Feud: Bette and Joan offers delicious camp

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After hitting it big on FX with American Horror Story and American Crime Story, Ryan Murphy has introduced a new anthology show focusing on famous feuds. Confident in the format, a future season has been planned focusing on Price Charles and Lady Di. But the inaugural season kicks off with one of the most legendary feuds in Hollywood history: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two of the brightest stars of the 1930s and 1940s who saw their celebrity dim as they began to age out of the roles they had become famous for, finding it difficult to be cast an anything but grandmothers and gorgons, as Crawford so aptly put it. And neither star was ready to see themselves as anything but their past selves so they were certainly to blame for their difficulties in finding work (not that the studios, who offered them terrible scripts, were innocent).

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The new series, Feud: Bette and Joan opens with Crawford, played by Jessica Lange in her triumphant return to the Murphy fold, short on cash and desperate to work in the aftermath of her husband’s sudden passing. She had happily given up Hollywood when her Pepsi mogul hubby could offer her the moon, but with him gone, she no longer had his steady income to rely on. She’s even two months behind on paying her groundskeepers, but her housekeeper Mamacita tells them it’s an honor to trim Miss Crawford’s bushes. Disappointed with every lousy script her manager sends, she begins poring over book after book to find the right property and then Mamacita recommends “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”

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Meanwhile, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) has been relegated to third billing in a Broadway show with a cast of three when Crawford shows up unexpectedly with an offer. Bette is too good for the material she’s working with but this book can be their big return to the silver screen, and it will finally give them a chance to work together. Director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) has also fallen on hard times in Hollywood with major studios unwilling to work with a director who sleeps with his leading ladies, and after meeting with Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) — who has blacklisted Davis from his studio because of a thirty year old lawsuit she filed to get out of her contract — Aldrich offers to pay him first, all he needs is Warner to distribute the film.

The deal is made, the two stars make nice for the cameras when signing their contracts but that is just the beginning of the tension between the two as Crawford discovers Davis is getting $600 a week more than she, not to mention top billing because she’s playing the title character. While the two stars are butting heads even before filming begins, Davis pays a visit to Crawford’s dressing room and actually tells Joan that when she works hard, she’s at the top of her game, a compliment that nearly brings Crawford to tears. All she ever wanted from Davis was that acknowledgment of her talent, something that had been simmering in Crawford since she congratulated Davis on her Oscar win, but when Crawford won for Mildred Pierce, Davis never bothered to return the compliment.

All seems well as Crawford begins filming her first shot, and then Davis makes her grand entrance dolled up in the iconic Baby Jane makeup, upstaging Crawford yet again. It’s only going to go downhill from here, folks, but in the most delicious way possible.

The Davis/Crawford feud was legendary in Hollywood, and the show is basically told in flashback as celebrities and friends of the actresses relate the story for a documentary. Catherine Zeta-Jones fills in nicely for Olivia De Havilland (Davis’ co-star in Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte who is still with us at the age of 100), Davis’ longtime friend, and Kathy Bates take on the role of Crawford’s buddy Joan Blondell. Judy Davis also appears as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who will get to the core of the feud even if she has to make it up herself (neither of the ladies are going to give her what she wants, but Crawford does offer a few choice words about Marilyn Monroe).

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While the drama behind the making of the classic Gothic horror film is certain to be juicy, the entire show rests on the estimable shoulders of Lange and Sarandon. When first hearing of their casting, I assumed the actresses would be playing the opposite roles. I’m not sure if the casting was right but the pair are making the most of their roles … or at least Lange is. Sarandon is fine, and I loved the moment when Davis comes off stage and someone has a lit cigarette and a cocktail at hand for her. But does she even try to sounds like Davis, who had a very distinctive voice? Was that by choice that she eschewed that trait so it didn’t just come across as an impression of the actress? It takes one who is familiar with Davis a bit out of the story. It doesn’t help that at time Sarandon looks more like Tallulah Bankhead than Davis, but once she puts on the Baby Jane fright makeup at the end, it finally clicks.

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Lange, who really looks nothing like Crawford, is terrific. At times she even sounds like Faye Dunaway doing Crawford in Mommie Dearest, but she really makes Crawford the more sympathetic character, especially after how she was portrayed by Dunaway. Her Crawford is a strong woman, not a bitch though, who loves her craft and wants to work. She knows she’s better than the material she’s given (and I loved the mention of one of my favorite Crawford films Autumn Leaves) but her belief in herself was also her downfall because strong women were only seen as “difficult” at that time, and should be grateful for the parts they’re given. Whereas the Crawford of Mommie Dearest was an unhinged monster, Lange’s Crawford is misunderstood and under-appreciated. It will be interesting to see over the course of this eight-episode season how balanced the story is between the two women, or if Davis will end up with the short end of the stick (and considering the two were signed to do another movie together from which Davis had Crawford fired, I’d say Davis will end up being the monster this time).

Feud is handsomely produced with wonderful period production design, and filled with a cast of big screen pros who make occasional forays into television. The story is gripping, especially for old movie buffs, and is claimed by Murphy to be based on time he spent with Miss Davis when he was younger (a short meeting he was to have with her turned into a four hour visit, where she supposedly dished to him about Crawford and the making of the movie). We’ll have to take his word for it. In any case, the performances are wonderful and the script is juicy, witty, campy at times and a bit profane (they can drop F-bombs and say the forbidden C-word on commercial cable television now?). And even though most of us know how this story ends, it’s going to be a fun ride getting to the finish line.

 

The Other Woman | Season 1 Ep. 2 Trailer | FEUD: Bette and Joan

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FEUD: Bette and Joan Season 1

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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 50th Anniversary (BD) [Blu-ray]

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Mildred Pierce (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

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Joan Crawford in the 1950s (Harriet Craig / Queen Bee / Autumn Leaves / The Story of Esther Costello)

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