Tag Archives: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis

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 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.

 

 

 

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