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Friday, May 5, 2017

You're Dismissing This As A Cat-Fight? You Sexiest Pig #FeudBetteJoan #FX #FeudFX #FullSeasonReview #Recap

You're Dismissing This As A Cat-Fight? You Sexiest Pig #FeudBetteJoan #FX #FeudFX #FullSeasonReview #Recap

All pictures courtesy of FX unless otherwise noted. 

No, I'm not dismissing it. Are you crazy? FX, Ryan Murphy, and his crew just delivered us some of the best drama of 2017 (albeit, still very much in its infancy) in similar fashion to what they did last year with American Crime Story: People v. OJ Simpson. Holy crap, did I just bury the lede in my own review/recap of the season, or are you still going to read on to see what I really think about the show? I don't know, but you should.

As of late, Ryan Murphy and his producing partners have jumped onto the anthology series bandwagon full-steam. In fact, one can call him the father of the current trend as American Horror Story ushered this in six short years ago. Feud (#FeudFX) follows that same trend. For its first season, Feud followed the storied, seething hatred between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (I swear I'm going to call her Joan Rivers and/or Collins at least once in this write-up, so consider yourself forewarned). It all started with a little book entitled “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” But let us get some technical stuff out of the way first.

Framing the show in a documentary arc, the show starts by setting up the parameters by which old Hollywood of the 1960s operated, particularly through a woman's lens. The show introduces us to a multitude of female actresses at the time, at varying levels of stardom. We get a taste of how they viewed the clash between Bette and Joan. At that time in Hollywood, most actresses were believed to have an expiration date somewhere around the 40 mark. Even for top-level actresses, the studio-system wasn't very kind once they reached a certain age. The roles dried up and so did the money. Few women felt this more than two of the top stars at the time Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. While other greats like Hepburn and Vivien Leigh were happy to stay above the fray, Bette and Joan battled for supremacy of who was the better actress.

The feud was, for the most part, manufactured from nothing, a ploy to pit two women against each other equally concocted by Jack Warner (president, one of the founding members, and partial namesake of Warner Brothers Studio) and Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. In brilliant portrayals of Warner and Hopper, Stanley Tucci and Judy Davis, at times, steal the show—a tall order considering the powerhouse performances of Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. Why such a ploy? Who really knows. Here, it is presented to us as the ripe-sweetened juice of gossip that both sells movie tickets and magazines. Be not fooled that this was solely two women being puppeted by a man, for the women had equal parts in their own undoing.

As I said before, it started with the book (as most movies do. Did I mention I'm a writer? Check a link to my books below) “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” After a string of misfires and a few years with sparse work coming her way, Joan Crawford began to look for her own projects to revive her career. In fact, her ultimate goal was to choose a legacy project in hopes of winning an Oscar. She had already won one earlier in her career but it had done her little good in her older age. Most of the roles slid across the table to her came in the form of someone's mother or grandmother, which were often unchallenging roles that didn't even sniff at an Oscar. For something meatier, juicier, she needed to find a role for herself. Enter, the book.

Intent on playing the washed-up child actress Blanche Hudson, Joan takes the book to her director-friend Robert Aldrich played by the always dependable Alfred Molina who does a stellar job at playing the overworked, underappreciated film director. Far from the sleek veneer that name brand Hollywood directors of today seem to have, Robert (or Bob as they called him throughout) not only looks like a shoe salesman who occasionally makes pictures, but he has also hit a career funk. His last picture didn't do very well and he is already said to be on his career decline even though he is only middle-aged (we're talking 40s at the time).

Robert reads the book and sees an opportunity. Not only had Hitchcock's Psycho just come out within the last few years and made a, um... (pause! OK, should I go for the obvious and cheap joke here or should I avoid it and go a completely, unexpected direction. Go unexpected, Michael. It might turn out well)... sizable profit at the box office (Oh. You should've gone with the cheap “killing” joke. Too late now), Bob figured he could make the movie for cheap as it was well-contained in one location and already had Crawford's waning stardom attached to it. He dang near lost his mind when Joan gave him the ultimate idea: Have Bette Davis play my sister in it.

At this point, there was already chatter about how Bette and Joan didn't get along. Really, Bette didn't like anybody but loathed Joan because she was the prettier of the two and had been used by the studio to undercut Bette's negotiating power. “Oh, Bette wants to play hardball? Then forget her. Have Joan do it.” Bette thought Joan only got roles because she was something to look at, whereas Davis had to be far more talented. Was she more talented in real life is something you can determine for yourself by looking up their movies or watching them on TCM when they come on. Regardless, this is what Bette believed and what Joan knew she believed. And herein is the crux of the series. Don't let anyone tell you that this wasn't about hatred because it was. While Joan Crawford really only wanted to be loved and accepted, Bette wanted to have power and prestige, something which could only be gotten by bringing who she saw as her biggest rival to heel.

By this time, Bette had already won two Oscars and had been nominated ten times (Side note: When the Academy loves a woman, they really love them for a very long time. Women have always outpaced men as far as the sheer amount of repeat nominations, with Hepburn having previously owned the crown for most nominations for years before Streep overtook her). At the time, Bette was doing some rinky-dink play which is where Joan finds her. Although it never quite feels like Bette needs this movie as much as Joan does, she also thinks it is a novel idea to have them in the film together. And then the fireworks start to pop.

From here we see all of the undercutting and back-biting normally done in Hollywood filmmaking. But strangely, if you are well-versed in old Hollywood or if you have watched plenty of films about the behind-the-scenes action on films, there really isn't a lot of new stuff here. They argue over the dressing rooms, over who has the better lines, over who looks better on camera, on who should get top billing, on how a scene should play, over how much they're each getting paid, over how the studio will promote and etc. There's also discussion about how Bette was possibly sleeping with Bob, how she got her daughter (who was staying with her during the film) a role, and how much Jack Warner fought Bob at every step while Bob had to mortgage his house to make the picture in order for Warner to distribute it. Again, all very Hollywood-style drama you can see in many different forms and fashions. But the way it unfolds is marvelous.

Glimpsing bits of every character and their intricacies, we are halfway pulled to take sides ourselves as the women take subtle digs at each other that continue escalating through the season. I'm partially halted by what details I should and shouldn't include here as the show really does go broad stroke to quiet-understated-moment at the drop of a dime. But it does try to paint a portrait of two women heavily manipulated by the men and system around them while still trying to manipulate each other. Bette is, for all intents and purposes, a scene-stealing egomaniac going far above and beyond Joan who is, admittedly, made more sympathetic. Or maybe that was just my bias.

All throughout Joan is shown to be someone who, despite her best efforts, has been used by nearly everyone she comes into contact with, save for her trusted helper Mamacita. She brings the novel and idea to both Bob and Bette, yet Bette tries stealing top billing from her, then makes the ridiculous character choice to wear the iconic Baby Jane makeup. Here, it's shown that Joan even concedes the title role to Bette in order to feed the latter's ego. Joan is then not even nominated for an Oscar, let alone wins one, but Bette? Of course, Bette gets nominated and has so many fans and film critics alike heralding her performance as brilliant. The only time I actually didn't have more sympathy for Joan over Bette was during their asides with their families.

Joan and Her Husband
Joan is, as portrayed in the 1980s film “Mommie Dearest,” a cold fish outside of her film roles. She was married to two men that are mentioned. The first was the Pepsi guy who, through a few flashing, passing scenes of them getting married, is never quite rounded out as far as what happened. And if it was, I don't remember the brief mention. Her other man, the one she had at the start of filming “Baby Jane,” quickly left under suspicions that she was sleeping with Bob in order to dissuade the man from leaning more to Bette's side for any future arguments. She cast him aside like a cheap hooker, but he didn't seem domineering enough for her over-the-top personality.

Her children, of which she had three, are actually given less time than Bette's. All adopted, we never see Christine, the would-be author of the book Mommie Dearest. And while there seemed to be no interaction with them during this time frame, I can only assume we didn't see her character because of a potential legal battle with the still-living Christine. But with that, some of the horrors allegedly suffered by Christine go unseen and partially unacknowledged. And while we get a glimpse of Joan's twins, we really have but one scene in which we see how Joan treats them as less of their own people and more like her own dress-up dolls.

Bette, on the other hand, is shown a wide berth of interaction with her eldest daughter, Barbara. Granted, Barbara becomes part of the production and actually seems to live with her mother (at least for the production), but the story feels slightly uneven, tipping towards Bette's cruelness. With Barbara, Bette is shown to be unkind while also being uncaring and still egotistical. She suggests that her daughter play the part of the neighbor girl, but only so she can have more clout on the set. She rehearses lines with the girl and tries to teach her how to act but even then it feels more like she's doing it hoping that the girl won't embarrass her. There's an argument in there about youth vs. age, and how some of what Bette feels doesn't come from age, it comes from her own bitter personality she would've had regardless of how many Oscars she won. And finally, the relationship sort of ends with Barbara asking permission to get married to a man nearly twice her age (16 to a 29-year-old man) and needing Bette's consent. Bette makes mention of how it won't last and the girl knows nothing of the world and blah blah blah. Spoiler Alert: Barbara and the guy she married are still together today. Sometimes youth has wisdom that age has somehow forgotten. Anyway, Barbara eventually writes a book similar to Christine's, and she and Bette never speak again.


But outside of Barbara, and the younger guy who she had been married to at the beginning of the production who asks for a divorce and is never seen again, Bette also has another daughter, an ill one. Mentally incapable of emotional maturity, the girl, at the behest of Bette, lives in a facility somewhere on the east coast. We get two scenes on that relationship in which we see Bette talking to the girl over the phone, and one in which Bette, in her advanced age, goes to visit her daughter long after the “Baby Jane” shoot. They color together and we, for a brief moment, forget how horrible of a human being Davis was to everyone around her.

Probably the best episode was the Oscar-night episode in which Joan sought to undercut Bette anyway she could. With a plan hatched by queen-witch Hedda Hopper, Joan stalked down at least two (I'd have to re-check because I think it was three) of the other Best Actress nominees and convinced them that they shouldn't go to the Oscars that night and instead have her accept the award for them in the case that they happened to win. As Hopper put it, “No matter that you weren't nominated, Joan. You'll be walking away with the Oscar.” And she did. In a great bit of cinematography, we follow the specially-silver-hair-powdered Joan around the entire backstage of the Oscars before the winner is announced to see Joan walk onto the stage and accept the Oscar for the woman who won for the Miracle Worker. And all the while Bette stands just offstage, behind the curtain with a cigarette stomped under heel but her rage still smoking. The funniest thing is, when you look back on it, why be so mad about it? It wasn't like Joan actually won, but all the pictures would show Joan holding the Oscar. Still, Bette lost to Anne Bancroft, not Joan.

And The Winner Is Not...

The series ended with Joan's last curtain call in 1977 when she, alone in her apartment save for her longtime helper Mamacita, died from cancer. But before her death scene came the old “We had a helluva time” trope that has been used so brilliantly in other pieces and doesn't disappoint here. Stepping out from her shaggy gray-haired oldness into the brilliant light of semi-youthfulness (back to around the time they filmed “Baby Jane”, so about a decade and a half earlier), she sits at a table with Jack Warner, Hedda Hopper, and Bette Davis as they discuss how miserable they made each other and how much fun they all had doing it. Neither Hedda nor Jack apologizes for their shrewd behavior against Joan, or Bette, for that matter. And they all instead have a good laugh at their cruelness. Why? Because in the end, such cruelty maybe helped to sharpen the talents of both women as they worked harder to prove the doubters wrong about them while staying relevant in an industry obsessed with youthfulness.

Hedda Hopper
What's my grade? I give it an A-. Does the series have flaws? Of course, it does. It never seemed like we quite finished the “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” story. Joan was out and suddenly, that story was just dropped. Was Bette the toast of the town again? Was Bob in the driver's seat for directing? What happened between he and Bette after that picture? Shrugs!

Even with those few complaints, there was not much else to complain about. You could make an argument that the season was an episode too short, or that it had far more cursing in it than an FX show normally has (we're talking the F-bomb was being dropped about as much as it would have been on HBO. Took me by surprise), or can even make mention that the current age of both Sarandon and Lange, in a comical twist, surpasses the ages of Bette and Joan during the actual filming of “Baby Jane” by about 10 years. However, there's something to be said artistically in getting senior-citizen-aged women (both are older than 66) to play middle-aged women (Bette would've been 55-56 during filming; Joan was 57-58), especially since so often in Hollywood younger women are tasked with playing middle-aged women. I could easily have seen Nicole Kidman as Joan and Julianne Moore as Bette, too, but even they are younger. In all, I liked the choices, and the series was yet another phenomenal entry into Murphy's catalog, even in spite of the fact that this still owes a great deal to the “Housewives” culture seen in reality TV that was rekindled by Marc Cherry's “Desperate Housewives” after the 80s saw the rise of “Dynasty.” Pitting two or more women against each other has become the default go-to trope in order to create strong-willed female characters. This show elevates that to a new paradigm to make a critique on both modern filmmaking and society.

Should you be watching? Yes. A multitude of reasons to watch spring to mind: potentially award-winning performances, great writing, the peel-back into a tough industry, an intricate dynamic between two women, etc. I'd be very surprised if it doesn't win some kind of Emmy or Golden Globe. A very short binge-able season, Feud: Bette and Joan aired on FX. Check FX on demand or I believe it is playing on VUDU or Amazon as well.

The REAL Bette Davis and Joan Crawford 

What do you think? Have you heard about Feud: Bette and Joan? If not, do you think you'll try and catch it on demand now? If you have seen it, how did you like it? Do you think it treated Bette and Joan equally or was one weighted over the other? And what was your favorite scene? And, have you seen “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and/or “Hush, Hush... Sweet Charlotte” and what did you think of the two movies? Let me know in the comments below.

Check out my 5-star comedy novel, Yep, I'm Totally Stalking My Ex-Boyfriend. #AhStalking
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Until next time, “We women must stick together. No more biting and cutting each other down. No more backstabbing and—wait! Where's my knife?”
(supporting actress clamps knife) 'Uh...'

P.S. OK, that wasn't actually a sign-off quote, but a scene. Don't act like you're confused about it, you got the setup. I'm trying to make this thing short, dang it. I'll think of an actual sign-off next time.

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