Feud is a story about women, about how ingrained sexism—especially, but not solely, in Hollywood—forces them to fight desperately for respect, only to be demeaned and dumped once they’re deemed too old to be appealing. Ryan Murphy’s FX series initially promised pure camp by pitting Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis against each other during the making What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? for what at first seemed like a prolonged, eight-episode catfight. But it concluded as a heartbreaking, recognizably human drama about the way the industry uses women until they’re nothing but empty shells of pancake make-up.
It’s a powerful and powerfully complex story—just like it was when director Robert Aldrich made Baby Jane in 1962. In that film, Aldrich explored many of the same themes in his acrid Hollywood satire that Feud, for all its other admirable qualities, strangely treats like the sad little joke its characters are constantly struggling to overcome. This derision even finds its physical manifestation in Aldrich, who’s portrayed by Alfred Molina as a sweaty, pathetic hack, his hifalutin auteur ambitions openly mocked even after Baby Jane becomes an Oscar-nominated hit, and his complete inability to be taken seriously (plus some bullying from Frank Sinatra) rendering him literally impotent.
To be fair, it’s period accurate: At the time of Baby Jane, Aldrich’s career was on a downward slide, whatever respect he’d garnered for his genre-defying-and-defining hits like Apache and Vera Cruz diminished after a string of flops and getting fired from The Garment Jungle. The way Aldrich’s fortunes had so quickly dwindled surely gave him some personal perspective on Baby Jane’s attitude toward showbiz, a theme he’d explored years earlier in the equally cynical The Big Knife. But watching Feud, you’d never know Aldrich was driven by anything but desperation.
Aldrich’s sole marketable skill, the show seems to argue, was playing the dyspeptic babysitter to demanding divas on “hagsploitation” films like Baby Jane and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. In its efforts to wrest Crawford and Davis back from the men who tried to belittle them, Feud unfairly demeans Aldrich as well, overlooking his artistry and intentions in making Baby Jane in the first place. While the series does an incredible job of fostering empathy for Crawford and Davis—especially Crawford, who’s spent decades being known solely as a wire hanger-wielding monster—Aldrich’s only redemption arrives in a tidy epilogue title card noting that he later went on to make some of the “most commercially successful” films of his career.
It’s unclear whether the irony is intentional. Reducing Aldrich’s diverse body of work, which bristles with subversive energy and is united by a deeply felt humanism, to his box-office hits is the exact kind of shallow, money-first dismissiveness the show is supposedly condemning. Anyone not versed in Aldrich’s career would be forgiven for walking away with the same impression as Stanley Tucci’s Jack Warner: that Aldrich was a mediocre journeyman who just happened to get lucky.
Again, Feud is a story about women; not about how great men are, too. Still, one of the through-lines of Feud is how a good story, be it the gossip rags or the lingering specter of Mommie Dearest, has the power to forever define a person. With that in mind, it’s worth reclaiming Aldrich from how Feud risks immortalizing him, and remembering the films that made him such an under-appreciated auteur, both then and now. Here are just some of them.
Based on a best-selling series of detective novels, Kiss Me Deadly combines pulp aesthetics and Cold War paranoia into a sly commentary on broad-shouldered all-American masculinity, rendered impotent in the face of nuclear annihilation. Hero Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is a pig-headed brute of a man—even his name implies blunt trauma—who drives around a multi-ethnic Los Angeles full of boarding houses and gin joints like a meathead Marlowe, threatening to bust heads if he doesn’t get what he wants. Most of the real work, meanwhile, is accomplished by his assistant/girlfriend Velda (Maxine Cooper), who feeds Mike clues in his search for tragic blond Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) and the “great whatsit” that follows her. With its colorful, punchy dialogue and kinky violence, the influence of Kiss Me Deadly can be seen in the works of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch, whose Lost Highway takes Mike Hammer’s world of gangster dolls and private dicks and filters it through Lynch’s own twisted imagination.
One of Aldrich’s angriest movies, the aptly titled Attack was also one of his finest accomplishments as an existential screen stylist. The opening credits (by Saul Bass) start over a shot of an M1 helmet rolling down a hill—one of many potent images of the emptiness of war in this cynical drama of frontline politics, set around the Battle Of The Bulge. Lee Marvin gives one of his most panther-like performances as a battalion commander who manipulates a wimpy captain (Eddie Albert) with powerful family connections, a heroic platoon leader (Jack Palance), and a by-the-book lieutenant (William Smithers) in the interest of his own post-war ambitions. The staginess of the script is contrasted by stark and angular compositions created by Aldrich and his longtime director of photography, Joseph Biroc: a point-of-view shot from a German machine-gun nest; a soldier being gunned down under a gnarled dead tree; unusual overhead shots; frames-within-frames formed by muntin bars, balusters, and broken stained glass windows. The Department Of Defense blackballed the production, but Aldrich (who reportedly had to provide the tanks himself, paid out of pocket) turned the barrenness of its battle scenes into an evocative quality. As the original trailer proclaimed, “This is war stripped of everything but truth!”
Autumn Leaves makes clear why Aldrich agreed to reunite with Joan Crawford on What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? It’s filmed so intimately—almost exclusively in tight, two-person shots—he’s practically nestled right in the middle of the movie’s main relationship. Crawford is a lonely middle-aged woman who rushes into a marriage with a charming younger man (future Ben Parker Cliff Robertson), only to find out that he’s more troubled than she could have imagined. Many of his problems come from a twisted family relationship with his father (Lorne Greene) and his ex-wife (Vera Miles). There’s no hint here of the Crawford who seemed so shaken in Feud over being valued for her looks instead of her talent. She’s surprisingly strong as a besotted wife who wants to help her husband but has very little idea how to do so. In only his second movie performance, Robertson demonstrates remarkable charisma, eliciting far more sympathy than would otherwise be possible for a potential psychopath, especially at a time when mental illness was so greatly stigmatized. Aldrich draws his camera in on these two as closely as possible so the audience also feels close to them, surrounding them with darkened interior shadows that hint at the gloom their problems cast over the relationship, and capturing Robertson’s unbalanced persona through kinetic, off-kilter camera angles. Aldrich’s empathy for his characters and his confident creative decisions elevate what could have been a generic B-list “women’s picture,” transforming it into an unexpectedly romantic psychological drama.
After the drama of filming Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Aldrich again fled for a predominantly male cast on the action-filled The Flight Of The Phoenix. Jimmy Stewart stars as the pilot of a plane caught in a sandstorm, stranding everyone aboard in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Fortunately, there’s also an aeronautical engineer on board, who leads the survivors in a desperate mission to build a new plane out of the wreckage, even as their death toll rises. While it’s superficially a disaster movie, like so many of Aldrich’s war dramas, Phoenix is primarily about the psychology of leadership—asking whether these men will follow their pilot, a military man who wants to focus on searching for help, or the potentially deluded guy who wants them to build a whole new plane—as well as the ethical questions created by their desperate situation, asking whether one man’s survival is more important than another‘s. Through chilling shots like the crosses for the dead popping up on sand dunes, or Stewart’s weary shadow looming over the crash site, Aldrich adds considerable pathos to a story that’s brimming with tension. Although it was a flop upon release, Phoenix is another Aldrich film that’s seen its reputation improve with each passing year (even inspiring an inferior 2004 remake with Dennis Quaid).
Feud’s title card epilogue casually mentions that Aldrich went on to direct 1967’s The Dirty Dozen, but what it fails to emphasize is just how big that WWII movie really was, earning $45.3 million on its $5.4 million budget—even as critics like a young Roger Ebert savaged it for what he saw as the sadism of its violence. Starring one of the all-time great ensemble casts of tough-guy actors, The Dirty Dozen takes nearly two hours to send its crew of hardened criminals out on the classified mission deep behind enemy lines that will grant them their freedom, but the mission itself isn’t the point. The film is about getting to know the crew, which includes Aldrich regulars Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, as well as Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Donald Sutherland, and Jim Brown. The setup is an obvious inspiration for Suicide Squad, which basically takes the premise and adds superpowers, as well as the wave of “man on a mission” movies like The Inglorious Bastards (1978) that came out of Europe in the ’70s—and, in turn, led to Quentin Tarantino’s deliberately misspelled 2009 riff on the genre.
From its opening minutes, Emperor Of The North establishes a mood and tone that conjure up the grand tradition of the old-school American outlaw movie. Set during the Depression, the film follows lifelong hobo A-No. 1 (a terrific Lee Marvin), who’s illicitly ridden the rails all over the land. His nemesis, Shack (Ernest Borgnine, all manic and wild-eyed freneticism), is a railroad conductor famed for his brutal and sadistic treatment of any train-hoppers foolish enough to try and hitch a ride on his train. A legend among his peers, A-No. 1 decides to announce he’ll be the first hobo to ride Shack’s train all the way to its Portland destination. Shack learns of the plan, and the film follows the journeys of the two men—one a likable rapscallion, the other a bug-eyed thug—as A-No. 1 does his best to survive his mission. What makes Aldrich’s film so wonderfully idiosyncratic is the way he treats both madcap misadventures and life-or-death struggles as of a piece with the movie’s larger commitment to celebrating antiauthoritarianism in all its guises. The film honors the struggle of men to retain personal pride while living in a rapidly changing America that was leaving many of its citizens behind. It’s a paean to a fiercely independent model of survival, and Aldrich contrasts his vivid blue skies with the smoke- and dirt-saturated men struggling to maintain connection with any beauty in the world. Like Pop in The Longest Yard, A-No. 1 is one of Aldrich’s proud resisters, someone trying desperately stay ahead of a system rigged against him from the start.
Much as Aldrich coaxed the best possible performances out of his battling female co-stars in Baby Jane, he also corralled the considerable, collective testosterone on The Longest Yard. Burt Reynolds plays Paul Crewe, a washed-up football star who gets sent to prison and is forced by the corrupt warden (Eddie Albert) to lead a team of prisoners to play against his guards. Reynolds, right on the brink of super-stardom, just had to grin and shrug for the audience to be completely won over, but Aldrich also captures valuable performances from a variety of NFL players who appear as bit players, and he deftly balances big action sequences like the opening car chase (orchestrated by Hal Needham, future director of Reynolds’ career-defining Smokey And The Bandit) with quieter human moments, like the heart-to-heart jail-cell talk between Crewe and his pal Caretaker. But the most impressive play in The Longest Yard is that climactic football game, which Aldrich captures through split-screens that offer multiple perspectives from the teams, the audience, and prisoners listening, riveted, to the action on the radio, heightening the drama both on and off the field.
Though Aldrich was born into New England’s upper crust (Nelson Rockefeller was his cousin), he identified closely with characters on the fringe, who, in his words, felt “strongly enough about something not to be concerned with the prevailing odds.” This career through-line continued into his final film, …All the Marbles, an offbeat and largely affectionate comic drama about a tag-team female wrestler duo (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon) and their short-tempered, opera-loving manager (Peter Falk). Working their way from the Rust Belt circuit to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (with a demeaning stop-over at a mud-wrestling match), the trio shuttles between motels, their daylight hours spent driving from match to match in an old beige Coupe De Ville. The film sums up its worldview in a single line, as one of the wrestlers glances out the car window at an Ohio steel mill and says, “If you think we’ve got it tough, how’d you like to work in there?” More of a last friendly get-together of the director’s pet subjects than an intentional swan song, …All The Marbles isn’t a perfect movie, but its underdog qualities make for a wonderful reflection of its characters—and its director.