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 Eve, The 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 Davis’ Hedda 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.