Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Reflections on ... episodes 1-4 of Feud: Bette and Joan

Just some random thoughts, musings and reflections on re-visiting the first four episodes of 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 (above) 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).

/ Above: the real Bette Davis, Jack Warner and Joan Crawford at press conference announcing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? /

/ Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) in Feud /

First two episodes: Sui Generis and The Other Woman

The costumes and set design (by Judy Becker, who also designed the mid-century look of Todd Haynes’ film Carol) are glorious. Any time one of the characters click-on a pair of severe vintage cat’s eye sunglasses, I involuntarily gasp. Even the food is immaculately retro: when Crawford and Davis dine at gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s, Davis kvetches, “Fish Jell-o?” (Hopper corrects her: it’s salmon in aspic. Or “en gelée” as I prefer). As you can see from the photo above of Bette Davis, Jack Warner and Joan Crawford at the press conference announcing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? some of the outfits have been meticulously recreated. I especially love Crawford’s palatial cream-and-turquoise Hollywood mansion with the cherry tree, the Chinese interior motifs and the white grand piano in the living room. Like any self-respecting diva, she has an ultra-flattering glamorous portrait of herself (complete with museum lighting) above the mantelpiece. 

Davis addresses Crawford as “Lucille”. (Crawford’s real name was Lucille Fay LeSueur). Was that true? In the Hollywood film community, did people routinely call Crawford “Lucille” – or was that Davis’ way of undermining her? On film sets, was Cary Grant referred to as "Archie" or Marilyn Monroe as "Norma Jean"?

Exemplary, stylish use of atmospheric period music on the soundtrack: Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Perry Como, Sarah Vaughan, Brenda Lee, Paul Anka, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, “Wives and Lovers” by Jack Jones.

Feud freely takes liberties with (or "streamlines") the facts or at least chronology for maximum dramatic impact and greater psychological truth. For example: in episode one we first encounter a drunken Crawford in 1961 at the Golden Globe awards silently seething with resentment as a gold lamé-clad Marilyn Monroe shimmies past her onto the stage to accept an award. (No one seethes with drunken resentment quite like Jessica Lange). This incident did happen, but much earlier – at the 1953 Photoplay Awards when red-hot newcomer Monroe won the Rising Star award and earned Crawford’s disapproval. But who can blame Ryan Murphy for shuffling the time frame around for his own narrative purposes? In episode one, this scene perfectly establishes how sidelined and embittered Crawford felt at the time. 

/ "Hebrews and Sodomites, greetings!” / 

In episode one we see a fleeting glimpse of director Robert Aldrich working on a tacky “sword-and-sandals” Biblical epic, which is meant to represent the mortifying nadir of his career. (Like Davis and Crawford, he is also desperate for a comeback pre-Baby Jane). This film was in fact 1962’s Sodom and Gomorrah (also known as The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah) – and as far as these things go, it’s not half bad! I enjoyed it when I watched it several years ago. (It used to be available on YouTube). I liked its camp value, but perhaps mainly because of the presence of exquisite, inscrutable French actress Anouk Aimee as the depraved villainess Bera, Queen of Sodom. For a film of its time, it’s surprisingly overt about Bera’s lesbianism (she is always surrounded by an all-female entourage and appreciatively ogles belly-dancers and pretty slave girls). When people write about the history of LGBTQ representation in Golden Age Hollywood films, how come Sodom and Gomorrah never rates a mention? Aimee spoke perfectly fine French-accented English but weirdly, Aldrich opted to have her dialogue dubbed by an American actress. And – as a coincidence – with her dark eyebrows and sculpted cheekbones, doesn’t Aimee slightly resemble a young Joan Crawford?

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange were justifiably praised for their performances as Davis and Crawford when Feud premiered on FX in March 2017, but watching it again so should be the supporting actresses Judy Davis (malevolent gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) and Jackie Hoffman (Crawford’s ultra-efficient German maid Mamacita). Watch Davis’ perfectly-judged split-second horrified reaction when Lange complains about the pressures of stardom and breezily tells her, “You’re so lucky you weren’t successful as an actress.” And Hoffman’s deadpan Teutonic line delivery: telling the gardeners impatient to get paid, “It’s an honour to trim Miss Crawford’s bush.”

/ The long-suffering Mamacita with Miss Joan /

Vanity Fair vividly describes Lange’s tremulous, frequently drunk, almost operatic Joan Crawford as “a booze-saturated, violently wilted flower” and “a volatile hurricane, an addled tragedy in a musty dress.” Someone else (I forget who) described Lange’s representation of Crawford as almost being like a Tennessee Williams character, which raises the intriguing question: imagine if Joan Crawford had ever played a Tennessee Williams role! What would Crawford have been like as Violet Venable in Suddenly Last Summer (1959) instead of Katharine Hepburn? Or as Karen Stone in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961) instead of Vivien Leigh? It’s also, of courses, fascinating to compare Lange’s Crawford with Faye Dunaway’s berserk Kabuki representation of her in Mommie Dearest (1981).

Sarandon’s portrayal of Davis is more dialed-down and lower-key. (In interviews Sarandon was insistent she deliberately avoided slipping into a Bette Davis impersonation). I happened to love Sarandon's interpretation of Davis - some found it underwhelming. She nicely captures Davis’ flat-footed waddling walk, low-slung bosom, gimlet-eyed stare, clipped speech patterns and innate blunt, emotionally direct toughness. Within Feud Davis is depicted as relatively sane, level-headed and stable in comparison to Crawford. In real terms, Davis was probably just as much of a frequently hard-drinking and temperamental holy terror as Crawford, just in a different way. For example: we see a glimpse of Davis onstage in 1961 as Maxine in a stage production of Tennessee Williams’ play Night of the Iguana (the role Ava Gardner would later play onscreen). Read any Tennessee Williams biography and it’s well-documented that Davis was an absolute nightmare to deal with, loathed by the cast and crew for her spoiled movie star antics. (This is the single best profile of Davis I've ever read. It gives a real sense of what a difficult, tormented woman she would have been off-screen).

/ Above: Bette Davis onstage in Night of the Iguana /

Davis was 53 during the making of Baby Jane. Sarandon was 71 when she played her. And yet Sarandon throughout looks considerably younger and more glamorous than the defiantly, unapologetically frumpy middle-aged Davis. (Even made up as Baby Jane Hudson with the ringleted little girl wig and chalky white powder, Sarandon never matches Davis’ grotesquery in the role). Who Sarandon really resembles is Tallulah Bankhead. (The makers of Feud seem to have decided that the Davis of 1961 should resemble Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) – who was overtly based on Bankhead).

/ Above: the dissolute Tallulah Bankhead /

Episode 3: Mommie Dearest

/ Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford holding court at Perino's /

Feud repeatedly shows the luxe Art Deco cocktail lounge and restaurant Perino’s in Los Angeles (now long defunct) as one of Crawford’s frequent haunts. But would Crawford really have gone there accompanied by her housekeeper Mamacita to drink Martinis? (Perino’s also featured in the 1981 film Mommie Dearest. In one scene after Louis B Meyer takes her to dinner there, an enraged Crawford fumes, “Perino’s is my place!”). Interestingly, I don’t think Feud ever depicts Davis there, but in real life she was a habitué of Perino’s and maintained her own permanently-reserved personal booth. Perino’s closed in 1986, was razed in 2005 and is now the location of an apartment complex.

“I’ve always been a strict disciplinarian. Some people perhaps find I’ve been too strict, especially with my first two, Christina and Christopher …” There’s something ballsy about how Feud directly tackles the legacy of Mommie Dearest in this episode. Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina Crawford’s tell-all misery memoir came out in 1978. The notorious film adaptation starring Faye Dunaway followed in 1981. One of the most positive aspects of Feud is how Murphy and Lange rehabilitate and humanize Crawford as a complex, tragic and flawed figure. Mommie Dearest no longer has the last word.

The sequence where Davis and Crawford temporarily bury the hatchet long enough to have drinks alone together after work and really let their hair down is a high point of the entire series. This would never have happened in real life - these highly competitive sworn enemies confiding in each other about their relationships with their mothers and their children, their childhoods and their sex lives over cocktails? (Crawford shocks Davis by admitting she lost her virginity to her stepfather aged 11. Davis waited until she was 27 on her honeymoon). And yet who could quibble when the scene is so beautifully written, acted and directed, effortlessly cramming-in several biographies worth of info about the two women and their lives?

Kiernan Shipka (aka Sally Draper from Mad Men) co-stars as Davis’ teenage daughter BD Hyman. The inexperienced, non-professional Hyman wound up in a supporting role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as the neighbour’s adolescent daughter – and she was a notoriously inept actress. Re-watch Hyman in Baby Jane and Shipka only hints at just how outrageously sub-Edward D Wood Jr-level bad Hyman is in her few brief scenes. The constant eye-rolling! Aldrich actually compensates by cutting away from Hyman while she speaks! I loved Sarandon’s blankly horrified reaction as it dawns on her just how incompetent BD is, and her later motherly attempts to reassure her with tactful faint praise. “You spoke clearly. You hit your marks. You didn’t look into the lens once – not once!”

/ The real BD Hyman and Davis /

Davis and Crawford clash when Davis complains that she was “robbed” for not winning Best Actress in 1950 for All About Eve.  “It was Gloria Swanson who was robbed in 1950, not you, bitch!” Lange shrieks, her voice dramatically swooping on you. Sheila O’Malley in The New York Times: “Lange catapults her voice up into the stratosphere, with the final words elongated into a near-operatic screech. It’s such a bizarre and brilliant choice, the hugeness of expression matching the hugeness of the emotion.”

“That face right into camera. This really is a horror picture!” Crawford watching Davis film that famous Baby Jane shot of her applying lipstick straight into the the camera is if facing a mirror. Below: the genuine article. 

Davis showing maternal concern for gay Baby Jane co-star Victor Buono. “All the queens love me!” she proudly declares, acknowledging, “I only really knew I’d made it when the female impersonators started doing me in their acts.” It’s probably true that Davis was already a cult figure amongst queers by the early sixties alongside Judy Garland and Tallulah Bankhead. Buono asks her to do the “What a dump!” line from Beyond the Forest and she obliges. Buono to Davis: “I think it’s so admirable the way you’ve embraced my tribe.”

Insight beyond Davis’ hard-boiled veneer:  we witness her private guilt and anguish over her disabled daughter Margo, who lives in an institution. One of Davis’ pressures to keep working – even when the good roles have dried-up – is to continue paying the bills for Margo’s special school.

Crawford also has some wrenchingly sad moments. “The mad rush that was once my life … all you’re left with is yourself” she laments to Mamacita as she mourns her twin daughters leaving home for boarding school, the death of her husband (Pepsi magnate Alfred Steele) and the decline of her acting career. Later, we see Crawford attempting to adopt another baby. When the she is refused (“You’re simply too old”), Crawford responds like the words are a slap across the face. (Lange excels at wordless moments like these).

/ Below: might the design of Crawford's ultra-glamorous boudoir in Feud have been influenced by ...

... Joan Crawford in Queen Bee? (1955) /

“All those years of alcohol abuse have exacted a terrible price …” Crawford unkindly says to Hedda Hopper about her ravaged co-star Davis.

Funniest moment: Crawford and Mamacita are on location at the beach for Baby Jane’s climactic finale. “It’s warm, Mamacita. I’m going to need my water standing by.” By this point the alcoholic Crawford has been seen repeatedly availing herself of her secret flask of vodka. Mamacita warily asks, “Which water?”

Episode 4: More or Less

/ Lange recreating an iconic moment as Crawford in Baby Jane /

The episode mainly explores the indignities and vagaries of fame when stardom is on the wane. (Baby Jane was yet to be released; advance word anticipated it would flop). Feud is at its least engaging when it imposes its present-day feminist theme too heavy-handedly, overly eager to cast Davis and Crawford as casualties of Hollywood misogyny and ageism. (The other weakest aspect: the sequences with Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland reminiscing). In this episode, we see the fictional character of Aldrich’s assistant Pauline – an aspiring director – stymied by industry sexism.

Aldrich’s next film after Baby Jane was the 1963 rat-pack Western 4 for Texas. Feud captures what an arrogant prick that movie's prima donna leading man Frank Sinatra was. It gradually dawns on Aldrich that sure, Davis and Crawford were difficult, demanding and needy, but paragons of professionalism compared to Sinatra’s bullying man-child tantrums.

My personal highlights:  Crawford’s angry meeting with her agents at the William Morris agency deliberately echoes the scene in Mommie Dearest where Faye Dunaway rages at the Pepsi executives (“Don’t fuck with me, fellas!”). A nice touch.

Mamacita vacuuming the spectacular grand staircase to the strains of Gene Pitney’s “Town without Pity.”

When a distraught Crawford wails, “It’s just like 1937 all over again.” Mamacita replies, “When Hitler took Austria?” Crawford (ever the self-absorbed film diva): “No, when they labelled me box office poison.”

Davis on The Andy Williams show warbling her outrageously campy Chubby Checker-inspired novelty twist song in powder-blue pleated chiffon. What a bonanza of camp! No wonder the queers of 1962 had already embraced Davis as their queen! Watch how Sarandon lovingly recreates every swirling arm gesture and grimace.

/ Update! Read my analysis of episodes 5-7 of Feud here /

1 comment:

  1. "Insanely enjoyable" really sums it up!

    And while I'm here, one of my favourite Bette Davis quotes is “I wouldn’t piss on her [Joan Crawford] if she was on fire.”