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.


Joan Crawford Birthday Post

Any appreciation I have for Joan Crawford is interesting for me. I mean she is not an absolute favorite of mine (her acting never blew me away), I concede that the combination of her striking beauty and indomitable will produced the requisite star power for success in the studio system. This was on full display not only in her early silent performances but, with the advent of sound, during her halcyon days at the dream factory that was MGM.

joan crawfordIn honor of the anniversary of her birth, I decided to dedicate this post to highlighting some of my favorite Crawford films.

The Unknown (1927)of course centered the performance by Lon Chaney, this film is deliciously demented.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)I think the TCM description says it best: “A flapper sets her hat for a man with a hard-drinking wife.” Yup, that.

Our Modern Maidens (1929)Crawford’s final silent film.

Rain (1932)Paging Sadie Thompson. Based on the Somerset Maugham story of a prostitute and missionary stuck on an island.

The Women (1939): Seriously how could this not be on my list? JUNGLE RED FORVEVER

Mildred Pierce (1945)sure she is a pushover for Vida, but she gets hers in the end. Not exactly what I would consider a noir, this performance gave Crawford her Academy Award for Best Actress.

Humoresque (1946): Crawford at her melodramatic finest.

Possessed (1947): Crawford played unstable so well. This was it for me. I love watching this movie.

Sudden Fear (1952): Crawford is a classic film-noir damsel in distress.

Johnny Guitar (1954)A recent add to my list as I have only recently seen it. A saucy Western where the protagonist/antagonist are female and the men feel a little like window dressing.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Time to play “opposite day” with previous entry; a film which posits aging females as macabre, grotesque figures that are either to be pitied or feared.

Over her the decades, she went from flapper (ingénue) to a matron, slowly growing off kilter to and finally descended into to the horror camp arena. While this is sadly the fate that many actresses of her time had to suffer (but has a lot changed), Crawford approached every role with equal parts aplomb and dedication to her craft.

What are some of your favorite Crawford pics?

Easy Sunday Viewing: The Best of Everything (1959)

The Best of Everything (1959), directed by Jean Negulesco is an adaptation of the book (same title) written by first time novelist Rona Jaffe (1931-2005); the narrative is based on her experiences while working in New York City as an associate editor in the 1950s.

'Three secretaries look for love while working in the publishing business' (Source: TCMdB)

The all-star cast includes Hope Lange, Diane Baker, Suzy Parker, Steven Boyd, Louis Jourdan, Robert Evans, and Joan Crawford.

The plot centers on the professional and personal lives of its three young female protagonists – Caroline Bender (Lange), Gregg Adams (Parker) and April Morrison (Baker):

Caroline Bender is an ambitious, recent college graduate just starting at  the publishing firm who, when jilted, finds consolation in the arms of editor Mike Rice (Boyd). Gregg Adams is a typist and an aspiring actress romantically involved with stage director David Savage (Jourdan). April Morrison is a naïve young woman who winds up pregnant, much to the chagrin of the unborn child’s father Dexter Key (Evans), who urges her to take drastic measures to rectify the situation.

All three women are under the supervision of editor Amanda Farrow (Crawford), an exacting professional who yearns for domesticity (marriage, home, etc.).

Details of the plot synopsis are from Wikipedia

As one would expect, the film has a decidedly melodramatic, somewhat muted “Sirk“-ian tone. If you have seen films such as Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession (1954), then you are perfectly primed for this film.

Released in 1959, one also gets the sense that the film was a bellwether for the changing landscape of professional work environments and women’s roles in them. This is nowhere more clear than in the characterization of Amanda Farrow as played by Joan Crawford. In her very brief time on-screen, her character comes full circle and in the end of her story arc, arrives at a rather unconventional (at least for 1959) decision.

A contemporary offering which has this film in its DNA is of course, the hit television show Mad Men, which recreates this time and place in a highly stylized, revisionist manner. I do not watch the show (have tried but gave up soon after) and prefer the “two hours and out” disposable format of this film. But I suspect that for fans of the TV show, they would find an equal pleasure in watching The Best of Everything.

Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946)

The pedigree for the 1946 Warner Brother’s feature is quite impressive –

  • directed by Jean Negulesco
  • co-written by noted playwright Clifford Odets
  • based on a novel by Fannie Hurst (Imitation of Life)
  • starring Joan Crawford and John Garfield.

When I first heard about this film, my expectations were tempered by the fact that it was a drama starring Joan Crawford. Joan Crawford is an interesting screen presence for me – on one hand I do not mind watching her films (Mildred Pierce and The Women especially), but on the other hand, there is that overly stylized/campy aspect to her appearance and performance; this is particularly true for many of the films she did during this period in the 1940’s.

On its surface, I thought Humoresque would devolve into this generic type of “women’s picture” melodrama. Of course, in many ways it lives up to this promise. However, at the conclusion of the film, I was left with a genuine sense of melancholy. In the last 10-15 minutes of this film, the climax/falling actions are sublime and features quite possibly one of the most beautiful intercut sequences I have seen in quite some time.

In my estimation, Joan Crawford’s performance is the best of her long and somewhat varied career. I usually hesitate using superlatives, especially in this case since I have not seen every Crawford performance; but in this case, if this is not her greatest,  it has to be in the top three.

Watching this film also brought me to a renewed appreciation for its director, Jean Negulesco. His filmography is substantial and includes in it many films that I consider among some of my more enjoyable classic film experiences:

  • A Certain Smile
  • Johnny Belinda
  • Phone Call from a Stranger
  • Three Coins in a Fountain
  • The Best of Everything

He is also responsible for films such as:

  • Titanic (1953)
  • Daddy Long Legs (Fred Astaire/Leslie Caron)
  • Boy on a Dolphin (Sophia Loren/Alan Ladd)
  • How to Marry a Millionaire (Marilyn Monroe/Jane Russell)

So if you are a fan of romantic dramas of the 1940s or 1950s, Humoresque  is definitely worth a look see.

If you have seen any films of Jean Negulesco, what is/are some of your faves? Enter in the comments below.