“We were two different types entirely. I can’t think of a single part I played that Joan could do. Not one. Can you?”
– Bette Davis
I was almost late to the party.
I’ve never been much of a TV watcher. No longer a cable subscriber, I cut the cord last year and embarked on an Internet television adventure. At first it was a bit disconcerting and laborious, having to “program” my own entertainment. I struggled to find my way through a mire with B-level and C-level channel content, combined with standalone pay-per-view premium options. But once I got used to being in charge of my viewing destiny, I quit whining and began to navigate the webby waters using my old TV career strategy of checking out the trades first for network and cable launches and then adding them to my searches and feeds.
This is how I stumbled upon Feud: Bette and Joan. I was reading a short piece in Variety announcing that FX was launching a new series, the first featuring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The show would focus on their time spent filming the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and continue until Joan’s death. Ryan Murphy, creator, is the driving force behind this and all the hot new shows that I have seen clips of but never actually explored.
Now I’m intrigued.
(And in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that Bette Davis and I share a birthday. So I’m already biased).
Watching the pilot as part of an internet channel promotion, I must say, I was initially a bit underwhelmed. The story centers around the ongoing professional and personal battles between the two Hollywood legends. Much is made in Feud of Bette and Joan’s rivalry against the backdrop of women’s limited opportunities in Tinsel Town, how they were pitted against each other by the studios and the ways in which they survived.
Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis eyes make her an obvious casting choice. And Bette herself even thought so, asking Susan early in her career to play her at some point. Jessica Lange, as much as I love her acting, seemed less of a natural fit. She wasn’t angular enough, her makeup and eyebrows not as extreme as Joan’s were in real life. Forgetting Faye Dunaway’s operatic portrayal in Mommy Dearest for a minute, Lange, by contrast, didn’t have the same kind of authority in her face that Crawford held onscreen. From what I could hear, she sounded like Jessica, not Joan. It was also strange that while Sarandon may have nailed the physical characteristics on the surface, thanks to good genes and a great plastic surgeon, at 70 she looks too young to play the hard-drinking, chain-smoking Bette who was at the time a couple of decades younger. Couldn’t they have aged her up a bit? She also didn’t do “The Voice”; I mean, if you are going to be Bette Davis, isn’t that one of her most distinctive traits outside her bug-eyed demeanor?
It was unsettling; I didn’t want to watch two actresses I love fail at playing two actresses I love. So I wasn’t convinced I wanted to follow Feud: Bette and Joan into the FX sunset. Still, I loved the premise so I loaded up an unused Christmas iTunes gift card I was saving for something special and decided to take a leap of faith and purchase the full mini-series. Maybe iTunes would provide a refund if it didn’t deliver.
Thankfully, the subsequent eight episodes of Feud: Bette and Joan did not disappoint. I couldn’t wait to download an episode each week on my MacBook Pro.
Frothy & Filling
After working several years for a company that produced Emmy-winning graphic design for television, I predict that the opening sequence of Feud: Bette and Joan is about to win some awards. It is that effective and compelling, exquisitely setting the tone for the whole show.
As the story builds, the audience is gently rewarded by an installment of splendid storytelling, lush cinematography, candy-colored decadent sets, camp and just plain old binge-worthy dishy fun. And as Bette and Joan (Susan and Jessica, respectively) start to do their ‘thing’ it all begins to come to life. The casting suddenly makes sense. Jessica has gained a few pounds more than Joan would have carried, but her eyebrows grow in size and stature as the series progresses. What makes her performance special is that her Joan Crawford shines more light into Joan’s humanity and deeply disturbing childhood. Susan’s portrayal is a flat-out refusal to impersonate – until she gets the opportunity to snap and fight. Then all the mannerisms come flowing out of her as she spits out an accent and clips her words in a way that needs no reminder of the titan actress she is playing.
Feud is frothy and filling..different writers and different directors contribute, some more dramatically than others. Although Episode 5 highlights the arc of the story, fellow Oscar winner Helen Hunt ‘s direction of Episode 7 is easily one of the best.
The supporting cast members are no slouches either. Judy Davis, playing Hedda Hopper (whom I just watched chew scenery in the kooky indie The Dressmaker), tries hard and it shows. Then there are characters you learn about that have a lot of influence but likely didn’t a lot of visibility, such as Mamacita and Bob Aldrich. Stanley Tucci’s devilish Jack Warner, twisting his dastardly moustache, speaks for the entire movie industry’s misogyny. I’m not sure why she is a talking head, but Kathy Bates gives a decent portrayal of the brassy Joan Blondell. The girl playing Bette’s daughter B.D. is sufficiently bland and spoiled enough so you can see how Bette lost control of her early on by treating her as an adult. And let’s not forget the man playing Victor Buono, little known young British actor Dominic Burgess.
Scary good with mad acting skills…he actually made me remember watching the original What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. And not in a good way.
My only quibble was with Catherine Zeta Jones (I know I’m not alone because I’ve seen the reviews). Sorry, but Catherine has way too much sex appeal to play Olivia de Havilland convincingly. And she, unlike all the others, never aged throughout the series. This might have been deliberate, maybe a fun choice for the writers, but it honestly felt just weird.
Karma is a Bitch
My understanding is that Ryan Murphy intended the plot points in Feud: Bette and Joan as commentary on how opportunities and roles for women in Hollywood have both changed and remained the same. It’s also about missed opportunities: Two powerful women, at the expense of their petty egos and professional jealousy, drive their own downward spiraling destinies.
In my mind, however, this feud boiled down to choices. Karmically, there’s a good reason why Olivia de Havilland is still kicking it in Paris at 100 years old. She wisely bowed out of the game gracefully, leaving no blood and all goodwill behind to pursue the rest of her life, as valuable as any movie career. By contrast, the series illustrates how the choices that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford made in life, relationships and movies affected not just their lives, but the lives of everyone they were supposed to love. And as Feud: Bette and Joan shows us, this turns out to be the most fascinating plot point of all.