Feud: Bette and Joan (2017)

Along with American Crime Story, Feud seems to mark a new moment in Ryan Murphy’s career, channeling the high camp of his previous television series into a more burnished engagement with history, politics and justice. Like American Crime Story (and American Horror Story before that), Feud is an anthology series, with each season focusing upon a famous conflict or rivalry, as well as the way in which it was nurtured and inflamed by the media. As the title might suggest, the debut season focuses on the evolution – or devolution – of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ relationship across the production of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, their two collaborations with director Robert Aldrich. However, both those films are already, in some sense, about this feud, so in order to differentiate itself Feud focuses more upon how this clash of personalities was manufactured and sustained by Aldrich, Jack Warner and the studio system in the first place, culminating with the rise of the “psycho-biddy” and “hagsploitation” horror in the late 1960s. As a result, Bette and Joan focuses on Crawford and Davis’ fleeting rapport in the midst of the feud – at least in the earlier episodes – along with their efforts to become allies despite all the antagonism being orchestrated around them.

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Throughout it all, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon excel at capturing the transfixing gazes of Crawford and Davis respectively, with a fair few number of stare-offs taking place behind the scenes, producing some amazing cross-cutting that seems to draw on memes and reaction gifs as much as the actresses’ filmographies. Lange’s face, in particular, suggests unimaginable depths of suffering and endurance, partly because she has always had one of the most nimble, fluid and effervescent faces in contemporary Hollywood, which here has to be stretched, conditioned and plastered over to meet the demands of the emergent hagsploitation genre. In nearly every episode, we’re presented with a scene in which either Crawford or Davis (or both) attend to their skin and makeup, which is perhaps why the surfaces of their faces feel so corroded by the male gaze as well, as Feud outlines a vision of older women who have been utterly displaced from the centre of their lives, and jettisoned from even the most residual claims to nuclear family life in the process. On the one hand, Davis is alienated from her own daughter (played, in a stroke of genius, by Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men’s Sally Draper), while Crawford is also told, early on, that she is too old to adopt a child, living instead in a quasi-queer arrangement with her housekeeper and assistant, Mamacita, played by Jackie Hoffman in a show-stealing performance.

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As with American Crime Story, Murphy’s queer lens is critical for isolating all the little ways in which patriarchy operates, even or especially through liberal sentiment and putative allies of women in crisis. In that respect, one of the most dynamic relationships in the series occurs between Robert Aldrich, played by Alfred Molina, and the two actresses. At one level, Aldrich himself is an enormously sympathetic character, especially in his dealings with Jack Warner, played by Stanley Tucci, whose iron hand grows more sadistic as the traditional studio system starts to fall into disarray. Indeed, part of what makes Feud so compelling is that it is set during a transitional period in the history of cinema, when the relationships between film and television, and between directors and studios, was in a state of flux – a flux that Murphy takes advantage of to suggest new model of collective authorship suited to the collaborative ethos of post-quality television (and more on that in a moment).

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A decade or so before, the studios would have been content to invest in directors who could churn out reliable product; a decade or so later, the studios (or some of them) would be keen to invest in self-styled auteurist directors. Between those two periods, however, the status of the director became quite slippery, and it is against that slipperiness and crisis in male authority that Feud transpires. No longer a consistent economic entity and not yet a consistent artistic entity, Aldrich finds himself struggling at nearly every juncture to prove his worth to Warner, and to find some kind of stability in Hollywood despite his age. To some extent, that makes Aldrich, Davis and Crawford feel like allies, partly because Aldrich does sometimes go out of his way to accommodate them, and partly because Molina is such a plangently compelling actor, especially in this downbeat kind of role. Yet the brilliance of Bette and Joan lies in the manner in which it periodically punctures this false equivalence to remind us that Aldrich is – and always will be – much higher up the ladder than Davis and Crawford. Crucially, these moments are transitory, and never devolve Aldrich into a full-blown nemesis – in some ways he becomes more sympathetic – as the series instead continually forces the audience – especially the male audience – to confront the radical shift in perception required to even glimpse a fraction of Davis and Crawford’s disempowerment by those who haven’t actually lived through and experienced the turmoils of gender inequity themselves.

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In that sense, Feud, like American Crime Story, seems to speak to a liberal milieu in which issues of race are always assumed to subtend issues of gender, and issues of class are always assumed to subtend issues of both race and class. Competing over who has less privileges can sometimes be a mug’s game, but it’s nevertheless true that the deprivileges that result from gender do themselves tend to be deprivileged in both liberal and radical discourse (as in the recent US election), as if gender inequity itself were a mere epiphenomenon of “broader” or “more significant” issues of race and class. Much of the brilliance of Feud and American Crime Story subsists in the way in which they puncture this essentially liberal fantasy, since for all that Davis, Crawford and Aldrich might momentarily seem to share the same state of precarity across their two collaborations, it also feels like a foregone conclusion that their careers should take very different directions thereafter. Whereas Crawford, in particular, finds herself relegated to B-movies and horror films, culminating with the indignity of Trog, Aldrich goes on to release one of the most successful films of his career with The Dirty Dozen, decisively distancing himself from melodrama with one of the most iconic buddy films of all time, in a move that poignantly encapsulates the different fates of older male and female actresses in Hollywood at this time: consigned to hagsploitation on the one hand, extolled as eccentric, brilliant war heroes on the other.

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Those very different fates are anchored and articulated in a series of interviews conducted with classical Hollywood actresses at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1978, supposedly as part of a documentary about Crawford and Davis, which form a kind of framing device that recurs throughout the narrative. In fact, these interviews never took place – the closest thing was a 1978 episode of the BBC series Hollywood Greats that focused on Crawford – but that just makes their import all the more powerful, as Murphy outlines a hypothetical space between past and present in which the futures that Davis and Crawford longed for have been decisively foreclosed. In some ways, these 1978 interviews are amongst the most poignant moments in the series, as Olivia de Havilland, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Joan Blondell, played by Kathy Bates, reflect upon a future that still hasn’t come to pass in our own time, (to the point where it really feels as if it is simply Zeta-Jones and Bates themselves sharing these pithy insights about the fate of older women in Hollywood). Of course, that’s also a future in which Crawford and Davis might have managed to make their way back from the margins of their own lives, so it’s tragically appropriate that they have no real presence in this framing device either, with Crawford having passed a way a year before and Davis unwilling to make any kind of comment in the closing stages of the interviews.

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Throughout these sequences – and the later part of Crawford and Davis’ careers – Feud manages to capture older women at their most abject, pathetic and tragic while simultaneously refusing to present them as figures of shame either. That juggling act is even more impressive in that Bette and Joan is, in a part, a history of the rise of hagsploitation, as the series takes us through the production of films like Strait-Jacket and Lady in a Cage that took the psycho-biddies of Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte to even more hyperbolic levels of monstrosity and insanity. As Jack Warner himself explicitly states, the pleasures of hagsploitation lie largely in the spectacle of degradation – of seeing once untouchable and sublime female icons reduced to the most depraved prosthetic spectacles. It’s an experience that Feud frequently frames as pornographic in its insatiable relish for physical disfigurement, and it’s no coincidence that a fictional “blue movie” from Crawford’s youth arises at the very cusp of her devolution into full psycho-biddy.

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By contrast, Murphy’s camp historiography lies in capturing the degradation of Crawford and Davis – and its inextricability from hagsploitation – without creating a work that is in itself hagsploitation, which is perhaps why the camp hyperbole on display in Glee, American Horror Story and Scream Queens is much more muted here. For one thing, Feud tends to distance itself from all the fans that Davis and Crawford garnered on the back of Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte, with one particularly pointed scene seeing Crawford rebuke a young gay man for his devotion to her hagsploitative persona. It’s a moment in which Murphy seems to revise what was at stake in his own original attachment to the two actresses, along with the genesis of the project in two decisive gestures of camp canonicity that occurred in 1989 – the publication of Shaun Considine’s Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, and Murphy’s own four-hour interview with Davis several months before her death. While Bette and Joan certainly doesn’t disavow or dismiss the camp iconicity of its two stars, it seems safe to say that we would have seen a very different kind of hagsploitative hagiography if the series had been released in the early 1990s as originally planned.

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At the same time, Feud is also quite sceptical of all the young, hip, horror-centric fandom that constellates around Davis and Crawford’s subsequent psycho-biddies, as Murphy once again evinces the reserve of an older gay man in a manner that I found quite compelling, as well as almost completely antithetical to the sensibility of his earlier work. That revision is a particularly clear in a terrific sequence in which John Waters appears as William Castle, the director of Strait-Jacket, in an episode appropriately titled “Hagsploitation.” Not surprisingly, Castle is one of Waters’ icons, and it’s not hard to see how Waters might have incorporated Crawford into one of his films if the later stages of her career had crossed over with his growing notoriety and visibility as a director. In fact, you could argue that only a director with Waters’ vision could redeem hagsploitation from itself, if only because his worldview is already so grotesquely generous that everyone feels exploiting, and everyone feels like a freak, with the result that hagsploitation is no longer exceptional. Nevertheless, for all the camp deference on display, it also feels as if Murphy is defining himself against Waters here as well, and that in lieu of Waters’ unique ability to ramp up camp to its hyberbolic conclusion – light years beyond what is to be found in even Murphy’s campest outings – he has opted for a more sombre and muted account of how camp itself can be misappropriated instead, which is perhaps why Feud has seemed to bemuse and even scandalise fans of his earlier work.

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Nevertheless, one very clear crossover with Waters’ filmography is that the production of the series – and the experience of the production – is key to the import of the series as a whole, since Feud is a vehicle for Murphy’s “Half Foundation” as much as the story of Davis and Crawford themselves. Or, rather, the two are the same thing, since this foundation is an initiative for promoting the visibility of women in Hollywood, and required that Bette and Joan feature at least fifteen significant roles for women over forty, and that at least half of the episode be directed by women as well. As with Jill Soloway’s conscious cultivation of a transgendered workplace and model of collective authorship during the production of Transparent, Feud is keen to converge its subject matter with industrial action, which inevitably adds to the immediacy and urgency of its protest. It’s apt, then, that the later episodes converge on the industrial action revolving around Sweet Charlotte, during which Crawford took to a wheelchair and started to inhabit her Baby Jane persona from the inside as a protest against her treatment on set, forcing the studio to hire an insurer-approved medical expert to deemed Crawford’s ailment imaginary despite her best efforts to seduce him.

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In the process, Feud marks yet another movement away from the auteurist-driven model of quality television, instead offering a messier, camper and more collective model as the main venue in which older women can still get decent roles, since this is heftier than virtually everything Sarandon and Lange have been offered on the big screen over the last decade. One of the ironies of quality television, as the series puts it, is that it doesn’t really offer much quality material for female actresses, let alone ageing female actresses. An even greater irony, at least as Feud frames it, is that Murphy’s earlier series – especially Glee, American Horror Story and Scream Queens – were an iteration of quality television all along, just as Murphy, for all his camp irreverence, was more or less a showrunner auteur, imprinting his signature decisively on every one of his products. In American Crime Story and Feud, however, you can really start to feel Murphy relax, loosening the reins and opening himself up to a more collaborative and collegial array of voices to produce a new and even more generous sense of camp.

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Of course, that’s not to dismiss Murphy’s very significant role as showrunner as well, nor his escalating dexterity as director, since one of the main highlights of Feud is Murphy’s own episode, “And the Winner is…” which details Crawford’s Oscars campaign against Davis following the traumatic announcement that Davis, and Davis alone, would be nominated for Baby Jane. From there, Crawford gets permission to accept the award on behalf of all the other nominees, as well as presenting Best Director and even hosting her own personal party in the green room. Across a series of dazzling set pieces and sequence shots, the evening converges on Crawford accepting the award on behalf of Anne Bancroft, as Davis fumes in the wings – an incredible testament to the fragmented continuity between older and younger actresses (and roles for older and younger actresses) that has sustained Hollywood right up until the present day.

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There’s something particularly timely and terrifying, then, about seeing Crawford set adrift in the wasteland of the 1970s, with the last episode moving to New York to detail the final years of her life, as her fear of leaving Hollywood is finally overcome by her fear of being left alone in a decaying Hollywood mansion. As the years progress, her feud with Davis dissipates as the two women are forced to face one mounting indignity after another, from younger women and gay men as much as Hollywood patriarchs. For all the exuberance of the opening episodes, things now sombre for a coda that feels quite dissociated from the sunny Los Angeles atmosphere of the rest of the series, culminating with Crawford’s hallucinatory vision of her Hollywood heyday in her New York apartment before passing away a couple of days later. In these final scenes, Feud seems to take Davis and Crawford – and Lange and Sarandon – years beyond the acceptable ages of women on film, even or especially when they’re explicitly presented as aging, making you realise how young “older” female characters generally are (or have to pretend to be) in Hollywood.

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In a haunting two-pronged conclusion, we return to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where Davis briefly appears to redress the filmmakers (“I won’t participate in your documentary”) who then muse about what might have happened after the first day of Baby Jane had wrapped. From there, Feud shifts to its final scene – or its first scene, depending on how you see it – as David and Crawford sit back and commit to some kind of provisional solidarity over the weeks and months ahead. It’s a damning indictment, not only of the way in which Hollywood can destroy solidarity between older women, but can turn that destruction into a spectacle in itself. And it’s a testament to Feud that it manages to capture that process – and even capture the appeal of that process – while managing to extricate Crawford and Davis from it at the same time, providing Lange and Sarandon with two of the very best performances of their respective careers.

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About Billy Stevenson (205 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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