IMPEACH TRUMP.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Feud - Bette and Joan


“This is where television actually helps us.  Kids today, they grew up watching Crawford and Davis on Saturday afternoons.  They know who they are.” Pauline to Bob Aldrich, Feud.

Today I’d like to discuss the miniseries Feud, which has just concluded its eight-episode run on cable channel FX.  It is uncommon these days for the world of classic films to have such a well-publicized “center stage” moment in modern pop culture.  For that reason alone, Feud is worth examining.

Long post.  Go get a drink.

I enjoyed the series.  It was not without flaw, but the overall production I think was a success for many reasons, and some of those reasons are not technical at all, but rather for the themes and messages presented in such a thoughtful and creative manner.  One accomplishment is that the series manages to be more than about Bette and Joan; it's about Bette and Joan in the scheme of things.  To take a narrow focus and from it draw a large and sweeping view of our society is the mark of a production that wants to do more than just dish the dirt for ratings.

The series has made classic films relevant, and that is an achievement, however temporary, over which classic film fans must marvel.  As for the technical merits:

I thought the acting was superb, and I like the various Zeitgeist touches of musical score, sets, and all the ephemera that is plunked down and inserts us neatly into the early 1960s.  I noticed, as many of you probably have, a few anachronisms, but nothing that really mattered to render the production illegitimate or phony.  (But that did not look anything like the Martin Beck Theater, now, did it?)

My biggest joy was that Jessica Lange’s portrayal of Joan Crawford did not stray into the asinine realm of Faye Dunaway’s cartoonish Mommie Dearest persona.  I suppose once I saw that in the first episode, the rest of the series was, at the very least, a relief.

Executive Producer Ryan Murphy and his band of collaborators have done an admirable job.  I liked Judy Davis, striking, prickly, and funny as Hedda Hopper.  She is allowed to pull out all stops as befits this ridiculous, venomous gossip columnist.  It must have been a blast to play.  I think probably my favorite line from the series or at least the one that made me laugh the most was Hedda Hopper’s disdain that Bette Davis appeared to show no respect for the two Oscars she had won in past years, fuming that Davis had put one Oscar on display in her bathroom.  “That poor Oscar has to watch that woman go to the toilet.”

Alfred Molina as director Robert Aldrich was splendid.  His anger of a schmuck caught between the spokes of a controlling hierarchy in his industry and two controlling women, his gloomy resentment, and his guilt at various turns for his sins was masterfully eloquent, and the humanity of a kind of everyman, yet morally complicated in his dual function as both manipulator and victim.  I think of all the characters, we come to know him best because of his profoundly transparent performance.

I believe that Catherine Zeta-Jones did a credible Olivia de Havilland, although I’m aware others have a different opinion about her effectiveness in the role.  She did not mimic her, but there were instead deft traces of de Havilland’s demure, ladylike but steely reserve, breathy, elegant, and knowing. Kathy Bates was a funny Joan Blondell, actually an easier role to interpret than De Havilland.

I have to say my favorite character was Mamacita, Joan Crawford’s maid, played with an almost vaudevillian deadpan by Jackie Hoffman.  Mamacita had only to enter a room to crack me up and make me wonder what she was going to do or say next.  I’ve never seen such an adept scene stealer.  I think Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita should have her own TV show.  Her own weekly show, The Mamacita Show.  The Mamacita Variety Hour.  Featuring the Mamacita Dancers.

The production values including minute detail of the sets were terrific and if not always spot-on, certainly evocative of the era, of both the glamour and the artifice.  The opening credits are inspired, a mimicry of the work of Saul Bass, with a nightmarish cartoon synopsis of the Davis and Crawford relationship as their characters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.  This sequence is on YouTube here.  The cartoon characters in silhouette run an obstacle course of events from the film but always are seen as marionettes under the power of the executives.  This particular theme I think we can accept perhaps only to varying degrees, but we’ll get to that later.

I was particularly struck by the first moments of this cartoon sequence when the two figures are standing on top of the Hollywood sign, which though unintended I’m sure, reminded me instantly of the tragic Peg Entwistle and the comment that Bette Davis made in an interview that Entwistle was her inspiration to become an actress.  She saw Peg Entwistle in the Ibsen play, The Wild Duck, and was captivated.

What I most enjoy about the series is what I most love about classic films – close-ups and slow scenes, beautiful lighting, camera work that allows us to soak up the background, and the clever, intelligent dialogue spoken in clear, crisp enunciation.  (“They had faces then.”)  The murky “realistic” (yeah, right) filming, the shaky camera, the irritating untrained voices of the grunting low-talkers of today’s films is nowhere to be found.  Hallelujah.

I love the many scenes where Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Joan and Bette re-create moments from Baby Jane, and also from other Crawford and Davis films (Catch the back of “Ann Blyth” in the Mildred Pierce scene on the receiving end of the famous slap).  What a surprise to see Sarandon do the Davis singing of the pop version of the Baby Jane song parody on The Andy Williams Show.  I was familiar with that clip and so to see her re-create the performance in such spectacular detail was a marvel.  Have a look at this “mash up” on YouTube, and another here.

It is in these scenes where Sarandon does most of her close mimicry of Davis and her clipped speech.  I think it was wise to save it for these “replica” scenes because we are familiar with these jocular moments on television talk show interviews and in clips from her movies.  It was prudent to reserve most of Bette Davis’ vocal and physical traits to these moments.

The many repeated mirror shots are captivating – especially those in hand mirrors, which are more intimate.  We are dealing here with a lifetime of reflected images.

There is still some campiness in these episodes, as we might expect, but not as much as there could be and I do think the directors and producers showed restraint, considering the gossipy subject matter.  

On the use of background music of popular tunes for moving the tale along, this was done in a delightfully skillful manner.  Unlike the heavy-handedness of a Max Steiner score, rather they cause us to smile at their slyness.  Peggy Lee’s chipper rendition of “Somebody Else is Taking My Place,” in “The Other Woman” episode, and in a montage of the Baby Jane scenes, “Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This,” and the moody strains of “Charade” (anachronism alert) when Joan and Bette go out for drinks to dish the dirt and talk about their childhoods.  In the “Abandoned” episode Bob comes to Joan’s hospital room to face off with her over her stalling the picture, and we hear from the portable radio Leslie Gore singing “You Don’t Own Me.”

The music swells at the end of the “Abandoned” episode and we hear Miss Patti Page (“The Singing Rage”) sing the theme song to Hush,Hush, Sweet Charlotte as Bob, Bette and Olivia pose for a photo in front of the Coke cooler with Cokes in hand (a dig at Joan Crawford’s connection to Pepsi).  This was a re-creation of an actual photo except that Joseph Cotten was also in the original picture, but it’s a cute touch.

I'd love to know if sales of Pepsi were increased lately, as well as of Aqua Net hairspray.

Another aspect to Feud that I thought was great fun was seeing the “familiar” faces of lesser characters in the story, like George Cukor, Patty Duke, Anne Bancroft, Joseph Cotten and others.  Also the scene with Wendell Corey who was the president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time.  His secretary gets a great line when Joan Crawford stomps towards his office.  The secretary looks up in horror, “Mr. Corey, Joan Crawford’s heading this way and she’s not slowing down!”

We could mention, of course, that the scene where Joan and Bette go out for drinks and discuss their childhoods is helpful for us to understand their motivations, particularly for Joan whose reputation has been pretty nearly destroyed by her daughter’s book, Mommie Dearest, but in real life they never would have sat down and had this heart-to-heart talk.  However, this not a documentary but a dramatization, and this and similar scenes are used not to stretch the truth, but to illuminate it.

Other scenes also do not necessarily ring true, but they do convey the spirit of the themes beautifully and draw our emotional response.  In the “More or Less” episode there’s a scene where Joan and director Bob Aldrich attend the sneak preview of Baby Jane and, because they all feared that it would be a flop, they are astounded and filled with surprised rapture when the theater audience is receptive to the movie.  Joan stands in the lobby and young people crowd around her asking for her autograph, and she lifts her eyes in an eloquent mixture of gratitude and resplendent triumph towards Bob.  (Lange’s work is consistently remarkable in this series, and she does most of the heavy lifting.)  We could cheer for her.  It is a skillful film indeed that draws such an emotional response from us, especially over a character who is not even likable most of the time—because we are growing to understand her.

Other scenes, however striking and well used dramatically, are, at best, manipulations of the truth, such as Jack Warner’s rant (played wonderfully by Stanley Tucci) where Bob first brings the Baby Jane project to him.  Warner throws a temper tantrum about the idea of using Bette Davis, because of his resentment for her taking Warner Bros. to court in the 1930s.  His tantrum and explosive spewing of vulgarity directed more towards appealing to a modern audience and less with an idea of documentary realism, however real it might have been, is another case where the truth is stretched just a bit for entertainment value.  It’s true he probably felt that strongly twenty or so years earlier, but in the meantime he and Davis had long since patched things up, and Davis often complimented Warner on his taste in women’s pictures.  She was, after all, often jokingly called The Fifth Warner.  Neither woman, back in her day, was anybody's marionette.

Most devastating is not Warner’s meanness towards Davis or Crawford, but to Bob, whom he repeatedly humiliates simply because he can.

Another invented aspect to the show is the possibility of Joan’s having performed in a stag film in her past and then later trying to cover it up: she may or may not have appeared in stag film and may or may not have tried to cover up, but this series boldly pronounces it as fact, and boldly pronounces her brother as being a blackmailer over the issue.  That I feel is going too far.  This is too serious an issue to play creative pretend games.  Speculation must always be used wisely because it is a most powerful weapon.  We live in an era where practically nobody believes anything about politicians anymore, but many people read any sort of tabloid supermarket trash about a Hollywood star and instantly believe everything they read.  Why the stars, once idols of glamour, became our punching bags, is perhaps a topic for another time, but Feud certainly outlines this strange change in our treatment of celebrities.  Jack Warner as played by Tucci is tickled over the success of Baby Jane, calling it, “Degradation, that’s what sells.  Tearing down your idols.  It’s very satisfying.”

Those of us from the world of classic film fandom can sort these things out with equanimity (I hope):  the careers of Davis and Crawford and the tales about them, but such freewheeling with the facts may not benefit the newcomer to classic films, or those with only a casual interest.  It is perhaps good to remember that for a writer, stories are not really about characters so much as they are about themes.  The characters are just tools, mouthpieces through which the themes are woven (or unravel).

Sexism and ageism, the two main themes of the series – and if sometimes expressed a little too heavy-handed and even trite—reiterate that these are important problems to handle for our own time.  What the series seems to fail to capture is that, despite sexism rampant everywhere and in every industry in the twentieth century, the Golden age of Hollywood was something of an oasis of great women’s roles and marvelous actresses, and more opportunity for women than in other careers.  Conversely, the 1960s through the rest of the twentieth century saw far fewer roles for women – great roles or otherwise, no matter their age.  Most stories featured women as victims.  They were merely the props around which the male characters conducted their adventures.  They were mostly disposable on TV and in the movies.  Women in later eras saw it become normal for an actress to be prepared, if not required, to take off her clothes for a part.  We need not feel so superior over the days of the studio system, when actresses often had it better.

The character of Pauline, director Bob Aldrich’s assistant, played by Alison Wright, is fictional.  That she has such an important role as a spokesperson and sounding board and yet she is fictional, is quite telling in and of itself.  There was no real person in the early 1960s connected to this story to whom the writers could assign this function.

Her character is used to express this theme of sexism.  When she dreams of directing the script she has written, and her hopes are dashed—even by other professional women such as Joan Crawford, Mamacita encourages her with statistics about the ratio of men to women, and how more women in the future will be the audience and therefore more roles about women and by women will be created. Mamacita tells her “your time is coming.”  She also adds in her amusing Mamacita philosophy, “Men have shorter lives because they are less strong.”

We are left to feel the bitter irony, knowing what Pauline does not yet know – that it never happened.  It is 2017 and superheroes and such movies made for teens and young males are the norm.

There is yet the promise fulfilled, however, because Lange and Sarandon are both in their late sixties early seventies, and still working in prominent roles and positions of power in the film industry.  They are producers of the series as well as its stars.  Ryan Murphy, the originator of this series has taken some heat for his long, slow education on using women writers, directors, but he has learned marvelously, and except for the remaining bits of campiness and the childish titillation over two women having a cat fight, I’d say he deserves encouragement and congratulations.

“And the Winner Is” episode brings us to the 1962 Oscars, a glittering festival of rivalry, revenge, and shameful opportunism.  I particularly liked the tracking shot following Joan offstage after presenting Best Director to David Lean when he is confused about where to go next.  She briskly tells him to follow her and she proceeds to march through a series of hallways with David Lean and us following her through twists and turns, seeing bystanders and loiterers, a brief handoff from Mamacita like a train snagging a mail pouch, and through a men’s room where she pats a man on the shoulder who is standing at a urinal, and then she emerges on the other side of the stage preparing for the announcement of the winner of Best Actress.  She has agreed to accept for Anne Bancroft if Bancroft is the winner.  And, of course, she is, and therefore Joan is also the winner.  It’s funny, but that trip as we follow her through a backstage maze is like a metaphor for her career trajectory, full of twists and turns, light and shadows, moments of attention and adulation, and quiet moments of anxiety.  She lights another cigarette.

By the way, when I was blogging on my Year of Ann Blyth series, I had completely missed the significance of the television episode Ann Blyth appeared in called “The Year Joan Crawford Won the Oscar,” discussed here, which was broadcast in January 1963.  I had suspected that this title, which really had no significance to the plot of the story on the short-lived series Saints and Sinners (it refers to a trivia question), was only a cute nod to the fact that its star, Ann Blyth, was also in Mildred Pierce, for which Joan won her Oscar (and Blyth was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.)  I see now that naming this episode as such was probably part of the publicity campaign for Baby Jane’s upcoming Oscar season.  The nominations for the Oscars were announced in late February, a month after this TV show had aired, so at the time the episode was broadcast Joan was still very much a contender in people’s expectations.  The ceremony was broadcast in April.

Speaking of smoking; it's funny that the constant smoking and drinking may be the most shocking aspect that catches our attention in this series.  I doubt seeing events of the famous feud being played out is more shocking than this, because we are familiar with the stories.  The series also presents us with the era’s glamorized self-destruction of these women. 

The ageism theme I think is as valid but strangely less political than the sexism, and I don’t know why because we all age and we have all experienced or will experience prejudice because of it.  We can even feel sorry for the nasty Jack Warner when he says, “I used to make the culture.  Today I’m lost in it.”

The final episode of the series, “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends” addresses the final years of the feud and Joan’s last days.  We are in the 1970s, and another in a repeated series of scenes set in 1978 shows a documentary director interviewing another player in the story about the feud (it is only in this last episode that we learn the interviews are being held on the occasion of the Oscar ceremony -- nice touch).  This time, Pauline is back, and she tells us what she’s been up to: finding job satisfaction in producing documentaries, which affords more opportunities to women than does trying to work in feature films.  Is she involved with this one?

True to her purpose of being the linchpin for the writers, directors, and producers of this series and the audience they are trying to reach, Pauline recounts meeting a frail, elderly, and lonely Joan in an airport.  She tells the documentary director to call his grandmother.  To some this will sound like Hallmark card mawkishness, but I liked it because it was a dash of sentiment in which there is also truth.  Joan was still a scrappy person at the end of her life, but she was also alone and overwhelmed.

And stop being so prickly over films with messages in them.  You need to hear this.  Go call your grandmother, dammit.

We have a montage of scenes of Joan now living a Spartan existence in her New York apartment, cleaning, learning to use the new microwave oven, and doing without a maid or the lavishness of her former lifestyle.  She watches TV while eating her meals on a tray, and switches the channel from the news of the Vietnam War, and finds an old movie of hers.  She is pleased and watches it with interest.

I don't find this glimpse into Joan's vulnerability exploitive, not the way it's handled.  This episode is loving, in the way that caretakers of the elderly protect and comfort their charges but are forced by circumstances to involve themselves frankly and intimately with the slow demise of a human being—which is physically messy and emotionally painful.  A lot of people don't have the stomach for it, or the heart.  The best caretakers are also mindful of, and ready to preserve, the elderly person’s dignity.  I believe this episode does that.  It does what so many of Joan's closest friends, family, fans, and colleagues did not do: it accompanies her as she does not go gentle into that good night.

Some fans might feel any depiction of the frailty of their heroes as demeaning, especially for someone like Joan Crawford who took herself out of the public eye in her final years with the intent of keeping her dignity and her pride.  Bette Davis would later put it succinctly: “Old age is no place for sissies.”

In this self-imposed seclusion, I would contend we see not the degradation of a star, but the true measure of her feistiness.  Battling severe periodontal disease, Joan relates the career move of having several molars extracted in her twenties at the advice of an agent to attain the sunken-cheek look.  She refuses dentures, but tells her dentist, “I’d rather spit blood into a sink than look like Martha Raye.”

We see, before this period, her stoic professionalism on the set of Trog (1970), an awful experience that was in its way far more degrading than being old and ill and alone.  

Finally, back in her apartment, she tells her agent over the phone to not submit her name for any more work, she’s quitting.  It’s another mirror shot, but her reflection is through a window this time, on which a brick wall is reflected in a pattern against her face.

Bette is having trouble securing work also, filming a succession of TV pilots that were never broadcast. Dominic Burgess as Victor Buono has a great line here: “It was like Miles Davis performing jingles for lunch meat commercials.”

Davis’ biggest challenge of the era was working on the TV movie The Disappearance of Aimee (1976), and an unhappy collaboration with Faye Dunaway.  It is remarked, “For all her complaints about Joan, she didn’t know true hatred until she met Faye.”  It also gives Bette an opportunity to defend Joan, noting that she was a professional, who unlike Faye Dunaway, did not keep the cast waiting.

Before we dwell too much on the thought that Dunaway will figure prominently in Joan’s future reputation, we have a poignant scene where her daughter Cathy visits with her children.  Joan is ill with cancer, serving her guests microwaved food on paper plates and Styrofoam cups.  A far cry from her glamorous days in her Hollywood mansion, but here is the picture of a woman courageous and ingenious enough to adapt to the realities of her situation.

She watches the children playing in the living room and whispers to her daughter, “Do they think of me as their real grandmother?”  It’s a heartbreaking moment, an image meant to remind us that all her life, Joan fought to remove the stain of illegitimacy—in her childhood of poverty and abuse; in her career; in her first marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. where she was unwelcomed by his family, including the queen of Hollywood, Mary Pickford; even in being unable to enjoy winning the Oscar without the nagging doubt that she would never compete with the likes of a “serious” actress like Bette Davis.  Here she wonders if she is accepted as a real grandmother by the children of her adopted daughter.  Her daughter’s response is affectionate and comforting and brings Joan to tears.

Bette has an adopted daughter with special needs whom she visits and plays with, but whom she cannot reach emotionally to give her the satisfaction of reciprocal love.  Her biological daughter, B.D., hates her.  We don’t really see the motivations for B.D.’s virulent hatred of her mother, and B.D. comes off just as a nasty person (some people just are).  Not delving into her motivations, and not including the adopted sons of both actresses in the narrative is probably a concession to expedience, more than anything.  There are just so many plot threads you can follow.  I was surprised, though, that the series did not cover Joan's filling in for her daughter Christina on the soap opera The Secret Storm in 1968.

Another nice use of imagery is the dream/hallucination Joan experiences in her last days, when in the middle of the night, she wanders into her darkened living room and finds Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner playing at a card table, in evening dress, laughing over party conversation.  Joan joins them, and we see her as she appeared in earlier days, dark hair coiffed, white opera gloves.  Bette Davis then joins them, both women in red.  Joan, still psychologically her frail, elderly self, muses, as though watching herself in a dream, “Why am I so happy to see you?”  They confess they wish they had been friends.  Faithful Mamacita arrives in her bathrobe to escort the confused Joan back to bed.  She dies a week later.

At the Oscars, Bette and Olivia de Havilland, Victor Buono, Joan Blondell, and Pauline gather in the green room and watch the In Memoriam reel.  For a brief instant, Joan Crawford’s face appears on the TV monitor.

Olivia remarks, “Fifty years in show business and all they gave her was two seconds.”

Bette grimly replies, “That’s all any of us will get.”  They raise their glasses and toast Joan.  The documentary director approaches Davis, but she will not be interviewed.  “You’ll want funny, bitchy lines about Joan Crawford.  I won’t do it.  She was a professional.  We did one picture together.  Our lives intersected.  That’s it.”

The documentary crew muse to themselves afterward that nobody will ever know the truth about the Davis-Crawford feud, and a young woman on the crew (perhaps their modern era “Pauline”) wonders what they said to each other on their first meeting on the Baby Jane set.  Instantly, we melt back to the past, to the first day of shooting on Baby Jane, and that iconic photo of Joan and Bette in their chairs, laughing. 




I like the final roll call of “whatever happened to…” the cast of the main characters, with their real photos alongside the actors playing them, from Bob Aldrich to Hedda Hopper.  Joan is lauded in these end credits as “a good and sometimes great actress.”  It is a good tribute.  That more people are starting to say it would gratify her.

Interestingly, Joan Crawford’s grandson, Casey LaLonde likes the series because his grandmother is treated with fairness even if in sometimes ugly frankness, and presented at times sympathetically and with dignity.  He hopes to encourage his mother, who was deeply hurt by the Mommie Dearest book and film, to watch it.  Last weekend Olivia de Havilland announced her typically classy and distant response.

What would Joan and Bette have thought of the show?  I really don’t know.  More to the point, what would they have thought of each other’s characterizations, the revealing of each other’s motivations?  

I believe both Joan and Bette would have gotten greater satisfaction by their work being shown on Turner Classic Movies, which has done more to rehabilitate Joan Crawford’s reputation than anything else could.

I am pleased that the Hollywood greats are back in the focus of pop culture for this series – not just their peccadilloes, but because of their important place in Hollywood history.  I don’t suppose, however, this series will create any new classic film fans.  The only thing that can create more old movie buffs is to show more classic films on more channels.  Although many classic films are available on DVD, most newcomers will be easier introduced to them if they are given an ample selection for free.  Like that person standing in the grocery store with the tray of crackers—you try it, you like it, then you go buy a box.  New fans have to be exposed to classic film before we ever expect them to spend their money and their time on it. 

This past Easter we again had a prime time major network broadcast of The Ten Commandments (1956). There are seldom other opportunities that major networks take to promote classic films. They do it with this movie because it fits the Passover/Easter season and is so-called family fare.  In a weekend of expected low ratings, it has the feeling of a throwaway, a pro bono broadcast.

With the notice Feud has received, the major networks could ride the tail with showings of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, to start.  There’s a whole world waiting to explore for all those who don’t have TCM or would normally venture to find it on cable company with hundreds of channels. We discussed some of this last year in our year-long series about the state of the classic film fans.

“This is where television actually helps us.  Kids today, they grew up watching Crawford and Davis on Saturday afternoons.  They know who they are.” – Pauline to Bob Aldrich, Feud.

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The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.

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