Monday, 9 April 2018

At Home with Zsa Zsa Gabor

At home with Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1967 in her palatial Bel Air mansion! For aficionados of kitsch, this represents a goldmine and a fascinating oddity - 28 minutes and 20 seconds of pure bliss!

The TV show Good Company was apparently some kind of atomic-era variation of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or MTV Cribs with celebrities inviting you behind the security gates into their private inner sanctums. It begins with the Hungarian glamourpuss, famous-for-being famous movie diva, glorified courtesan and camp icon addressing the viewer directly (“Hello, darlings!”) from her bubble bath with soap suds up to her décolletage. Her décor is spectacular: check out the golden cherubs festooning the bathtub – a testament to her baroque / rococo taste. While waiting for Zsa Zsa to dress, host F. Lee Baily interrogates her queen-y gay male private secretary Karl. Is it a difficult job? Karl breaks into a sweat, attempting tactful diplomacy. “I can’t say it’s not difficult,” he stammers. “I guess it is. She’s very complex.” Read between the lines: she’s a temperamental nightmare! Karl backpedals, adding, “She really is this beautiful, this chic, this exciting, this witty, this unpredictable!” Phew!

/ Zsa Zsa Gabor’s ultra-glamorous passport, issued in 1966: I love that her passport photo is a beautifully lit and re-touched soft-focus Hollywood portrait and that she’s clearly doctored her birth date with a pen (which in theory should make the document invalid!). For the record, Gabor was apparently born in 1917! /

/ If this blue gown isn't the actual ensemble Zsa Zsa wears in this episode of Good Company, it's an awfully good facsimile! /

Post-bubble bath, fragrant chatelaine Zsa Zsa sweeps down the staircase and joins them. She’s donned a powder-blue, fur-trimmed floor-length muumuu and bouffant ringleted wiglet for the interview that Lady Bunny herself might covet. Zsa Zsa graciously takes Baily for a tour of her ostentatious nouveau riche home. Her closest neighbor, we learn, is Nancy Sinatra! We see the swimming pool, the Steinway gold grand piano (the one borrowed later for the 2013 Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra) covered with family photos, Zsa Zsa’s ultra-flattering idealized portrait above the fireplace, her collection of original Renoirs and various objets d’art and antiques.

/ This is the portrait of Zsa Zsa with her young daughter Francesca above the mantelpiece she contemplates with Baily /

Things turn seriously interesting and awkward when Zsa Zsa’s 18-year old aspiring actress daughter Francesca joins them. Dressed like a matronly socialite and looking like an escapee from Valley of the Dolls, the ultra-poised Francesca is one world-weary teenager.  Baily asks Francesca some outrageously intrusive, lecherous and tactless questions like if she’s “going steady” and what age of men she’s attracted to. “Between 25 and infinity,” she snarls. Zsa Zsa think Francesca says, “Between 25 and 70” and admits she doesn’t understand what “infinity” means. When Francesca leaves the room, Baily complements Zsa Zsa on how well-bred she is. “It’s not “groovy” to be polite nowadays,” Zsa Zsa laments. Postcript: the troubled Francesca’s acting career never took off and she never managed to carve a satisfying niche for herself. Later Francesca would repeatedly clash with Zsa Zsa’s ninth and final husband (the parasitic gold-digging ersatz “Prince” Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt) and she pre-deceased her mother, dying in 2015. (Wracked with ill health and dementia by then, Zsa Zsa herself died in 2016 without ever having been informed of her daughter’s death).

/ Zsa Zsa's bed - an exact replica of  Empress Joséphine’s. apparently /

/ Zsa Zsa and Francesca lounging on mama's bed. This is very how much how they both appear in this episode /

Zsa Zsa coquette-ishly invites Baily to see her boudoir, guiding him by the hand upstairs. “If I don’t come back after this next commercial, you know where I am,” Baily leers to the camera. Her bed, draped and canopied in lurid green, is an exact replica of Empress Joséphine’s, Zsa Zsa claims. Baily asks if the bed expresses her personality and Zsa Zsa nonsensically responds, “Well of course it does! It’s blue and green. Sometimes I’m blue and most of the time I’m green!” Huh? Lounging in bed, Zsa Zsa then lists the men she thinks are sexy: Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra. Turning to Baily she flutters her false eyelashes: “I’m sure you are a very sexy and glamorous man!” Watch and squirm!

/ Little sister Eva Gabor (1919 - 1995) and Zsa Zsa (1917 - 2016) sharing a laugh - and a wig /

/ Now that's what I call art: trompe l'oeil portrait of Zsa Zsa by Margaret Keane / 

Pretty much all of the photos illustrating this post are swiped from the Heritage Auctions' website for The Estate of Zsa Zsa Gabor Signature Auction later this month. The video below is a handy guide to the deluxe glitzy trash on offer / 

Monday, 2 April 2018

Reflections on ... Another Kind of Life at The Barbican

/ A portrait of Evelyn from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple) by Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz, 1983 /

The Barbican’s current exhibit Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins plunges the viewer into the subterranean outlaw world of the countercultural and disenfranchised. As they put it, it “follows the lives of individuals and communities operating on the fringes of society from America to India, Chile to Nigeria.” Think sex workers, biker gangs, junkies, drag queens, teenage runaways, circus freaks, punks, rockabillies, criminals, drop-outs, misfits. You know: our kind of people! Pal and I visited on Easter Sunday - and it was mesmerizing!

/ Medicine is Art, from the series Japan Photo Theatre, by Daido Moriyama, 1968. How covetable is that Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra mask! / 

/ From the series Brooklyn Gangs by Bruce Davidson, 1959 / 

Another Kind of Life opens with a room devoted to the mother of outsider photography, Diane Arbus then encompasses other exemplars like Larry Clark and Bruce Davidson. I’m obviously very familiar with the oeuvres of Arbus, Clark and Davidson (especially the latter’s luscious 1959 series Brooklyn Gangs depicting insanely beautiful young juvenile delinquent thugs!), but they’re always a joy to re-visit. To give you an idea of the flavor and subject matter, Nan Goldin, Karlheinz Weinberger and Peter Hujar aren’t represented in the exhibit – but they easily could have been. I loved discovering new photographers I’d never heard of (especially Japanese, Russian and Latin American ones). In some cases, I’d spot a photo I recognized but never knew who took it or its origins or context.  Noteworthy: Japan’s Daido Moriyama and Seiji Kurata (check out his studies of ornately-tattooed semi-nude Yakuza gangsters lounging at the sauna). Britain’s Chris Steele-Perkins (1970s Teddy Boy subculture; love their sartorial style. Their fondness for the National Front and the Confederate flag – not so much!). France’s Philippe Chancel (stylish multiracial / anti-fascist Parisian 1980s rockabilly gangs The Vikings and The Panthers).

/ Untitled, 1982, From the series Rebel’s Paris by Philippe Chancel, 1982 / 

Many of these tales of desperate living are devoted to troubled youth and transgender communities. Mary Ellen Mark documented the homeless kids of Seattle (focusing on a haunting 13-year old waif named Tiny). Jim Goldberg’s series Raised by Wolves (1987 – 1993) does the same for young drug addicts in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  (One of Goldberg’s cadaverous, doomed subjects called Tweeky Dave died of liver disease in 1997 and bequeathed him his grungy denim jacket customized with swear words. It hangs in The Barbican like a religious artifact).

/ Lillie with her rag doll, Seattle, Washington, from the series Streetwise, by Mary Ellen Mark, 1983 /

The main image for the exhibit is Paz Errázuriz’s commanding, defiant 1983 portrait of Evelyn, a transgender sex worker in an underground Chilean brothel. Dayanita Singh explores India’s maligned eunuch community. Teresa Margolles does similar with trans prostitutes in the desolate Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez. Behind Margolles’ room is slide show of grainy photos of strippers (most seemingly transsexual) working at an absolutely filthy fleapit dive bar from the 60s to the 80s. It’s spellbinding! Each slide tells a vivid story. 

Perhaps my favourite image of the entire exhibit is Danny Lyon’s photo Corky and Funny Sonny, Chicago (1965) below. Lyon followed and photographed the outrageously sexy Outlaw motorcycle gang in the mid-60s. I find this photo aesthetically pleasing!

The exhibit is on until 27 May 2018. Go! 

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Lobotomy Room 23 February 2018 at Fontaine's DJ Set List

Attention late night diversion seekers! Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock’n’roll - when incredibly strange dance party Lobotomy Room returns to the Polynesian-style basement Bamboo Lounge of Dalston’s most unique nite spot Fontaine’s! Friday 23 February 2018!

Lobotomy Room! Where sin lives! A punkabilly booze party! Sensual and depraved! A spectacle of decadence! Bad Music for Bad People! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Twisted Tittyshakers! Punk cretin hops! White Trash Rockers! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and other weird shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs the Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell. Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock! Grainy black-and-white vintage erotica projected on the big screen all night for your adult viewing pleasure!

Admission: gratuit - that’s French for FREE!

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier.

It’s sleazy. It’s grubby. It’s trashy - you’ll love it!

A tawdry good time guaranteed!

February is a cruel month. It’s when revered and sacred Lobotomy Room religious figures Lux Interior (4 February 2009) and Tura Satana (4 February 2011) both died. It’s still deep, desolate winter with seemingly no end in sight. And blimey, both the Lobotomy Room film club and the dance party tanked in February!

/ Above: Lux Interior of The Cramps. Below: Tura Satana /

On dispiriting occasions like these, I try to remember the credo of hard-bitten, nicotine-stained veteran show business harridan Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls. To paraphrase: I’ve got to have a hard core (unlike that pill head Neely O’Hara) and learn to roll with the punches. ‘Cause as a one-man club promoter, believe me, in this business they come left, right and below the belt.

/ Booze party! Wild! Wild! Wild! /

Who knows why hardly anyone rocked up last month? January was buzzing! It could be peoples’ post-Christmas credit card debts started to bite? The cold weather was off-putting? The film club selection on 21 February was John Waters’ camp classic Hairspray (to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary – it was released in February 1988). In the past Waters’ trash epics have ensured full houses (previously we’ve screened Desperate Living and Female Trouble) and we anticipated Hairspray was a sentimental favourite that people would clamour to see on the big screen. Wrong! I wonder if the dreadful 2007 remake with John Travolta has tarnished the original’s reputation. Anyway, watching Hairspray again for the first time in many years I was struck by how sweet, funny, fresh and lovable it still is after all these years. Even if it proved to be an unpopular choice, I’m still glad we marked the occasion of Hairspray turning thirty!

It was a shame so few people came to the monthly Friday night booze party (I mean, dance party) two nights later, as it was one of those nights where the music flowed as effortlessly as snake venom. As well as February representing the anniversary of Lux Interior’s death, it also marked the birthday of The Cramps's eternally inscrutable co-founder and guitarist Poison Ivy (she turned 65 on 20 February 2018). Needless to say, I went heavy on The Cramps’ gravest hits to mark the occasion.

Caribbean Western - Lydia Lunch
Steel Pier - The Impacts
Surf Rat - The Rumblers
Bombora - The Original Surfaris
I Don't Need You No More - The Rumblers
Road Runner - The Fabulous Wailers
I'm Blue (The Gong-Gong Song) - The Ikettes
Train to Nowhere - The Champs
That's a Pretty Good Love - Big Maybelle
Uptown to Harlem - Johnny Thunders and Patti Palladin
No Good Lover - Mickey and Sylvia
What Do You Think I Am? Ike and Tina Turner
The Flirt - Shirley and Lee
I Love the Life I Live - Esquerita
Sweet Little Pussycat - Andre Williams
Scorpion - The Carnations
Kismiaz - The Cramps
Monkey Bird - The Revels
Taboo - The Shangaans
Adult Books - X
Fever - Edith Massey
I'm a Bad, Bad Girl - Little Esther
Little Miss Understood - Connie Stevens
I Wish I Were a Princess - Little Peggy March
Wipe-Out - The Escorts
Here Comes the Bug - The Rumblers
Be Bop A Lula - Alan Vega
Atomic Bongos - Lydia Lunch
Forming - The Germs
Garbage Man - The Cramps
Boss - The Rumblers
Pedro Pistolas Twist - Los Twisters
Your Phone's off the Hook - The Ramonetures
Year 1 - X
Cretin Hop - The Ramones
Strychnine - The Sonics
Deuces Wild - Link Wray
Touch the Leather - The Fat White Family
Yellow Submarine - Mrs Miller
How Does that Grab You, Darlin'? - Nancy Sinatra
Wailin' - The Fabulous Wailers
Woo-Hoo - The 5,6,7,8s
Ultra Twist - The Cramps
Twistin' the Night Away - Divine
My Way - Nina Hagen

Upcoming Lobotomy Room dates! 

Next film club is Wednesday 21 March 2018

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s (third Wednesday of every month) devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specialising in the kitsch, the cult and the queer!

This month we’re making it extra filthy and depraved – with a tribute to the fabulous Divine! Wednesday 21 March! Formerly known as Harris Glenn Milstead (19 October 1945 – 7 March 1988), Pope of Trash John Waters’ 300-pound drag queen leading lady of choice, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, disco singer, all-round freak diva extraordinaire and eternal role model for misfits everywhere died thirty years ago this month! And we’re commemorating this historic occasion with a screening of the glorious 2014 documentary I Am Divine

Doors to the Polynesian-style basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. Seating is limited: we can accommodate 30-35 people maximum. Arrive early to grab a seat and order a cocktail! I’ll be blasting Divine’s hi-NRG disco classicks LOUD before the film starts! Dressing up like Divine is highly encouraged and may win you a free cocktail!

Event page

NOTE! There won't be a Lobotomy Room club night last Friday of March because Fontaine's is being reserved for a private party. Instead, we will return on Friday 27 April 2018 with an exciting new cocktail menu! Details to follow.

Further reading:

Follow me on tumblr for all your kitsch, camp, retro vintage sleaze and fifties homoerotica needs!

Follow me on twitter!

"Like" and follow the official Lobotomy Room page on Facebook if you dare! 

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Reflections on ... episode 8 of Feud: Bette and Joan

/ Twilight of a queen: Joan Crawford's last-ever photo session, 1976.  Portrait by John Engstead / 

Episode 8 of Feud: You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?

Just some random thoughts, musings and reflections on re-visiting the insanely enjoyable Feud: Bette and Joan (2017) -  Ryan Murphy’s deluxe eight-part TV mini-series covering the rivalry between veteran screen queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) - on BBC2. (I originally watched Feud when it was first broadcast by FX in Spring 2017). You can read my earlier ramblings here and here. 

Feud: Bette and Joan truly reaches its zenith with episode eight. By this finale, even the most churlish contrarian would have to admit both Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are completely inhabiting Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It’s never been just about the physical resemblance, but at times the similarities (how Crawford’s and Davis’ coiffures and wardrobes are painstakingly simulated) are striking. The conclusion is awash with sadness, depicting Crawford and Davis coping with the travails of old age and exploring themes of abandonment, decline and death. It’s also a supreme weepie on a par with, say, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Both times I’ve watched this episode, it’s been through a veil of tears (embarrassingly, I wasn’t alone either time!).

It begins with Pauline (Robert Aldrich’s personal assistant) reminiscing in 1978 about her unexpected chance reunion with Crawford at LaGuardia airport, the final time she ever saw her. “She was wearing a Pepto pink dress and a mask of chalk-white foundation being wheeled through the airport with broken ankles, drunk …” seems a clear reference to the infamous 1968 clip of a frankly tipsy Joan giving an impromptu interview at an airport in a wheelchair. 

From there we cut to New York, 1969, with a wrenchingly melancholic montage of a lonely, noticeably older and frailer Crawford stoically adjusting to straitened circumstances and moving into a smaller and more modest Manhattan high-rise apartment, sound-tracked to “Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” (One caveat when I say “modest”: it’s a beautiful luxe apartment by any standards – but also an undeniable step down from Crawford’s previous Hollywood movie star dream mansion with the grand staircase and swimming pool. By this point, Pepsi had jettisoned Crawford from her lucrative spokeswoman position and her film career never recovered from the Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte debacle).

/ Crawford with Princess Lotus Blossom /

As The New York Times’ Sheila O’Malley notes, “the sequence goes on for some time, one evocative fragment after another, a poignant portrait of a woman slowly turning into a ghost.” We observe Crawford unpacking. Learning to heat quiche in the microwave. Answering fan mail. Eating dinner alone on a tray in front of the TV. (The evening news coverage of the Vietnam war depresses her). Wistfully looking at old photo albums while self-medicating with a tumbler of vodka. Trying and failing to zip herself into a green brocade dress, causing her to cancel lunch plans. Scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees wearing yellow rubber Marigold gloves. Taking possession of a new dog (the female Shiz Tzu Crawford would christen Princess Lotus Blossom – her last pet). Brushing her teeth and spitting vivid red blood into the avocado green sink (Crawford was indeed suffering from periodontal disease at this point). The return of the brusque Mamacita (“I will make myself available to you on a part-time basis”) amidst this relentless solitude comes as a blessed relief. Crawford embraces her tearfully and gratefully.

/ The return of Mamacita /

/ A portrait of Joan: 1959 photo by Eve Arnold /

Lange here has finally adopted the bright auburn hair colour that was mature, late-period Crawford’s trademark. Crawford’s pristine final apartment is also lovingly recreated: the egg yolk yellow, white and green décor (as described in Crawford’s book My Way of Life), with the ultra-kitsch big-eyed and idealized Margaret Keane portrait displayed above the plastic-covered couch.

/ Above: Feud's facsimile of Crawford's living room. Below: the genuine article. I am haunted by the Keane portrait! / 

The blood-spitting leads to a dentist scene. To the young dentist’s horror, Crawford explains that her dental problems are a result of having her six back molars removed years earlier to achieve her signature sunken cheekbones – a supposedly routine Hollywood procedure called “the Buccal”. She refuses his offer of dentures. When he cautions, “At your age you need to worry more about staying healthy than staying photogenic”, Crawford turns steely, snapping, “I’ll stop worrying about how I look when they dip me in formaldehyde.” As Nylon’s Dan Callahan notes, Crawford’s “highfalutin diction is at its frostiest” here.

(I’d long been familiar with the Buccal theory. From Penny Stalling’s gossip-y 1978 book Flesh and Fantasy: “The dramatic transformations that the stars underwent after arriving in Hollywood weren’t always due to lighting or cosmetic tricks. Both Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich had their backmost molars, top and bottom, extracted to create their high-cheekboned beauty.” I remember reading that passage to my mother as a kid and her dismissing it: people routinely get their top and bottom wisdom teeth removed and don’t wind up with killer cheekbones! The painstakingly-researched Concluding Chapter of Crawford blog definitively concludes Crawford never underwent the process)

When Crawford’s agent approaches her with the offer of a low-budget British independent horror film entitled The Missing Link, she jumps at the chance to work again. She’ll be playing a scientist! (“I had dreamed of playing Madame Curie”, Crawford purrs).  Arriving on the set in London for the movie (now re-titled Trog), she’s swiftly disenchanted with how just how threadbare and micro-budgeted this schlocky production is. Her dressing room is a dingy Volkswagen van too low for her stand up in. Her co-star is a wrestler wearing a furry ape mask. Perhaps understandably, we see Crawford washing-down pills with a slug from her vodka flask. It’s a degrading conclusion to Crawford’s distinguished film career. Lange movingly demonstrates Crawford’s valiant attempts to maintain her battered dignity and ladylike deportment.

/ Above: Crawford seeing her leading man in Trog for the first time / 

/ “I love people. I’ve been asked if I ever go around in disguise. Never! I think disguise is corny. If you’ve earned a position, be proud of it. Don’t hide it. I want to be recognized. When I hear people say, “There’s Joan Crawford!” I turn around and say, “Hi! How are you?” From My Way of Life (1972), Crawford’s ultra-kitsch, wildly impractical lifestyle manual on how to be a gracious, serene and enchanting wife, hostess and career bitch / 

I’m not sure about the veracity of the time frame, but Feud conflates the filming of Trog with Crawford dictating My Way of Life (her berserk 1971 volume of lifestyle, hostessing and beauty tips) into a tape recorder. Feud’s musical selections were frequently inspired: here the sense of doom is underlined with Jim Morrison of The Doors crooning the dirge-like “The End” while Crawford intones platitudes like “I mistrust people who don’t like animals” and “All the beauty products in the world can’t disguise a disagreeable expression”, the upbeat message painfully contrasted with her actual circumstances. In one spellbinding sequence, we see Crawford alone on the deserted set of Trog at night, pacing back and forth and seemingly in a trance. When she silently tries on Trog’s gorilla mask, the effect is eerie and sad. This is Joan Crawford unraveling.

/ The loving recreations of scenes from Trog. I've only ever seen Trog once - but that was at a special screening introduced by John Waters himself at The British Film Institute in 2015! And he interviewed the wrestler Joe Cornelius (Trog himself! The man behind the gorilla mask!) onstage. Read about it here /

The mortification continues at a book signing session to promote My Way of Life, when it becomes evident that a bratty and irreverent new generation of younger fans (especially the queer ones) have derisively embraced Crawford as a camp figure of fun. In an earlier episode of Feud, Davis had told Victor Buono that she was flattered when drag queens impersonated her in their nightclub acts. Crawford here sees that for an ageing diva, being a gay icon is a decidedly mixed blessing (just ask Tallulah Bankhead).  Always hyper-alert to any sign of ridicule, Crawford hisses, “These people aren’t buying the book for my advice. They’re buying it to mock me.” She’s haughtily affronted when a kittenish blond twink asks her to autograph a Baby Jane photo. Why did it have to be that film, she demands. He tries to backpedal by saying he loves What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? because Blanche and Jane are “survivors.” Crawford abruptly stands up and storms out, trailed by Mamacita: “What do you know about survival?”

Later, Crawford is crestfallen when she sees an unflattering paparazzi pic of herself with Rosalind Russell in the newspaper: “Is that really how I look? Then they’ve seen the last of me”.  (This incident genuinely happened: Crawford had hosted a party in honour of her friend Russell at New York’s Rainbow Room in 1974. It was indeed her last public appearance). Over the phone she instructs her manager to take her name off the books: no more film appearances. “I’m done.” Crawford would withdraw from public life, remaining a recluse until her 1977 death.

Bette Davis, meanwhile is still acting, but struggling and in inexorable decline. Having lowered her standards to keep employed, Davis’ career is reduced to making mediocre, unsuccessful TV pilots that don’t get picked-up. Sarandon is frankly magnificent as the abrasive, raspy-voiced, chain-smoking and imperious monstre sacree Davis, complete with the 1970s tunics, turtle-neck sweaters and big owlish smoked-brown spectacles. This dragon lady incarnation of Davis is the one I remember from TV interviews growing up.

/ Roger Ebert recalling his interview with Davis just before her death: "In the grand style of a movie queen holding court, Miss Davis delivers pronouncements. She speaks in periods and exclamation points, punching out brief, emphatic statements. When she talks, she is always listening to herself talking, constantly monitoring and editing herself, like an actress directing her own performance." Sarandon absolutely captures this terse, theatrical quality. /

/ Bette Davis' 1973 celebrity roast (above) and Feud's recreation (below) /

Davis furiously rages to Victor Buono (Feud portrays him as Davis’ primary confidant) that Kate Hepburn is scoring all the choice roles for older actresses, while she’s left with the humiliating scraps. She then recounts a painful anecdote: Life magazine had recently invited Hepburn to pose with Davis for a special dual portrait – and Hepburn refused. Davis was stung by the rejection – and the realization that Hepburn felt superior to her (“Am I not every bit her equal?” she rails, blinking back tears). In an ideal world, the experience should have given Davis some insight into how she’d made Crawford feel in the past. There’s nothing to indicate Davis made that connection. (By the way: in real life the proposed Davis-Hepburn Life photo shoot was later than Feud implies. It happened in the eighties, not the seventies).

In a previous blog post, I erroneously claimed that Feud repeatedly shows Crawford visiting elite Hollywood cocktail bar and restaurant Perino’s but not Davis, even though in real life Davis was a regular there. I stand corrected! Episode 8 shows a strained and miserable reunion between Davis and her daughter BD in a booth at Perino’s. In a foreshadowing of BD Hyman’s 1985 tell-all book My Mother's Keeper, the frankly-disapproving BD instructs Davis she can longer see her grandchildren without “supervision” and that she needs to address her “drinking problem.” Davis is aghast: “Since when do you think I'm a drunk?” “You’re sitting right there with a margarita,” BD replies, “At 11 am!”

Further evidence of Davis’ dissipation is provided next with a doctor’s appointment that echoes Crawford’s dentist scene. Sarandon had earlier looked too glamorous as 1960s Davis: here she is properly haggard, unflatteringly bewigged, complete with a hacking cough and wheezing asthmatic laugh. The decades of heavy chain-smoking have caught up with her (Davis famously smoked up to a hundred cigarettes a day).  The sympathetic female doctor implores her to quit, to go into rehab. “I’m off booze. I can’t give up smoking. They’re my only friends.” (If cigarettes are your “only friends”, you urgently need to reassess your life). Davis is smoking openly in her doctor’s office during her check-up in this sequence, which is no exaggeration. Vanity Fair has described how in real life Davis would even light up at the dentist’s – she was far too scary to be stopped. (Thank god she didn’t live to see the smoking ban). Feud seemingly suggests Davis’ brand of choice was Lucky Strikes. In fact, she smoked Vanguards. (Crawford smoked Alpines. I assume both brands are now long-defunct?). 

Davis has an awful experience making a made-for-TV biopic about Depression-era evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson starring the notoriously temperamental Faye Dunaway. (The Disappearance of Aimee, 1976). By all accounts the two women clashed. Davis had long wished to portray “Sister Aimee” herself. By the 1970s, she was reduced to playing McPherson’s mother in a secondary role. By comparison, even Davis has to begrudgingly admit that Dunaway’s chronic lateness and tantrums make Crawford seem like an easy-going paragon of virtue.

When Buono tells Davis that Crawford is dying of cancer, she tries to make light of it with a flippant joke: “Cancer isn’t going to kill Joan. She’s a cockroach just like me.” The perceptive Buono points out, “She may be the only person in the entire world who really knows how you feel right now.” Later, we see Davis phone Crawford, but chicken-out and hang up without speaking when Crawford answers. This incident is probably Feud’s invention, but Sarandon’s darting, expressive eyes are genuinely heartbreaking.

/ "This is Joan Crawford speaking ..." /

One of Crawford’s adopted twin daughters (Cathy) visits with her children. Crawford is relaxed about her grandchildren rough-housing in her immaculate apartment: in this regard at least, the control freak has finally mellowed in old age. Cathy cautiously refers to the rumoured book in the pipeline by Crawford’s estranged older adopted daughter, Christina. It’s fascinating to think Crawford already knew about the existence of Mommie Dearest prior to her death. Crawford acknowledges she already knows the book is “alleging the most vile things” and admits she was hard on Christina growing up: “I only wanted her to appreciate her advantages.” (This is one more thing Crawford and Davis shared: their daughters both wrote explosive “misery memoirs” about their mothers). Then comes one of Jessica Lange’s finest moments: in a hopeful tone, she hesitantly asks Cathy, “Do they think of me as their real grandmother?” When Cathy replies, “Of course”, Lange’s eyes brim with tears of gratitude and relief

For many viewers, the dream-like sequence that follows – the dying Crawford’s hallucinatory “party scene” – represents Feud’s artistic pinnacle. Sound-tracked to the The Flamingos’ doo-wop classic “I Only Have Eyes for You”, Crawford stumbles from her bed late at night into the living room and is suddenly reunited with the specters of her chief tormentors: Hedda Hopper, Jack Warner and Bette Davis, looking exactly as they did in the early 1960s. They are formally dressed and playing cards by candle light, wielding cigarettes and martinis. Walking into the frame, Crawford herself is suddenly transformed from grey-haired ailing crone in a nightie into a glamorous decades-younger manifestation of herself sheathed in a satin gown. Davis – back in Margo Channing mode – is unexpectedly sympathetic towards her. “Tell them what they did to you, Joan.”  Crawford responds with a regretful, heartbreaking soliloquy about the emotional cost of her devotion to movie stardom. “I suppose I felt like I always had to be “on”. If someone caught a glimpse of the girl beneath the movie star – poof! – I’d go back to the sad little wretch I’d been. I spent my whole life being Joan Crawford. A woman I created for others. I don’t know who I am when I’m by myself.”

Warner and Hopper vanish, leaving Davis and Crawford alone. “Why am I so happy to see you?” Crawford marvels. “Nostalgia,” Davis replies. In a bit of wish fulfillment, the duo finally manages to bond and have the conversation they always should have had. They apologize to each other, Davis telling Crawford, “I wish I’d been a friend to you.” Crawford’s face (well, Lange’s face) glows with undisguised pleasure. “It’s not too late!” Crawford exclaims. But it is. She calls for Mamacita to bring a celebratory bottle of champagne for them to share. The arrival of the actual Mamacita snaps Crawford out of her reverie. (“There’s no one else here – it’s just you and I”). It had all been a dream; Crawford is a grey-haired wraith again. Crawford died one week later. Mamacita tells the documentary filmmaker of her sadness that Crawford’s funeral was full and star-studded, but when she’d been alive “when she needed them most, no one was there.”

A journalist phones Davis for her comment on Crawford’s death. Davis famously responds, “My mother always said don’t say anything bad about the dead. Only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” It’s a pithy – if heartless - quote which will look snappy in print, but once Davis hangs up, Sarandon’s eyes are filled with remorse. (Davis herself would die in 1989).

We next see Davis visiting her disabled daughter Margo in the institution. Combing the silent Margo’s hair, the hard-boiled Davis seems able to let down her defenses and admit to loneliness and hurt. She describes the handsome young artist Don Bachardy drawing her portrait. Davis attempts to flirt with him. Bachardy tells her he’s gay (in real life he was Christopher Isherwood’s long-term boyfriend). She’s further dejected to see how aged she looks in his unsparing drawing. It’s a reminder: that’s not just what she looks like, that’s how he sees her. “Yep. That’s the old bag,” Davis sighs.

/ Above: Don Bachardy's sketch of Davis. Interestingly, he also did Crawford's portrait too /

Even worse, Davis has discovered a cache of her late mother’s old letters to a friend. The contents are deeply wounding, making Davis question her mother’s love. She’d written that “that I was a queen bee – that I was selfish and a pain and a chore. “

Finally, the action catches up to the present day: the Oscars ceremony in 1978, where Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell have been being interviewed by the documentary filmmakers. Backstage, Davis, de Havilland and Blondell silently watch Crawford honoured as one of the Hollywood luminaries who’d died that year. Sarandon’s face is a mask of mixed emotions. When the documentarian asks Davis to speak for his film, she refuses.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the action cuts from 1978 back to 1961 and the first day of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’s production. It feels like an alternate universe where Crawford and Davis are relaxed and at ease together, laughing on the set in their canvas director’s chairs. Picking up her knitting, Crawford tells Davis, “Here’s what I really hope from this picture when all is said and done. I hope I’ve made a new friend.” Smiling, Davis replies, “Me too.” It’s a glimpse of what could have been.

Feud wasn’t perfect: it frequently laid-on its arguments about Davis and Crawford as casualties of Hollywood’s sexism and ageism with a trowel. The unconvincing 1978-set "present day" scenes with Oliva de Havilland and Joan Blondell being interviewed by a documentary crew existed purely to provide exposition. (Just think: if Murphy had skipped those, he wouldn’t now be facing Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit!). And the central thesis that Crawford and Davis’ enmity was somehow manipulated by outside forces rings false. Both were fiercely competitive, temperamental and prickly and both had lengthy histories of clashing with directors and co-stars long before they worked together in the sixties. Think of Davis' skirmishes with Errol Flynn and especially Miriam Hopkins in the thirties and forties (not to mention Faye Dunaway in the seventies). Or Crawford with Norma Shearer in the thirties or Mercedes McCambridge during the making of Johnny Guitar.  Of course, once they encountered each other, there would be an inevitable struggle for dominance. Feuding was in their DNA!

With all due regards to Bette Davis and Susan Sarandon, perhaps Feud’s greatest legacy is the restoration of Joan Crawford’s image. (Davis never required any rehabilitation in the first place). Without ever sugar-coating her wrath, her neuroses or her messy alcoholism, the collaboration of Ryan Murphy and Jessica Lange humanized Crawford, presenting her as a deeply flawed but compelling anti-heroine, and hopefully banishing the shoulder-padded, wire hanger-wielding Mommie Dearest caricature forever. In Feud, we see a Crawford who lived with an unswerving commitment to glamour, almost militaristic in its discipline. That devotion to artifice and appearance can make someone appear foolish, tragic, make you catnip to gays and ensure you kitsch cult status. But there’s also something noble – even heroic - about it.

At its best, with its powerful and complex female protagonists, conflicts, confrontations, torrents of emotional torment and lush jewel-toned look, Feud invoked the same deeply satisfying, cathartic vein of melodrama as Crawford’s and Davis’ own Golden Age Hollywood “women’s pictures.” As Dan Callahan in Nylon concluded, “surely on that honest tearjerker level, Feud: Bette and Joan is a series that Bette and Joan themselves would have appreciated.”