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Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon cinch Emmy nominations in the final ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ recap

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.

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Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Oscar: ‘Feud’ – “And the Winner is… (The Oscars of 1963)” a recap

And the Winner Is... (The Oscars of 1963) thumbnailI’m someone who thinks the Academy Awards is nonsense. The pomp and circumstance and the self-importance is absurd. But I’m not an actor. For an actor, an Oscar can mean more roles, better roles, more money, respect from the industry. In Feud, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) sees the Oscar as a validation of her gifts. She’s proud as hell of her win for Mildred Pierce (as she should be), and desperately hopes to get nominated for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a project she was chiefly responsible for. So when at the end of last week’s episode, we learn in horror that she doesn’t get nominated, the focus moves to Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon).

Throughout the series, Davis has been the workhorse, there to do a good job. But in “And the Winner Is…” we see that even a great artist like she isn’t above coveting awards. She’s hoping to be the first actress to score three Oscars (I believe that record goes to Ingrid Bergman). It makes sense that Davis is nominated for Baby Jane and not Crawford. The latter is solid in the role – even affecting at times – but it’s really Davis who creates something new and novel.

And the cliche runs that being nominated is an honor in itself. But Davis, who racked up 10 nominations, doesn’t really believe that cliche. She wants to win.

And so does Crawford.

This is where “And the Winner Is…” becomes very strange, and very sad.

Crawford and her pal Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) hatch a plan to destroy Davis’ chances of winning. Hopper will inundate her column with bad press about Davis, while Crawford will campaign heavily with the Academy voters to vote for either Anne Bancroft who was nominated for The Miracle Worker or Geraldine Page who was nominated for Sweet Bird of Youth. But of her plan involves meeting with Bancroft and Page and suggesting to each that she’s available to pick up the winner’s Oscar. Page and Bancroft are both stage actresses, even more so than Davis. Bancroft is bowing out of the ceremonies because she’s in the middle of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.

When Crawford is needling Page (Ryan Murphy muse Sarah Paulson) to skip the Oscar ceremony, the latter is moved to tears at Crawford’s desperate grasp. She hopes that Crawford does show up in front of the cameras so that Hollywood can see “what they did to her” – Funnily enough Murphy’s vision of Joan Crawfor is so far removed from the Faye Dunaway/Mommie Dearest Crawford and in his mind, she’s more of a Marilyn Monroe/Judy Garland Hollywood tragedy.

When Crawford appeals to Bancroft in the same way, it’s even sadder as Bancroft is openly pitying Crawford. And when Bancroft acquiesces to Crawford’s demands, Lange expertly plays a sequence of emotions: cunning, desperation, elation in a few seconds.

And while Joan Crawford is doing her best to manipulate the outcome at the Oscars, Bette Davis is doing her best to keep sane under the pressure. And just as Crawford has a buddy, Davis has one in Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Instead of just popping in as a Greek chorus, de Havilland is a character in this episode. Like Davis, she’s involved in a bitter and public feud of her own, with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine. We get more of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ bizarre interpretation of her character, but we also get something profound: female friendship.

Television is notoriously bad when it comes to showing female friendship. More often, it’s content to show women fighting with each other. That is why Feud may seem a touch regressive, if not for the unsubtle way we’re reminded that Hollywood is sexist AF. It’s good to see Davis find solace and companionship with de Havilland, especially since both women are also in competition with each other for roles. In another parallel, we see de Havilland being offered a Grand Guinol part herself, the schlocky Lady in a Cage (and she’ll later go on to replace Crawford in the Baby Jane? follow up Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte). In 1962, de Havilland was 46 and was facing a lot of the same issues Davis was (in fact, she would only have two more lead films before turning to TV and then retiring), but because of Zeta-Jones’ looks and the focus on Davis, we instead get the impression that de Havilland is doing fine. And this imbalance gives de Havilland a brief role in the show as Davis’ quasi-mentor, someone to guide her through all of this award bullshit with a semblance of dignity.

Still, we know how it all ended. Bancroft won. Sarandon ably played Davis’ shock and hurt at losing the Academy Award. In Murphy’s version of the events, Davis saw this as a chance to reassert herself as a major player in Hollywood. Her loss was a slap in the face. And Crawford, grinning ear-to-ear, glided on the stage and grabbed Bancroft’s Oscar and got to pretend to be a winner for the evening.

And that’s why ultimately, though Davis was the loser, Crawford was the real loser. Crawford believes she’s the cunning sly one for orchestrating this grande plan to get her rival shut out – and we’ll never be sure just how successful Crawford was, but in the diegesis of the episode, we’re led to believe that she and Hopper had some push. So, for once, Crawford’s the one with the upper hand, but her victory is both hollow and pathetic. She didn’t win the Oscar, nor will she be allowed to keep it.

In her memoir, This ‘N That, Davis sniped about Crawford’s Oscar campaign. Though in her version of the events, she only wanted to win the statue because that would mean bigger box office for the film, and more money for its stars. While the tome is surprisingly restraint and respectful of Crawford, she does openly wonder about Crawford’s obsessive desire to spoil the Oscars.

What is especially poignant about this episode is the knowledge that both Davis and Crawford would go on to make cheapie Baby Jane? retreads for a long time. Crawford, especially, never escaped the psycho-biddy genre and would destroy whatever was left of her film career by appearing in one crappy thriller after another. Davis’ film career also suffered as she made one b-movie after another, before being rescued by high-quality TV movies in the late 1970s and 1980s (and a final screen triumph with the well-received Whales of August in 1987). Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was the last true artistic success for both actresses, though – which makes watching Feud all the sadder.

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