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Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara flail and fumble in ‘Hot Pursuit’

Hot PursuitSofía Vergara and Reese Witherspoon are two actresses who have charm and humor to spare. In their best work, they have proven themselves to be bright and capable comediennes. For some reason, together they seem to drain each other of their respective charms. In Anne Fletcher’s 2015 comedy Hot Pursuit, the two are paired for a strangely dour and unfunny comedy that feels as if it works to make the ladies as unlikable as possible.

Witherspoon stars Rose Cooper, a second-generation cop who is assigned to protect the widow of a drug boss (Vergara). It’s a formulaic buddy comedy that hopes to exploit the odd couple pairing of Vergara and Witherspoon. Witherspoon’s Rose Cooper is a priggish, uptight dummy. She’s pathologically by-the-book, and her obsessive attention is supposed to be funny, but it comes off sad, and then there’s Witherspoons Texas twang, which is broad and jokey.

Vergara, on the other hand, is tasked to play the comic foil to Witherspoon’s straight man, and she’s stranded by a terrible script and Fletcher’s lazy direction, which essentially results in Vergara playing a variation on Gloria Pritchett from Modern Family, but without her wit.

The convoluted plot has Rose thrown into a nutso caper in which she and Vergara’s Daniella are running away from members of a drug cartel as well as a band of crooked cops. On their way to Dallas, the two run into episodes of hilarity such as having a semi crash into their convertible setting off a mushroom cloud of cocaine, pretending to be lesbian lovers to distract Jim Gaffigan’s good ole boy, or commandeering a tour bus of seniors to escape from the assassins.

Like most buddy comedies, the energy from the story comes from the relationship between the two leads. And both Witherspoon and Vergara work hard, but because they aren’t reined in by their director, their performances devolve from simply broad mugging to lots of screaming. As the story chugs along, there are some predictable twists that are meant to be shocking, but because the screenplay feels like it’s been spit out of a machine, each turn feels ready made and cued.

Underneath the layers of mess, the script tries to make some point about dismissing women. Daniella is seen as an empty-headed trophy wife, but there are “layers” to her (but the shading of her character is so questionable, that one wonders if it wasn’t better to just maintain her as an empty-headed bimbo). And because Rose is short and pretty, she’s easily written off as a cute nothing. Both women prove to be more than just stereotypes, but they do so by the end of the movie, and at that point, it isn’t really clear if anyone will care.

Aside from the poor pacing and explosive mugging, there’s also questionable choices in the humor. We’re subject to lots of racist stereotypes of Latinx folks, there’s a shot of transphobic humor in the beginning, plus there’s a sprinkling of gay panic, too. In 1987, these jokes wouldn’t feel out of place, but in 2015, they contribute to the general staleness of the film.

The end of the movie has some bloopers – and to be honest, the loose playfulness of the costars on set is far funnier than anything that the two ladies did on screen. It’s too bad that we have to wait to the end of the movie to see Witherspoon and Vergara be funny.

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Eleanor Coppola stumbles with ‘Paris Can Wait’

Paris Can Wait Movie POSTER 27 x 40, Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin , A, MADE IN THE U.S.A.Eleanor Coppola is married Francis Ford Coppola and is the mother of Sofia Coppola. So one would think that she might have picked up some pointers from her family when helming her latest, the romantic comedy road film, Paris Can Wait. Well, one would be wrong. It’s shocking how amateurish and sloppy Paris Can Wait is. Coppola assembled a strong cast: Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin, and Arnaud Viard, who each does his/her best, but the actors are stranded with an awful plot and aimless direction. The film is remarkable in that there are no stakes or conflict to speak of, and viewers will only be distracted by the parallel beauty of France and Diane Lane.

Lane stars as Anne, the wife of Michael (Baldwin), a high-power film executive. Michael is busy and we know this because his phone is plastered to his face. When he’s called to Budapest to oversee an overzealous director, Anne begs off the trip and instead agrees to meet him in Paris. Instead of taking the train, she is joined by Michael’s business partner, Jacques (Viard). The two set off on a road trip through France, stopping repeatedly to indulge in decadent meals.

Coppola’s script is plodding and episodic, lurching from one skit to another. It makes the film – which is only an hour and a half long – feel interminable. Each time Jacques suggests a diversion from their drive, Anne rolls her eyes and acts exasperated – and viewers will sympathize as it only puts off Paris, and means the movie will continue. This wouldn’t be an issue if there was any chemistry shared between Lane and Viard, but there isn’t. Jacques isn’t a character so much as a collage of French clichés and stereotypes (right down to his lazy name).

Watching Paris Can Wait is a frustrating experience because the film wastes a wonderful leading lady. Diane Lane – a patron saint of gorgeous, middle-aged women in European county sides – is saddled with a thinly-written character, and does her mightiest to do something with the character, but she’s stranded by Coppola’s indifferent direction and writing, and is gives a performance that looks strained and full of effort. We’re supposed to believe that Anne is a frustrated artist and talented photographer, but her constant picture taking of her sumptuous meals makes her seem more like a boorish American addicted to social media than a soulful creative type in search of an outlet for her talent. And Lane carries with her performance a bit of her patented pensive soulfulness (no one can gaze out into a golden sunset like Diane Lane) Some viewers will think that this movie will revisit some of the charm and winsome loveliness of Lane’s 2003 vehicle Under the Tuscan Sun. But that film – while no where near a classic – is still miles away from stale junk like Paris Can Wait.

Aside from Lane, the other major selling point of the film is the French countryside. The film’s script meanders through the country, from Cannes to Lyon, and through some ridiculously picturesque visions of the French pastoral landscape. Even a filmmaker as inept as Coppola can’t mess up the awesome beauty of France. Unfortunately, the arresting images of France are interrupted by the pointless jabber of Coppola’s writing and the yeoman efforts of Lane and Viard.

Buried underneath the layers of mediocrity is the kernel of a good movie. Coppola’s script needs higher stakes and some conflict. When the ending finally comes and Anne and Jacques come to some sort of revelation, it feels unearned and abrupt. Perhaps worried about Kleenex-thin script, Coppola throws in some heavy tragedy that feels smashed in and is handled so clumsily that instead of being affecting or moving, it feels like incompetent manipulation (though Viard and Lane do their best and just almost manage to push through the awful script to convey some emotion).

Supposedly a comedy, Paris Can Wait is not funny or clever. Nor is it particularly moving or interesting. Instead, it’s a film about two people – who despite being Hollywood beautiful – aren’t all that remarkable. I didn’t care about what would happen to them, nor did I care about how the movie ended. I was just glad when it did.

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Melissa McCarthy steals the show on her 5th ‘SNL’ hosting gig

HOST and MUSICAL GUEST Bumper PhotosMelissa McCarthy joined the Five-Timers Club, having hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time this year. She’s only the fifth woman to reach the milestone, and it’s clear that she’ll probably have the honor of hosting a few more times. McCarthy is the kind of guest host who would’ve been a cast member – she’s a strong physical comedienne and versatile actress. In her fifth hosting gig, she once again stole the show and dominated the sketches with her on point physical comedy and her ability to create fully-formed characters in the tiny five-minute sketches. Her episode was also helped tremendously by some above-average writing, as well (something that elevated last week’s Chris Pine episode, too).

As per usual, the cold open was a political sketch, with Alec Baldwin popping by to do his increasingly diminishing Donald Trump. At this point the writers have gotten lazy with the Trump sketches and are relying on simply lambasting the guy’s physicality and verbal tics. This week, Trump’s in the news because he fired James Comey, head of the FBI. This development provided SNL with some much-needed oomph, and as a result, though not a great sketch, it still shone brighter than the other Trump sketches because it actually had something to say.

McCarthy’s monologues are always delightful. Often the writers have her do a musical number or perform some kind of slapstick, but this time, it was a sweet bit in which she grabs a mom, Joan, from the audience, and takes her on a breakneck speed tour of the studio. On her way, the pair gets to meet Baldwin, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, musical guests HAIM, and some of the cast members. Joan’s a good sport and McCarthy gets to use her improv chops (she’s a Groundling alumna), and it makes for a sweet bit. I’m liking the “taking a tour of the studio” gimmick that is becoming more popular among the hosts (Jimmy Fallon did a sparking version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” with a dance troupe around the studio).

The best of this episode combined great jokes and quality storytelling. Add to that McCarthy’s acting chops (Oscar nominated, no less), and you get what could be conceived as an ideal episode. The cold open was pretty toothless, but McCarthy’s return as Sean Spicer was great. Aidy Bryant cameoed as Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a supposedly even-keeled, thoughtful alternative to the blustery Spicer (though I think Huckabee Sanders is simply a slick oil saleswoman, as well). The sketch takes an unexpected turn when Spicer hears that he may be the latest in Trump’s administration to be given a pink slip. He plunges into self doubt as he jets away on his lectern-mobile to Trump’s golf course in New Jersey to confront the guy. The sketches loses some steam at the end (and yeah, the open-mouth kiss was predictable), but it was great to see McCarthy’s Spicer do his crazy, violent antics (and his demonstration of Comey’s firing by using Russian nesting dolls was great), but it was smart to fold in some more actor-y moments in which Spicer begins to doubt his importance within the Trump administration.

McCarthy also does wonder with her Gaye Fontaine, the wizened Hollywood vet who is on a film panel with her pal Debette Goldry (Kate McKinnon). Joining the two “legends” are Lupita Nyong’o (Sasheer Zamata, finally given something to do) and Cecily Strong’s Marion Cotillard. Often when a host joins a cast member in a recurring sketch, the writers create some weird twin of the recurring character, and the results are often kinda sad because a) the host is not as funny as the cast member and b) the “other” character is rarely as interesting. It’s smart then that in this sketch Gaye Fontaine is a character on her own, that relates to Debette because they both had to suffer through the same sexist indignities in Hollywood yesteryear. The implications behind these sketches is that actresses now don’t know how good they have it. And yeah, there is some of that, but there’s also a pointed critique in how long sexism has endured in the film industry. McCarthy does some great character work as Gaye, and whoever told her to play the lady as a stroke survivor was pretty aces.

But as great as McCarthy is at creating characters, she’s also a wonderful physical comic, so the game show sketch was predictably a highlight. The premise is so simply and hacky, it’s almost embarrassing – essentially it’s “how to get Melissa McCarthy to be repeatedly pied in the face.” And the actress takes it like a trouper, being pelted with pies repeatedly. It’s low brow, broad, and ridiculous, but McCarthy goes all in, recalling Lucille Ball at her best. The bravest comics are the ones who abandon all sense of vanity.

Even low key sketches in which McCarthy is merely featured – I’m thinking of the production logo sketch and the birthday sketch – benefit from the star’s presence. In the logo sketch, especially, she is given room to play, creating yet another one of her unlikable social misfits.

The Weekend Update sketch was okay, but it was Pete Davidson and Strong who made the sketch truly remarkable. Davidson appeared, essentially doing his stand-up act. He was candid and honest, talking about his sobriety – his delivery is idiosyncratic – some may be put off by his lazy manner, but I find it appealing. I also like how unsparing he was in talking about getting sober (and his story about going to horse therapy is hilarious, especially when shares how as a child he didn’t know he was allergic to horses because his family was too poor to ever be around them). Strong appeared as Cathy Anne, a politically-astute grotesque whose life is filled with drugs and tragedy, but she manages to soldier on, despite her demons. Cathy Anne initially was a recurring character that was about just how ugly and ridiculous Cecily Strong can be. As time went on though, she became a great voice for someone who is fed up with how ugly and ridiculous politics can be.

Though Saturday Night Live is ostensibly live, some of its highest moments are the pre-taped bits. In a beautifully filmed and acted piece, Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones are in a committed relationship – with an adorable moppet named Lorne – that is in trouble. Her rising star and career demands means that he’s feeling left out and neglected. What I love about this film is that the writers and the performers don’t fall into the racist and sexist trap of making it about how tiny, nebbish Mooney is in love with the tall and athletic Jones; instead, it’s treated pretty straight forward. The absurdity comes in Mooney’s besotted misery and Jones’ busy indifference. Jones has gotten a lot of flack for her live performances, because she often will fumble a line or miss a cue. These pre-taped sketches show audiences just what an asset she is to the show.

The other pre-taped sketch was also a winner – the Amazon Echo, which helps old people out. As with the pie sketch, it’s a threadbare conceit: old people are old! They like it to be hot in a room! They’re cranky! What makes this sketch work is the pure performances of the cast members. Again, Jones is an appealing presence as an old woman who eyes some neighborhood kids warily, while Kenan Thompson is a marvel as a befuddled grandpa who relies on his Amazon Echo to decipher just what he needs from it. Both the pie sketch and the Amazon Echo sketch prove that one doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to be funny – if we have to go back to cliches – which is sometimes unavoidable – doing a committed job with engaging actors can sometimes be enough.

Next week, the host will be fellow Five-Timer Dwayne Johnson (who will be hosting for the sixth time). Johnson, out promoting Baywatch, is a genial and funny presence himself. If the writing is as good next week, then we’re looking at a pretty strong streak for SNL.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Oscar: ‘Feud’ – “And the Winner is… (The Oscars of 1963)” a recap

And the Winner Is... (The Oscars of 1963) thumbnailI’m someone who thinks the Academy Awards is nonsense. The pomp and circumstance and the self-importance is absurd. But I’m not an actor. For an actor, an Oscar can mean more roles, better roles, more money, respect from the industry. In Feud, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) sees the Oscar as a validation of her gifts. She’s proud as hell of her win for Mildred Pierce (as she should be), and desperately hopes to get nominated for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a project she was chiefly responsible for. So when at the end of last week’s episode, we learn in horror that she doesn’t get nominated, the focus moves to Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon).

Throughout the series, Davis has been the workhorse, there to do a good job. But in “And the Winner Is…” we see that even a great artist like she isn’t above coveting awards. She’s hoping to be the first actress to score three Oscars (I believe that record goes to Ingrid Bergman). It makes sense that Davis is nominated for Baby Jane and not Crawford. The latter is solid in the role – even affecting at times – but it’s really Davis who creates something new and novel.

And the cliche runs that being nominated is an honor in itself. But Davis, who racked up 10 nominations, doesn’t really believe that cliche. She wants to win.

And so does Crawford.

This is where “And the Winner Is…” becomes very strange, and very sad.

Crawford and her pal Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) hatch a plan to destroy Davis’ chances of winning. Hopper will inundate her column with bad press about Davis, while Crawford will campaign heavily with the Academy voters to vote for either Anne Bancroft who was nominated for The Miracle Worker or Geraldine Page who was nominated for Sweet Bird of Youth. But of her plan involves meeting with Bancroft and Page and suggesting to each that she’s available to pick up the winner’s Oscar. Page and Bancroft are both stage actresses, even more so than Davis. Bancroft is bowing out of the ceremonies because she’s in the middle of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.

When Crawford is needling Page (Ryan Murphy muse Sarah Paulson) to skip the Oscar ceremony, the latter is moved to tears at Crawford’s desperate grasp. She hopes that Crawford does show up in front of the cameras so that Hollywood can see “what they did to her” – Funnily enough Murphy’s vision of Joan Crawfor is so far removed from the Faye Dunaway/Mommie Dearest Crawford and in his mind, she’s more of a Marilyn Monroe/Judy Garland Hollywood tragedy.

When Crawford appeals to Bancroft in the same way, it’s even sadder as Bancroft is openly pitying Crawford. And when Bancroft acquiesces to Crawford’s demands, Lange expertly plays a sequence of emotions: cunning, desperation, elation in a few seconds.

And while Joan Crawford is doing her best to manipulate the outcome at the Oscars, Bette Davis is doing her best to keep sane under the pressure. And just as Crawford has a buddy, Davis has one in Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Instead of just popping in as a Greek chorus, de Havilland is a character in this episode. Like Davis, she’s involved in a bitter and public feud of her own, with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine. We get more of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ bizarre interpretation of her character, but we also get something profound: female friendship.

Television is notoriously bad when it comes to showing female friendship. More often, it’s content to show women fighting with each other. That is why Feud may seem a touch regressive, if not for the unsubtle way we’re reminded that Hollywood is sexist AF. It’s good to see Davis find solace and companionship with de Havilland, especially since both women are also in competition with each other for roles. In another parallel, we see de Havilland being offered a Grand Guinol part herself, the schlocky Lady in a Cage (and she’ll later go on to replace Crawford in the Baby Jane? follow up Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte). In 1962, de Havilland was 46 and was facing a lot of the same issues Davis was (in fact, she would only have two more lead films before turning to TV and then retiring), but because of Zeta-Jones’ looks and the focus on Davis, we instead get the impression that de Havilland is doing fine. And this imbalance gives de Havilland a brief role in the show as Davis’ quasi-mentor, someone to guide her through all of this award bullshit with a semblance of dignity.

Still, we know how it all ended. Bancroft won. Sarandon ably played Davis’ shock and hurt at losing the Academy Award. In Murphy’s version of the events, Davis saw this as a chance to reassert herself as a major player in Hollywood. Her loss was a slap in the face. And Crawford, grinning ear-to-ear, glided on the stage and grabbed Bancroft’s Oscar and got to pretend to be a winner for the evening.

And that’s why ultimately, though Davis was the loser, Crawford was the real loser. Crawford believes she’s the cunning sly one for orchestrating this grande plan to get her rival shut out – and we’ll never be sure just how successful Crawford was, but in the diegesis of the episode, we’re led to believe that she and Hopper had some push. So, for once, Crawford’s the one with the upper hand, but her victory is both hollow and pathetic. She didn’t win the Oscar, nor will she be allowed to keep it.

In her memoir, This ‘N That, Davis sniped about Crawford’s Oscar campaign. Though in her version of the events, she only wanted to win the statue because that would mean bigger box office for the film, and more money for its stars. While the tome is surprisingly restraint and respectful of Crawford, she does openly wonder about Crawford’s obsessive desire to spoil the Oscars.

What is especially poignant about this episode is the knowledge that both Davis and Crawford would go on to make cheapie Baby Jane? retreads for a long time. Crawford, especially, never escaped the psycho-biddy genre and would destroy whatever was left of her film career by appearing in one crappy thriller after another. Davis’ film career also suffered as she made one b-movie after another, before being rescued by high-quality TV movies in the late 1970s and 1980s (and a final screen triumph with the well-received Whales of August in 1987). Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was the last true artistic success for both actresses, though – which makes watching Feud all the sadder.

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