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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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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.

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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.

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