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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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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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