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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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Bette Davis proves a malevolent joy in “The Little Foxes”

The Little Foxes

Bette Davis is brilliant when playing evil. Her stinging delivery, coupled with withering stare makes her a formidable presence. She can be quite frightening – it explains why she did all those horror movies in her late career. In The Little Foxes, Davis stars as Regina Giddens, a ruthless woman who is eying the possible fortune that should result from a merger between her family and a Chicago businessman. Mrs. Giddens’ greed is matched by her brothers, Ben Hubbard (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid), who want to convince her husband, Horace (Herbert Marshall), to put in money into the scheme.

The Little Foxes is based on the stage play Lillian Hellman. Its stage origins are pretty easy to spot: it’s not a graceless transition, and some of the soliloquies are pretty stagey. But overall, it’s a good filmization, with a great cast, led by the acidic Davis. This isn’t a perfect movie – the racist depiction of the black characters is pretty hard to swallow – at times, this deep South setting, complete with smiling black servants takes on a curdled Gone with the Wind note. Of course, the viewers are given little information about the black residents of The Little Foxes, and they only serve as minor characters filling out the supposedly “authentic” south.

The plot is suitably, high-level pot boiler: Oscar married the dotty Birdie (an excellent Patricia Collinge) to get his hands on her family’s land. He wants to pair up with his brother to start a cotton mill. Initially, he thinks he can marry his doltish son Leo (Dan Duryea) to Horace’s naive daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright), but that’s a no-go, because the two youngsters hate each other, and Alexandra has her eye on a reporter, David (Richard Carlson), a progressive liberal, who shares her affection. Horace, like Birdie, knows his spouse only married him for his money – and like David, he has idealist ideas, refuses to join his ugly in-laws in their nefarious business. Unfortunately, he’s surrounded by a cast of characters who are all interested in getting their hands on ill-gotten fortunes.

Fans of Davis will enjoy this film – it has the requisite melodrama, with lots of chest-thumping and tears. Hellman isn’t known as a subtle writer, and she indulges in grand speeches and her characters show off almost-cartoonish evil (sometimes I expect Davis to  cackle and twirl an imaginary moustache). The ending is suitably ambiguous – there are shades of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth in Davis’ portrayal of Regina, and it’s hinted a bit in the end. All in all, an enjoyable film.

Click here to buy The Little Foxes from amazon.com.

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