‘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

Theresa May triggers Article 50 – the divorce proceedings begin…

Image resultToday, British PM Theresa May signed Article 50 and the letter was hand delivered to EU council president Donald Tusk. And so it begins. After June 23rd, in what was a long and sometimes ridiculous period of time, the United Kingdom has finally decided to leave the EU.

It’s been a rough and ugly nine months, marked by recriminations, hurt feelings, and worst of all, hate crimes. EU nationals who made their lives in the UK suddenly felt like hostages or bargaining chips. Many didn’t know how to move forward and what to do: some put off school, new jobs, new homes, all in fear that their basic rights were taken away.

Future expats are now worried about what’s going to happen. Many of us have invested time and money into a dream that now seems wobbly and just out of reach.

I wish I could be gracious in defeat. I wish I didn’t resent Theresa May, Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, and Boris Johnson so much. I wish I didn’t resent the people who voted for Leave. Who got snookered into the lies and deceit that the Leave Campaign fed them.

The strength of the UK – of any country, really – is its diversity. Diversity makes a country stronger. It’s simple. The more people you bring in from different backgrounds, the better. Ideas and innovations are always moving forward and staying dynamic.

While trying to make my way through the mess that is Brexit, I found a community of EU nationals who live in the UK. Their stories are heartbreaking. I wish May, Farage, Corbyn, and Johnson read those stories. People lose sleep, lose family members, lose friends, lose hope living in a country that has validated xenophobia and racism through a non-binding referendum.

The UK that I see now isn’t the UK that I fell in love with. For all of May’s talks of “generosity” towards EU nationals, it’s become more insular and isolated as it shifts away from the global community.

The UK I remember is one that was cosmopolitan. It was messy. It was loud. It was undefinable. It was similar to the US that I fell in love with.

It sucks. It sucks out loud.

Leave a comment

Filed under commentary, politics, Writing

Susan Sarandon does a Bette Davis impression on ‘More, or Less’ – ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ a recap

More, or Less thumbnailFor the run of Feud, I’ve been mentioning how Susan Sarandon’s been avoiding swooping, clipped speech of Bette Davis, but in “More, or Less” it seems as if the actress suddenly remembered she’s playing Bette Davis because inexplicably, the iconic – and much imitated – cadence is there. I’ve got a theory: that “Petah, Petah, Petah” way of talking was simply an affectation that Davis created for her public life; in private, she was much less colorful. In “More, or Less” we see Davis outside the relative privacy of a film studio or her mansion, and instead she’s whooping it up on TV talk shows to promote Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so she carefully applies the speech idiosyncrasy, like an overcoat.

“More, or Less” shows our two divas prepping for the grueling publicity that’s required to make a movie a hit. Bette Davis, far more comfortable and confident, is enjoying the touring. Crawford, meanwhile, is angry about how the film turned out. Despite being the catalyst that got the picture made, yet again, she’s overshadowed by Davis, who’s just better in the film (watch the movie, and you know what I mean – Crawford’s solid, but Davis is transcendent) The reviews agree, as Davis is getting all of the hosannas, while Crawford is getting decent, respectable notices. All of this work, and she is still grasping for industry respect.

It’s a shame because if Crawford just allowed herself to enjoy the moment (as well as the money she’d make due to Baby Jane‘s success), she’d be a much happier, more stable person. There’s a glimpse of that kind of gracious, grateful Crawford when she exits a theater after a screening of Baby Jane, and a mob of bobbysoxers descend on her for autographs. She’s genuinely touched, and it’s a lovely moment (again, Jessica Lange is killing it).

But Crawford just had one lovely moment, before she retreated back into her defensive shell. Davis, meanwhile, the trooper that she is, is traipsing through Hollywood, guesting on TV shows and selling the hell of out this picture. In one surreal moment, she’s on Andy Williams’ variety show, doing an awful 60s pop/rock title tune of Baby Jane – it’s a terrible performance (Sarandon sells it), but it shows just what a good sport Davis was, despite her legendary reputation for being difficult. As a special treat, see the video below of the real Bette Davis warbling the shitty tune badly.

A large part of Feud is gender politics. The whole reason why Baby Jane was made was because actresses of Davis’ and Crawford’s age weren’t getting decent work. This episode – penned by Gina Welch and Tim Minear – keeps up the theme with the fictional character, Pauline Jameson (a wonderful Alison Wright). Jameson is Bob Aldrich’s right-hand woman, and is miraculously competent and smart. It’s interesting that the show decided to create a character like this, because for the most part, she doesn’t transcend the trope of the uber-efficient female assistant.

Apparently Pauline is an amalgam, and I think there may be the tiniest dash of Ida Lupino in the mix, as Pauline is an aspiring film director. She writes a script – The Black Slipper – which she hopes Crawford will star in. But unfortunately, Pauline is met with resistance by both Bob and Crawford who gracelessly turns down the role because Pauline’s a “nobody.” Truth be told, the script sounded really stupid and melodramatic, so I’m not sure how audiences are supposed to react to Pauline’s dreams of becoming a filmmaker: is it played for laughs? Are we supposed to pity her for being delusional? Or was the film supposed to come off as decent, and were we supposed to feel righteous anger on her behalf? I don’t know, because the idea – a dance teacher who’s falsely accused of murdering one her students – sounds pretty dumb. Alison Wright is great in the role, but I still don’t get Pauline, possibly because she’s the only “character” in this film that isn’t based on a real person.

“More, or Less” is one of the few times when we don’t get scenes with Sarandon and Lange together. But we do get some great scenes with Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci. Molina’s Bob Aldrich is a frustrated artist, much like Crawford. He’s hoping that Baby Jane will rescue him from his string of shitty flops, and that he’ll graduate to much more challenging and interesting fare. Instead, he’s doing a crappy western comedy 4 for Texas, that stars a surly Frank Sinatra (Toby Huss) Just like with Davis and Crawford, Aldrich again is wearily dealing with a tempestuous star, and he feels as if the picture is beneath him. Aldrich squares off against Jack Warner (Tucci) for better work, and Warner doesn’t take too kindly, calling him a hack.

As if it’s not enough to just abuse Aldrich, Warner shows up at Crawford’s tacky estate to berate her for not joining Davis on the publicity tours. Lange and Tucci have a great scene in which the two bicker and sling accusations at each other – in a sad and pathetic attempt to woo him, Crawford tries to use her feminine charms, blunted by her drunkenness. Warner quickly rebukes her clumsy attempts, leaving Crawford humiliated and defeated.

As if the script wasn’t done shitting on Crawford though, we learn that she doesn’t get the Oscar nomination. The episode does a great job of showing just how bizarre Hollywood is when it comes to older actresses: despite the great reviews and the boffo box office, both Davis and Crawford are still starving for work. Davis is slumming it on Perry Mason, while Crawford isn’t even doing that. In a scene reminiscent of Faye Dunaway’s “Don’t fuck with me boys!” in Mommie Dearest, Crawford unleashes a string of f-bombs on a panel of agents at William Morris after being told there’s nothing for her. Davis, on the other hand, is shunted off to a junior agent, barely 23. So, tongue firmly in cheek, she takes out an ad in Variety that read “”Mother of three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway.)”

What “More, or Less” also predicts is the Grand Guignol genre that sprung up from Whatever Happened to Baby JaneSuddenly, horror movies starring formerly glamorous female movie stars became a profitable genre, of which both Davis and Crawford took advantage (Davis would reunited with Aldrich on Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte which acts as a quasi-follow up to Baby Jane). Aldrich is getting offers to do more psycho biddy movies, which he turns down in revulsion, because he’s worried he’ll be pigeon holed.

The episode ends with the Oscar nominations. We learn that Crawford isn’t nominated. In a brilliant choice, we find this out by having Mamacita gently break the news to Crawford, and then we just get a shot of her mansion before we hear her horrified scream – as if we were in one of her trashy scary movies. Davis famously loses the Oscar to Anne Bancroft, and some (including Davis) blame Crawford’s anti-Davis campaigning for the loss. The next stage of this strange and twisted story will be fascinating to watch.

Leave a comment

Filed under Celeb, commentary, movie, 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

Second episode of ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ raises stakes

The Other Woman thumbnailLast week’s pilot of Feud: Bette and Joan had our two Hollywood divas, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), compete in pissing contests to see who is the biggest queen of them all. While Crawford has the cunning and the calculation, Davis has the talent and the skill (plus the commitment to the craft), which means that by the end of the first episode, when Davis triumphantly marches onto the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in full Baby Jane Hudson drag, she won the first round.

The second episode works to balance that out, by having Davis be more vulnerable. In “The Other Woman” things start off strangely: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are on the same side. They form an alliance, understanding that they both are integral to the making of the film. It’s strength in numbers. Together they get a hot starlet fired, and show director  Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), that even though he’s the director, the stars are in charge. So, in an effort to undermine their united front, Aldrich plants an unflattering blind item in the press that cattily zeroes in on Crawford’s insecurity: namely, her aging beauty. Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, still flouncing and crazed) is the author of the piece, but it’s Aldrich who creates it: allowing Hopper to write that it may have been Davis who bitchily sniped that Crawford wears falsies.

There is a great scene in the film in which Crawford’s car screeches to a halt, in her parking space, right in front of the sign that reads “Joan Crawford.” I thought she’d knock the sign over. Lange is great in the scenes that show Crawford’s fear and vulnerability, but she’s especially effective in the scenes in which she channels the legend’s rage. She approaches Lear-esque delusion, paranoia, and self-aggrandizement, in these moments, and she’s a terror to watch. She’s careful to temper any operatic moments, so as not to plunge into camp – there are no shades of Faye Dunaway in any of Lange’s choices. But Lange also gets to play Crawford’s more cunning side in “The Other Woman.” Stung by Hopper’s piece, she deftly manipulates the gossip columnist into siding with her, by crying poverty – and Hopper’s just dumb enough to believe it.

And because Lange is so great, Sarandon’s Davis feels like a bit of a struggle. Sarandon has yet to hit her stride in the same way her costar has; she hasn’t shaken of her Susan Sarandon-ness. It’s possible that she is worried about appearing too much like a drag impression of Bette Davis, but she rarely hits the fantastic highs that Lange does. Still, it’s a solid job, and in this episode, Davis is the one that’s losing. Not only is she starting to feel some of the insecurities that Crawford is feeling, but she’s also contending with her difficult relationship with daughter B.D. Merrill (Kiernan Shipka). B.D. is beautiful and young and is a constant reminder of the passage of time. Davis seethes when she sees B.D. be the belle of the ball at the studio, and quickly ships her off to main. Sarandon and Shipka have a great duel on a stairwell, in which the latter rips into the former: Sarandon’s great in the scene, but it’s Shipka that’s mesmerizing, proving that her time stealing every scene she’s ever filmed in Mad Men wasn’t a mere fluke.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is also back with her bizarre impression of Olivia de Havilland, along with Kathy Bates fun – if inconsequential – Joan Blondell. The two start blathering on about women’s lib and feminism, and though de Havilland believes that in the 1970s things are much better for women in the film business, Blondell quickly tamps her optimism down, gravely noting that things aren’t all that different.

But that’s what Feud is really about. Sure, on the surface, it’s about two Hollywood icons duking it out to see who will prevail, but the show is also about how Hollywood is a mean business to women “of a certain age.” Their work is judged alongside their looks, and if they are losing their looks, the perception is that they are also losing their talent. Aldrich exploits this sexism by playing on the vanity and insecurities of his stars, in hopes of gaining control of his picture. Initially, he’s won – but it’s clear that he cannot underestimate his opponents, nor can he celebrate too soon. He may have gained some footing by playing Davis and Crawford against one another, but he’ll have to be careful if he wants to maintain his authority.

If “The Other Woman” feels a bit like a step down from the fantastic pilot, that’s only because the pilot was so good and it managed to do so much in about an hour. Still, “The Other Woman” is stellar TV watching because Ryan Murphy knows how to put on a good show. And he’s wise to knock Davis down a few pegs: it makes the rivalry between she and Crawford more interesting, and it allows for Sarandon to delve into the complicated woman she’s portraying. Davis is the seeming epitome of no bullshit strength: so it’s a fascinating wonder to see her falter when she’s going through a musical number with Aldrich, unsure of her talent and worried about looking foolish. Again, nothing in this scene feels like Bette Davis, but Sarandon does great work here showing a less strident side of her character.

The next episode is entitled “Mommie Dearest” – wonderful because so far, Feud has managed to escape the looming, kitschy shadow of Mommie Dearest or its dubious legacy. And even though B.D. Merrill and Bette Davis had a strained relationship, Crawford’s relationship with her daughter Christina was downright catastrophic. When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was filmed, Christina was in her early 20s, already a traumatized survivor of her childhood at the hands of the gorgon-esque Crawford. It’ll be interesting to see how much Murphy and his screenwriters Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam pay homage to the loopy Mommie Dearest.

Leave a comment

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

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

Pilot thumbnail

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.

Leave a comment

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