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.