When 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.