that came out of the channel have really blown up in the ensuing 9 years. That means that comedians and actors from YouTube have side-stepped due paying like summer stock, improv classes, comedy clubs, community theater. As a result, when YouTube queens like Charlie Hides and Jaymes Mansfield step outside the 10-minute online video, they have to rely on skills that may not be as fully developed, yet. Jaymes Mansfield’s videos are hi-larious, but she struggled to transfer her comedy skills to television.

Speaking of YouTube, next week, YouTube entertainer Todrick Hall – someone who has performed with RuPaul – appears with Cheyenne Jackson. What’s interesting is that if Hall wasn’t so famous at this point, he’d be a great contestant (he got strong reviews for his performance on Broadway’s Kinky Boots).

The only sour point – and this may be the latent Catholic in me – but I didn’t like how Valentina’s faith was played for kooky laughs. Not cute.

Otherwise, the second episode of the VH1 Drag Race is pretty much what I expect from the show at this point: bitchy jokes, maudlin scenes of forced poignancy, some high quality drag mixed with some amateurish failure.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celeb, celebrity, Comedy, commentary, music, Television, TV, Writing

“Missing Richard Simmons” is a fascinating and touching tribute

Cover ImageFor many people who grew up in the 1980s, Richard Simmons is seared into our minds: the short shorts, the spangly red tank, the hair. And the voice. That loud and uninhibited voice, booming. But there was always a darker side to Simmons which the fitness guru allowed to see – the teary, emotional side. It’s these extremes that mark his public persona. Simmons was firmly lodged into pop culture for over 30 years, hawking his diet and weight loss products while simultaneously inspiring many to better their lives through exercise and self love. Yes, to some, he was a joke. Though he made frequent appearances on late night TV, the bro culture of late night often meant that Simmons was the butt of barely-disguised homophobic humor. (even though Simmons never acknowledged if he was queer) But for his fans and admirers, Simmons was an unrelenting, unstoppable beam of pure light.

And then the light went out. Simmons hasn’t been seen in public since 2014. Rumors started popping up that he was being held hostage by his housekeeper, or that he was laying low because he was transitioning. Some suggested that he was ill. For such a gregarious figure, his sudden ghosting from public life seemed strange. For his many friends, the disappearance is painful. Enter Missing Richard Simmons, a podcast created and hosted by filmmaker Dan Taberski, a friend who also was left wondering what happened to Simmons. The six-part podcast is a combination of a loving tribute and a mystery, in which Taberski interviews people intimately involved in Simmons’ life – including brother Larry Simmons – to figure out just why the popular exercise icon vanished.

Even though Missing Richard Simmons is ostensibly about Richard Simmons, it’s also about celebrity culture, the nature of friendship, the power of uplift and inspiration, and at its core it’s about people who have been forever changed – for the better – by a man who was constantly searching, seemingly in vain, for happiness and self-worth. A large part of Simmons’ celebrity was his willingness to be emotional, but for some interviewed in the podcast, most notably comedienne Lauren Weedman, the openness was dark and somewhat disturbing. When asked if Richard Simmons was happy, comedy duo the Sklar Brothers both quickly answered no. Just a quick search on the Internet for Simmons’ interviews with Howard Stern show a man who is struggling with dark emotions, but feels compelled to offer a joviality in response.

Others interviewed include Simmons’ manager Michael Catalano, brother Larry, and former client and friend, David Garcia (Taberski’s ability to nab subjects for his project is impressive). Also, others who thought they knew Simmons well – clients, friends, associates – appear on the podcast to voice their disbelief at Simmons’ sudden departure from public life. These soundbites are the most poignant because it shows that beneath the fluffy exterior is a man who did a lot of good.

But Taberski, despite being a friend, isn’t intent on hagiography. When talking to Catalano or Winifred Morris, a nutritionist who worked with Simmons on his Cruise To Lose, another, slightly more complicated image of Simmons emerges: one that is somewhat capricious and fickle. Morris’ excerpts imply that Simmons is invested in relationships in which he can be a savior, but that once the person attains his or her goal weight, Simmons moves on to his next project. Catalano is even more frank suggesting that those who feel abandoned by Simmons may have exaggerated or inflated their relationship with Simmons. It’s not that Simmons is opportunistic or brutal, but that his empathy is so overwhelming it can create a false sense of intimacy and closeness.

It’s this balance of honesty and affection that make Missing Richard Simmons such a great listen. The subject does invite some camp, and Taberski doesn’t avoid it (though he stays clear from mugging for his audiences). When clips of Simmons’ talk show appearances are heard, listeners get to hear just how insane some of his onscreen antics were (the visuals help too). And Taberski is a thoughtful and helpful guide in this story, gently taking his audience on a long and winding tale, that is at times, quite humorous, but for the most part is sad and touching. His connection to his subject ensures that he’s not going into this for a cheap laugh, nor is this a grim and callous way of profiting from someone’s pain. It’s a fascinating and touching tribute to a man who spent most of his adult life trying to convince people to love themselves.

To listen to Missing Richard Simmons click here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celeb, celebrity, commentary, Television, TV, Writing

Bette and Joan play mothers in the third episode of ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’

The third episode of Feud: Bette and Joan – written by Tim Minear – is entitled “Mommie Dearest” and I’m sure it was impossible to go in that direction. The episode largely avoids references to the camp fest (except for a mention of estranged daughter Christina Crawford). The episode’s title is reference to motherhood – both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were famously difficult parents – both had children write tell-all memoirs, Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest the source material for the silly Faye Dunaway film. But Minear isn’t interested in camp; instead, he wants to show how difficult Davis and Crawford had it, trying to juggle motherhood and work. Minear also writes a tête-â- tête in which Crawford and Davis compare rough childhoods, giving some context to why these ladies are so hard.

Motherhood is obviously an important theme in “Mommie Dearest” and it winds its way throughout most of the episode. Crawford’s relationship with her kids is obviously more notorious, given that Christina Crawford memorably recounted the horrific abuse she received at the hands of her mother. Christina is only mentioned briefly, but there’s tension in the allusion: Crawford has to be convinced to send a note of congrats to her daughter when Christina makes her theater debut. Instead of signing the card bought by Mamacita, Crawford, in a gaze that could melt steel, starts to fume about how her own mother never gave her plaudits for her accomplishments. It’s a rough scene but it foreshadows her horrifying admission to Davis later, when the two meet for dinner. When asked by Davis when she lost her virginity, Crawford refers to being raped at 12 by her stepfather as her “first time.” Davis is human enough to be appalled at Crawford’s life and is shaken.

So motherhood is a complicated thing for Crawford because she had a neglectful mother who let her daughter be raped by her husband. So it’s no wonder that Crawford doesn’t really know how to be a good mom. And motherhood is a way to stave off loneliness, too. According to Minear’s script, she adopts her children so that she never has to be alone. And once the children start to grow up, she wants to adopt more, thereby continually keeping her house full of children. When age prohibits her from adopting any more children, she has to face a reality in which she is alone.

Davis, meanwhile, is much more together as a mother, even nurturing. B.D. Merrill, like Crawford, penned her own memoir that damned her mother, but in Minear’s script, the relationship, while fraught with tension and angst, has a base of love. Davis loves B.D., but like Crawford isn’t necessarily equipped to be a great mom (whatever that means). So, when B.D. is cast in a small role, and turns out to be awful, she rallies and supports her (even though, behind her back, she is appalled and free with her opinion). Davis was tough on her costars, especially those who she felt could imperil the success of her film (film folklore has it that she was so frightening to Marilyn Monroe during All About Eve that Monroe would regularly vomit from fright). And she finds a surrogate son in her costar, Victor Buono, who transfers the love he misses from his homophobic mother to Davis, who predicted her popularity among drag queens. Though Davis is far more nurturing than Crawford, she’s still an ambitious actress, and when B.D. wants to run lines, Davis is far more interested in working with Buono, who a) has a part of consequence in the film and b) is a fine thespian.

“Mommie Dearest” is a heavy show that gives both Davis and Crawford some space to feel out their characters and be quiet. That doesn’t mean there aren’t the histrionic we expect: this is Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, after all. The filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was beset by the women sniping at each other and doing their best to sabotage the other. When Davis has to drag a prone Crawford out of bed, the latter weighs herself down with weights, causing Davis to wrench her back. And when Davis is called to kick Crawford around, she goes all Method and actually starts to savagely kick her costar in the head. The two haunt each other scenes, throwing the other off, and Crawford’s vanity means that as the film progresses, she uses tricks of the trade to pull, tighten, and pinch whatever is sagging or hanging, with the result being that as the film ends, Crawford has Benjamin Buttoned.

The third episode is continuing the awesome streak started by the pilot. Both Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are wonderful in their scenes, and the latter especially gets to really develop her character into something interesting in this episode. For the first two, the balance has tipped slightly in favor of Lange’s Crawford: it’s the showier of the two roles, and Lange’s physical transformation is more drastic (the hair, the makeup, the eyebrows). For her part, Sarandon sidestepped much of Davis’ patented clipped speech (though it feels as if in this episode it’s stronger – “How nice,” she snaps at Hedda Hopper), and is more subdued. In “Mommie Dearest” she gets to explore many sides of her character’s personality, and does so with aplomb. As Victor Buono, Dominic Burgess is a find, while Kiernan Shipka is a brilliant sparring partner for Sarandon.

From the fourth episode on, it appears as if Feud will look at the publicity surrounding the release of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? as well as the hubbub around Oscar nominations – it was touched upon in “Mommie Dearest” that both Crawford and Davis want Oscar nominations, and Crawford ingeniously drops a story in the press that Davis would graciously put her name up for supporting actress to let her costar get nominated for best actress. This disagreement allows for Lange to probably have the greatest line so far in Feud history when Crawford roars at Davis, “And it was Gloria Swanson who was robbed in 1950, not youuuuuu, bitch!” (1950 was a good year: Anne Baxter for All About Eve, Davis for All About Eve, Swanson for Sunset Boulevard, Eleanor Parker for Caged, and Judy Holliday who deservedly won for Born Yesterday) To see Davis yearn for an Academy Award is interesting because so far, all we see and hear is that Bette Davis is the great artiste and it’s Joan Crawford who is the movie star sell out.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, Celeb, celebrity, movie, Nonfiction, Television, TV, Writing