My Feud with FEUD

Special guest post by Jeff Lundenberger @jlundenberger

My Feud with Feud

When the ads for Feud: Bette and Joan began to appear I considered watching it, thinking it was a made for TV movie — this despite the fact that the image of Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon posed as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in a promotional photo for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, made me think of two children playing dress up. When I discovered it was a series I decided that I definitely would not tune in. I’m a commitment-phobe when it comes to television series. I try to limit my TV viewing time and the thought of having to set aside one hour each week for the length of a series season makes me terribly anxious. It’s much more comforting for me to turn on TCM. Ninety-nine per cent of the time it will be something I’ll watch. And if it’s not, I have a DVR crowded with TCM movies going back several years. (As for my difficulty making a selection from that group, well, that’s another story.)

I was also put off by the fact that the series was created by Ryan Murphy, of American Horror Story fame, a show that I didn’t find appealing. I tried a few episodes of the first season at the urging of my sister but the violence, something my younger self would have relished, had me averting my eyes and squirming in my seat. I turned on an episode from a different season a few years later to see if anything, including my taste, had changed. The subject was a freak show and I couldn’t even watch the entire hour. The production seemed oddly lackluster, the story pretentious.

My husband started watching Feud from the beginning and he loved it. I read an intriguing interview with Lange in which she talked about the attempt by those concerned with the production to humanize the characters, placing their struggles firmly in the male-dominant, ageist Hollywood of the time. Finally, I received a text from a Joan and Bette-loving friend asking me if I was watching what he described as a weekly Christmas gift. All resistance crushed, I watched episodes 1, 2 and 3 in one sitting.

I’ve been a fan of Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon since they first appeared on the scene in the 1970s but, lets face it, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis have some pretty big shoes to fill, especially if the viewer was, like myself, a fan of those two actors well before the arrival of King Kong and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When we met, my first long-term boyfriend told me that I reminded him of Hank Fonda. Hank Fonda, Bill Holden, he threw the names of stars around as if they had been high school classmates. Ridiculous as it seems, we feel like we know them all intimately. How many times have I watched Mildred Pierce and All About EveThe Women and Now, Voyager? Mildred and Margo and Crystal and Charlotte are only characters in movies, but my familiarity with them and my knowledge of their creators — from books, magazines, talk shows, and, yes, their films — grants me, in my mind, at least, some insight into the personal worlds of Crawford and Davis. Could Lange and Sarandon possibly live up to my perceptions and expectations?

The show’s 8 episodes have finished and I’m still on the fence. I thought the last episode the best and I’ll go into that more, but as for the show in general: Lange and Sarandon are fine as Joan and Bette. Lange’s voice is a bit soft for my idea of Joan but she never wavers from that peculiar, precise diction of Crawford’s, while Sarandon captures Davis’ clipped delivery and abrupt mannerisms. But I also have, to a lesser extent, a viewer’s intimacy with both Lange and Sarandon and I watch and listen carefully — where do those two end, Joan and Bette begin?  Do these interpretations at all match up with the interpretations I have in my head? Lange or Sarandon utter a line and I immediately run it through my filter: does this sound like my Bette or Joan?

One scene with Davis and ex-husband Gary Merrill (Mark Valley) struck me as feeling painfully realistic. Merrill angers Davis and they begin braying at each other when, suddenly, both burst out laughing at the battle that has obviously been a constant in their lives together, perhaps the basis of their relationship. Crawford’s dressing room attempt to convince Anne Bancroft (Serinda Swan) to allow Crawford to accept Bancroft’s Oscars were she to win — flattering, cajoling, insinuating — seemed utterly realistic. But there were also moments that left me cold. Nothing specific, just a vague mistrust, as if the creators were more interested in effect than intent.

The performances of Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich, Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner and Dominic Burgess as Victor Buono are convincing but, of course, I’m not nearly as familiar with those men. I sense a bit of Joan Blondell in the performance of Kathy Bates, but Olivia de Havilland is nowhere to be found under the blonde wig of Catherine Zeta-Jones. Jackie Hoffman’s Mamacita and Judy DavisHedda Hopper are more caricature than character. Grim and stoic, Mamacita has no subtlety. She might have been an escapee from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. And while I’m an admirer of Judy Davis, she doesn’t seem to be able to pull a person out of the sartorial flamboyance that defines the gossip columnist. Then again, if Hopper’s actions in the series are at all to be believed, perhaps she wasn’t human at all.

Other “real” characters pass in and out of the story – Gregory Peck, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Patty Duke, George Cukor, to name but a few — some more effective than others. John Waters appears as producer/director William Castle, turning that scene into utter camp while humiliating poor Joan in the process. Crawford’s twin daughters show up several times, as the teenage version of the murdered sisters of the Overlook Hotel.

But does it all work? Perhaps it’s my unfamiliarity with modern TV series but I find an hour each week to be too long. Dense with self-conscious detail, I’m worn out by the end of each episode, wanting to know what will happen next while at the same time relieved that I no longer have to notice that it is Aqua Net hairspray and Dickinson’s witch hazel being used by the stars. It’s Joan and Bette, the graphic novel, elaborate and over-blown, the costumes too costume-y, the sets too perfect, the attitude too proud of its own cleverness. But it is also fun. Sarandon as Davis performing a silly Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? song on The Andy Williams Show seemed just too good to be true — until the original video was trending on social media the following day.

And then came that final episode, which came closest to finding a kernel of authenticity and some kind of longed-for, idealized truth. We saw Joan at home, alone, cooking, drinking, cancelling a lunch date because she is unable to zip up her dress. Bette at home with Victor Buono, who questions the reasoning behind her continued attempts at landing a television series. Joan with her dentist who recommends a denture that she refuses. Bette’s doctor urges her to give up smoking, with the same result. Joan endures humiliation after humiliation while shooting her final film, Trog. Bette maintains a game face during the Dean Martin Roast. The subject of Christina’s book comes up in a conversation with Joan and her other daughter, Cathy, who tenderly comforts her. Bette spends time with her brain-damaged daughter Margot after being berated and dismissed by her other daughter B.D. The two have much in common at this stage in their lives, both touched by longing, sadness and the realities of old age.

But there’s more to it than that. In a Lynchian dream sequence Joan wakes up in the middle of the night and hears voices coming from her living room, where she finds Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner drinking, laughing and playing cards. She takes a place at the table with them, now in full makeup and dress. With biting humor they recall the past, struggle, triumph and pain. Bette arrives and takes her place at the table opposite Joan who is, at first, insulted by Bette’s presence. But it is Bette who asks Hopper and Warner to apologize to Joan for the miseries they have caused her. They consent but both, finally, are incapable of saying “I’m sorry.”

Hopper and Warner depart while Bette talks Joan into playing a game of Wishes and Regrets, “The only game I know” says Davis. Joan pulls a pip card and says, with sincerity, “I’m sorry I wasn’t more generous with you.” Bette pulls a face card and responds “I wish I’d been a friend to you.” Mamacita wakes Joan from her trance and returns her to bed. Touching and wistful, Joan’s dream, but could that have been her real attitude towards Bette after all the hostility they had shown one another?

Bette’s real response certainly might have been different. Later in the episode she answers a telephone call and is informed of Crawford’s death. Asked for a comment she replies “My mother always said don’t say anything bad about the dead. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” But there is ambiguity in her face. Is she saying this because she feels it, or is she saying it because that is what she thinks she would be expected to say? The series ends at the beginning, the two stars in their studio chairs at the start of production of Baby Jane, hoping to become friends. Wishful thinking? Who knows.

Faye Dunaway is mentioned ironically in the final episode, and it’s all but impossible to talk about Joan Crawford, post-Mommie Dearest, without bringing up Dunaway’s portrayal of her. Has there ever been another movie with a more determined and driven star surrounded by such mediocrity? Dunaway’s Crawford is riveting but the other actors are unable to rise above the dull cinematography, the bad editing or the banal script. I watched the film recently and was struck by the overblown grandeur of the performance, but also its touches of subtlety and, dare I say, reality? This is, after all, not the Crawford of Feud but the Crawford of Christina, an angry, troubled, driven women seen through the eyes of her child. For better or worse, Dunaway’s performance, crafted from a rib tugged from Crawford’s own work in Johnny Guitar, defined the woman in a way that has stuck since the film’s release in 1981. It will be interesting to see if Lange’s Crawford, or Sarandon’s Davis for that matter, has the power to maintain such longevity.

About the author: Jeff Lundenberger is an avid classic film fan, was a TCMFF Social Producer and is active across social media sharing his love of movies. You can follow Jeff on Twitter and Instagram @jlundenberger. I was thrilled when he agreed to share his thoughts on Feud on this blog and cannot wait to share my own thoughts in the comments below. I hope you’ll do the same.

 

19 thoughts

  1. Well, I was delighted to find out Feud was going to air on tv and watched every week. I do agree, I couldn’t detect any Olivia de Haviland in Zeta-Jones’s performance, but other than that, enjoyed each episode and was haunted by each episode too;haunted with some sadness that these two wonderful artists at the acting craft had such animosity towards one another and how the studio system was only interested in young women actresses being on the screen, and that once one turns 40, you’re too old to keep getting any good roles. It still seems that way today, the ageism in Hollywood.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the series. I did too, despite the issues I had with it. I certainly agree that the problem of the aging-out of actresses is still relevant today. Thanks for reading!

  2. This: “the costumes too costume-y, the sets too perfect.” That’s exactly what bothers me about pretty much any period piece about classic film stars. Everything feels forced and too glossy. I don’t know if I’ll ever watch Feud, but I appreciate your insight. Great post.

    1. I appreciate the work that goes into creating a series like that but so much of this was too self-aware. I did enjoy it, for the most part, but don’t know if I would recommend it. I could just have easily watched a 2 hour documentary on the subject. Thanks for reading!

  3. Great post . Hope Feud gets shown in the UK soon. And I look forward , Aurora, to your thoughts on it. I guess we have to accept it isnt a documentary and liberties will be taken.

  4. What a wonderfully written essay Jeff!! You pretty much verbalized some of the reasons I didn’t watch the show in a very eloquent way. No doubt Jessica and Susan took their work in this film seriously. Big shoes to fill as you noted.

    Laughed out loud at your “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.”

  5. Terrific essay, Jeff! I haven’t watched “Feud” even though Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange are fabulous. I haven’t researched the history of “Baby Jane”, and I just didn’t want to see the filmmakers’ version of that behind-the-scenes story.

    However, I enjoyed your well-written and insightful essay very much. 🙂

  6. I greatly enjoyed your post, Jeff. Except for Catherine Zeta-Jones’s unforgivable whatever-you-want-to-call-it (send-up? mockery?) of Olivia de Havilland, I positively adored every minute of the entire series, and I feel rather bereft now that it’s over. The final episode was heartbreaking, but I’m glad it ended on a high note, even if it wasn’t real. Bette and Joan are my favorite two actresses, and I found that watching the series made me love and appreciate them even more.

    1. Yes, I didn’t see Olivia de Havilland in the performance at all. And I agree about the final episode. It really redeemed the entire series for me. I was pretty ambivalent during the first seven episodes. Thanks for reading!

  7. Jeff,

    This is a terrific read and THANK YOU for sending it over! I love the response of all classics fans on this series for exactly the reason you mention – WE LOVE THESE WOMEN!!

    So, OK – my take is a little different than yours. I did some soul searching preparation before the series started so that I could accept it as pure entertainment and fluff so that I wouldn’t be upset by anything. I think it was due to that prep that I was able to enjoy it as much as I did. My favorite episode was the penultimate one where I think both Sarandon and Lange did their best acting. I enjoyed their performances very much, actually so we’ll see how they hold up, as you note. I also liked the supporting actors and performances with the exception of Zeta-Jones who was horribly miscast as de Havilland. I don’t know what they were thinking there. Just awful! Now – to the final episode – I was upset by it. I think that Joan was treated a bit unfairly and it worries me that those who are not familiar with the careers of the two legends may just think she was looney. I had a conversation about this with a notable writer from the NY Times who reminded me that Joan’s final years were actually much, much worse in reality and Feud could have been a lot worse in that regard. Still, I didn’t like seeing her portrayed that way. I did like the card game sequence, though.

    All that said – I’ll probably watch the entire series again just to confirm my feelings. I like torture. 🙂

    Aurora

    1. Thank you for having me Aurora!

      I tried to look at it as entertainment, but after some of the reading I did, like the Lange interview I mentioned, I guess I expected a bit more “reality.” With all the excess I felt like it veered frequently into camp territory. Now don’t get me wrong – I like camp. But I was headed for an OD after eight one hour episodes.

      I see your point but I guess I didn’t see Crawford as being loony in the final episode. She felt most like a real person there, just an (extra)ordinary woman trying to face old age.

      Don’t think I could watch it again. Well, maybe a few favorite scenes. Like Joan’s long walk backstage at the Oscars. That was priceless.

      Thanks again!
      Jeff

      1. I’ve made it a point never to read about anything I want to see before I see it. That goes for current film releases as well. It invariably leads to disappointment for me. It’s a rule I never break – unless I inadvertently end up reading someone’s opinion.

  8. Great write up. The Ryan Murphy tag gave me pause at first as well but I am glad I caved and decided to watch. Like you said the finale was far superior to the other episodes in terms of pure storytelling and evoking peak emotional response. According to Murphy the dream sequence was not too far removed from real events. There are accounts that in the week or so before Crawford died that she was having hallucinations, particularly of Clark Gable.

    1. I thought that highlighting Joan’s frailties in the last episode really humanized her, much more than the previous episodes. Davis too, to a lesser extent. The dream sequence was really effective. Thanks a lot for reading and sharing your opinion!

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