Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Feud makes it impossible to pick sides

On the set of Charlotte. Photo: FX
On the set of Charlotte. Photo: FX

The Beauty of Feud is that it takes full advantage of the elongated form of this anthology mini-series. With such talent at its center—Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon—Feud would likely still be great as a two-hour movie. But Jessica as Joan’s complete and utter devastation this week and Bette’s seeming cruelty toward her would almost be too much if we hadn’t seen Joan absolutely gut Bette a few weeks ago at the Oscars. When Mamacita scoffs to Joan, ”You have done this to yourself” at the end of the episode, we know this to be true. Not only from all of the Oscar antics, but from her desire to burn down the entire picture just to hurt Bette and Bob, she winds up destroying herself in the process.

At some point Feud pivoted to lean more on Joan’s side of the story than Bette’s: Seeing the strong history Jessica Lange has with Ryan Murphy, that’s not surprising. But she’s now also entered my crowded Emmy race: what an amazing performance by Lange here over these past two weeks. The Hollywood icon who can never get over her unglamorous beginnings: I probably will never look at a Joan Crawford movie the same way again, and I‘ve been watching those films since I was a child. But her Oscar for Mildred Pierce now makes total sense—a women whose daughter hates her for their own humble surroundings—as well as her refusal to ever look less than perfect on screen. To her, it was all she had.

But even at this late stage, we still benefit from any insight on the early days of Davis and Crawford. Davis is still stung over Jack Warner saying she had no sex appeal when she was 22, Crawford over the fact that she came into pictures as a showgirl. They stand across from each other from the twin and apparently competing pillars of beauty and talent, even though it’s obvious—to the rest of us, at least—that they both had both. There’s obviously room for more than one star in the golden age Hollywood landscape, but Bette and Joan each pines for what the other has: traffic-stopping beauty, and unbelievable ability. But at least both admit—in the pivotal moment of the episode, if not the series—that even those things were never enough. “Abandoned!” is expertly directed by Helen Hunt, an Oscar-winning actress herself, and the tension between the two is all in the pause after Joan makes the crack about Bette making herself uglier. Joan can hardly believe she said such a thing, and it takes all of Bette’s composure to pull herself together and wobbly state, “I am a character actress.” Notice also the slow camera pull away from Bette after B.D. leaves the room, to highlight how isolated she is; that same structure is mirrored later with the shot of Joan that ends the episode, crumpled in a hallway, and just as achingly alone.

It’s interesting that the men appear to have more sympathy for Joan than Bette does: Joseph Cotten points out what a star she is, and Victor, even drunkenly, maintains how much her performances have meant to him. Bette’s lack of respect for such an icon reflects the powerful role she herself has—a role she doubles down on with this producer business. The irony is that many of her ideas are good ideas, and who knows, in a different world, could Bette Davis have also been a director, like Hunt is here? But as Bob points out, Bette’s ultimate goal just seems to be to annoy the main talent, which she accomplishes easily.

I’ve mentioned before that my son has been watching this with me (no worries, he hears worse language from me al the time), and he just asked me what side I was on in the Feud. I think that’s a really interesting question, as most times in feuds—Montague vs. Capulets, Hatfields vs. McCoys—people line up on one side or the other. No one in Feud is caught more in the middle than Bob, but his relationship with Bette this episode clearly puts him on a particular side. But watching this, both actresses are so tremendous, it honestly never occurred to me to pick one over the other. Mainly, I’m just heartsick over a system that seemed to thrive on positioning them against each other in the first place. They both had their demons, and were imperfect, like we all are. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them victims, but it’s interesting that Zeta-Jones’ Olivia De Havilland points to the real culprit here: Time. For a beautiful actress in Hollywood—for both Bette and Joan—could there be anything more dreaded than aging? Feud plays up the two fierce personalities warring it out, but it’s also a strong statement against a system that uses up and spits out talent as soon as these performers are past their prime. And by highlighting Sarandon and Lange in such powerhouse portrayals, Ryan Murphy‘s Feud is offering its own meta commentary on how that prime doesn’t have to end, no matter how old you are.

Stray observations

  • Oh man, the plastic on those hotel beds. So long, Mamacita. Joan didn’t deserve you. But kudos to Jackie Hoffman on an amazing performance.
  • “Your first wedding is the one you’ll remember the most.” B.D. Merrill, now Hyman, and Jeremy are still married. She also founded her own Christian ministry in Virginia.
  • Like Victor, I also love Humoresque.
  • Matthew Glave is a bit of a stretch with his Joseph Cotten, but he makes it work.
  • Joan grabbing the wheelchair to open the door was amazing.
  • Joan Blondell actually worked steadily throughout the ’60s and ’70s as a character actress on TV, with appearances on shows from Dr. Kildare to Starsky And Hutch.
  • What I wouldn’t give to be able to rattle off a sentence like, “I’ve only just aired out my Swiss chalet for the season.”
  • So the final Feud episode next week is called, “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?” and I am at a loss as to what it could include. Mommie Dearest? Talk-show appearances? Joan’s death? I’ll be sad to see it go, at any rate.