FEUD: Bette and Joan

Here, at the outset, I will admit to the following – I was not particularly excited at the prospect of watching Ryan Murphy‘s latest televisual project on FX (FEUD: Bette and Joan). And not because of the subject (obviously). In fact, I have a great appreciation for both Ms.’s Davis and Crawford. The latter, in particular of whom I have developed a particular affinity for in recent years.

It also has nothing to do with Ryan Murphy – whose work I have generally enjoyed on level or another over the past decade.

I decided to meditate on what exactly was holding me back until I was able to figure it out. And here is my conclusion: I think it is to do with the fact that when I think of Bette and Joan, I am drawn to these screen icons and the film that serves as the series’ nexus Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with a series of evolving emotions about it all.

In other words, while I enjoy the ‘horror’ and suspense of the film, something left me unsettled about how these women, who once were the queens of the studio era were reduced to grotesque caricatures and put on display for our derision and ridicule. All simply for the fact that they have the temerity to have aged. It is all rather disturbing and cruel on so many levels.

However, thanks to the recommendation of some friends, I put this reservation to the side and indulged in a post-TCM Film Festival binge (more to come). And boy, am I glad I did.

As the final episode of this first series has come to a close (on the East Coast), I can think of no way that this story could have been told with more empathy and movingly. FEUD is a story is a love note of sorts to women who the Hollywood studio/factory system so readily discarded and left to be footnotes in the history when they no longer saw value in their talents.

Sure, Bette and Joan’s was a well-storied feud – but to reduce it to petty machinations and entanglements of what took place does a great disservice. Thanks to some wonderful writing and acting, FEUD has really illuminated the full scale of the ‘rivalry,’ which in many ways was orchestrated and agitated by several outside influences, including the public itself.

As for the two women caught up in the tumult, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, in their takes on Davis and Crawford, give noteworthy performances that peel away the layers of these women to reveal how their back and forth played into and off of their personal demons and insecurities.

Granted, while FEUD is based on actual events, you have to make a few narrative allowances, such as overt exposition about what happened and a bit of melodrama. One standout event of the series is their notorious clash at the 1963 Academy Awards –  an event which Davis friend Olivia deHavilland recently dismissed as not being of much consequence. On the other hand, there is the conceit many audience members may not know the particulars and history of the Baby Jane co-stars, so a little exposition goes a long way.

It is my sincere hope that for any members of the viewing public who may have come into this story cold, I encourage you to examine these women and their careers beyond this hagsploitation (what a word) phase in their body of work.

At its best, FEUD gives its audience enough of a moving and empathetic account of the people, places and events to make us take another look at these women in particular and women in Hollywood in general (both past and present) and how they are treated.


Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: The Star (1952)

Bette Davis in "The Star" (1952)

On the day the Oscar nominations go out, I decided to take a look at what might be by today’s standards, a forgotten film. The Star, featuring Bette Davis and directed by Stuart Heisler, is a cautionary tale about what is on the other side of a hugely successful, award-winning career.

For Bette Davis at this stage in her professional life, the film must have felt like a semi-autobiographical sketch. Made two years after her ‘comeback’ in the classic All About Eve, this would prove to be one of her last fully rounded roles.

For her role as the down-on-her luck award-winning actress, Davis received the ninth of her ten Academy Award nominations [she would receive one more for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)].

The Star is the story of a has-been actress (Margaret Elliot) who is willing to sacrifice anything and anymore for another shot at the big time. Left to suffer in her wake: her teenaged daughter Gretchen (Natalie Wood), from whom she shields her professional and financial woes, and Jim Johannsen (Sterling Hayden), a young actor who has great affection for Margaret in spite of herself.

Sterling Hayden and Bette Davis

If you have not seen The Star, you are in luck (as long as you have TCM). It will be shown on Sunday, February 26th (Oscar™ Night) at 8:00PM Eastern Time.

Please visit Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog every Tuesday for more overlooked/forgotten films.