Wednesday, April 12, 2017

THE TRUE FIGHT IN “FEUD” IS THE BATTLE OF BETTE AND JOAN AGAINST SEXISM

Original caricature by Jeff York of Judy Davis, Alfred Molina, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in FEUD.
(copyright 2017) 
Despite a superb list of actresses nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in February of this year - Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Isabelle Huppert, Ruth Negga, and Meryl Streep - and at least another eight on the short list - Amy Adams, Annette Bening, Tarija P. Henson, Hailee Steinfeld, Sandra Huller, Jessica Chastain, Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte - Hollywood is hardly a cake-walk for women onscreen. It’s worse behind the scenes if the Academy Awards nominations are any indication as female nominees were down 2% from the previous year.  

The continuing problems that women face in Hollywood are currently being portrayed on FX Network with its new miniseries FEUD. Its freshman season tells the story of the famous battle onscreen and off between classic movie stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange respectively, with the focus on their time making WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? together back in 1962. They competed all their lives for the sparse good roles afforded women, even during the Golden Age of Hollywood when many stars had illustrious studio contracts, and their struggle to matter became even more frantic when they chose to make a darkly comic horror movie together. 

The fact that the script they chose was also about a rivalry between two aging actresses in Hollywood only added to the vividness of their daily battles. Of course, what they were really fighting against was a lot bigger than each other. They were taking aim at an industry that all but turned their backs on them once they turned 50. When director Robert Aldrich approached them with a starring vehicle, they both jumped at the chance because neither had been offered anything close to such a prominent role or project in some time.

Yet, this film was hardly GONE WITH THE WIND. It was not even close to a prestige picture. In reality, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? was a B picture, one that was placed in the low-class genre of horror no less. Granted, horror movies made a move towards the big time when top filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock plumbed the genre to make his smash film PSYCHO two years earlier, but by and large, horror remained the domain of secondary talents. It certainly wasn't the place for Oscar winning actresses like Davis and Crawford. Still, if they ever hoped to get back on the A list, they needed a hit, and even a successful B picture was better than no picture at all. 

The series focuses on the horrors of the project, but mostly during the backstage treachery. The two women came into the project with a frostiness towards each other, and as they competed for screen time, attention from director Aldrich (Alfred Molina), and good press, they turned into vicious and antagonists rivals. They fought, argued, carped at each other constantly, and helped stir up vicious gossip about each other during the entire filming. The truly scary things weren't onscreen, no matter how many rats were to be served as lunch by the lead character. They were in the desperation and duplicity behind the scenes.  

Yes indeed, “Baby Jane” Hudson, the protagonist of the piece, serves her sister Blanche a rat for lunch at one point in BABY JANE. That plot point is a reflection of her hate and animosity towards her sister. And it's based on the fact that Blanche became a bigger movie star than she was back in the day. Jane, once she reached adulthood, lost hold on the show biz community and interest in her by the studios dried up. The rejection turned her into a bitter woman who, slowly but surely, grew more insane with every passing year of being ignored. Then, well into her fifties, Jane had become a hard-drinking and delusional bully whose sole purpose in life now was to torment her unemployable star sister.

Blanche had been out of the game for decades due to an automobile  accident where Baby Jane ran her down back when they were both starlets in their 20's. Blanche was the toast of Tinsel Town, and Jane's resentment towards her sis's success drove her to act out. Or so Blanche would have us believe. Since that act, Blanche has been confined to a wheelchair, having lost the use of her legs. None of that creates any sympathy in Jane however as she still carries her toxic sibling resentment. The two has-beens are forced to live together and they live on the meager savings they have. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is a tale of hatred and betrayal, but it's also about their strange co-dependency. No matter how many carping comments fly about, or rodents get served with spring vegetables, there is still a bond there that each need. 

Davis played the bipolar aspects of the Jane role to the hilt, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes despicable, and conjured an outrageous character who became an instant screen classic. Crawford, on the other hand, had a role that required more subtly and she rose to the occasion giving a nuanced and equally complex performance. Her Blanche was the more reasonable one of course, but it was different from most of the roles Crawford had played in the past. The star made her career essaying tough broads onscreen, but this performance was miles away from the usual strong and even strident roles on her resume. Davis got most of the attention what with playing the title character and all, but Crawford was equally superb. Blanche may have lost the use of her legs, but she was still a fighter, huffing and puffing, dragging herself up and down staircases to try to phone authorities to come and take away her crackpot sibling. It's a very physical performance that Crawford exhibited and it was just as horrific seeing this grande dame drag her keister around the set, as much as it was viewing Davis in Jane's child-like curls, overt pancake makeup and heart-shaped beauty mark.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?  (copyright 2017)
Straddling the line between horror and dark comedy, the 1962 classic is really a chamber piece about the two women. Sure, an occasional interloper stops by, like Victor Buono's down-on-his-luck piano player character that Jane wants to employ to help her show biz comeback, but most of the two hour and 14 minute movie is the two women dominating the screen. Their scenes were consistently electric, both shocking in their acrimony and impressive in how committed the two actresses were to their roles, and audiences were mesmerized. 

The animosity that Davis and Crawford had for each other only intensified their onscreen fighting and the gossip surrounding the production greatly helped the film became even more of buzz worthy hit. The film, despite its B origins, was also expertly directed by Aldrich, shot by Ernest Haller, edited by Michael Luciano and scored by Frank De Vol. Norma Koch's memorably macabre costumes even won the Oscar that year for a black and white film. Mostly, the script was utterly superb in its complex examination of dementia, sibling rivalry, and the disposability of actresses in a town that eats them up young and spits them out at 40. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? could easily stand with SUNSET BOULEVARD and ALL ABOUT EVE as a triptych about sexism in show business. That is the true horror at play in the film.   

The parallels couldn’t be more apparent to what both Davis and Crawford were dealing with as well, and the FEUD series is a bittersweet look at what it was like for these two superstars to be scrambling for crumbs in a town that had all but forgotten them. Creator Ryan Murphy and his team keep that the focus on that throughout and its mortifying to see how much abuse the two legends received from the studio and the trades. 

The two true villains of FEUD are Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis). Every scene of theirs showcases one venal attempt after another to stir the pot. They promoted rancor and hostility between the two actresses at every turn. Warner calls Davis a c**t, and it's amazing that such words are now allowed on basic cable, but even more shocking is how the studio bigwig regards the two-time Academy Award winner. And Hopper was one of the first women in power to work actively against other women in the business as she played them off each other merely to create juice for her column.  

Of course, the two vulnerable actresses fall victim to the bait laid out for them and turned the shooting of BABY JANE into a true nightmare for all involved, mostly Aldrich. (The world-weary director is the other big victim in this story.) With all of Davis' and Crawford's on-set tantrums, delays and tensions, it's astounding that their film turned out to be so great. The film went on to break Warner Bros. box office records and even scored five Oscar nominations. Davis was nominated by the Academy, but Crawford was passed over. And Joan just couldn’t let it go. Ultimately, she worked behind the scenes with Hopper to sabotage Davis’ chances at the prize and even showed up on behalf of absent winner Anne Bancroft (THE MIRACLE WORKER) to accept the trophy. Again, nothing is quite as ugly as women with power using it to oppress other women.

FEUD could have ended its story there with Davis' humiliation at the Oscar ceremony but Murphy, et al. had more in mind. There is more to the story and the episode after that,“Hagsploitation”, may be the best in the bunch so far. It focuses on the projects the actresses were offered after their ginormous success in BABY JANE, and sadly, what they were offered was mostly shit. Hollywood now not only viewed them as old, but as hags worthy of contempt and malice. The roles they were offered post-JANE were not A list vehicles, but more B pictures asking them to play hags, kooks, and spinsters. 

Crawford got stuck playing an ax murderer in an exploitation flick in STRAIGHT-JACKET. Davis was so turned off by the film scripts she was offered, she started looking at work in television series, which was not done by legitimate movie stars in those days. Why, she was so beside herself, she was even willing to take on supporting roles in weekly series. Warner didn't do particularly well by Aldrich either as he was instructed by Warner to develop and direct more B's, including a virtual sequel to his biggest success called WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO COUSIN CHARLOTTE? Of course, Jack Warner wanted both actresses to play in it, as he proudly boasted of creating the new "hagsploitation" genre, and he wanted them as his poster children. 

Warner even brags to Aldrich in the FEUD series about how it's great to see the once glamorous and accomplished actresses taken down and humiliated. He has no real use for women who've lost their shelf life of ingenue attractiveness and it shows in every word he utters about the two. The film would eventually come to be called HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, but not before losing Crawford as costar, due to the degradation of it all. The film ended up cementing a new type for Davis to be cast as, that of the overwrought harpie, and she would play that role again and again in lesser films and TV appearances for the remainder of her acting years. (At least she had a worthy, big screen role as a murder suspect in the Agatha Christie thriller DEATH ON THE NILE in 1978.)

While Sarandon's performance as Davis could have stood to capture more of the legend's smoky crag, and the sing-song qualities in her delivery, she does captures the steeliness of the maverick woman. Lange, on the other hand, may have never given as great a performance as she does here. While not closely resembling Crawford in appearance - Lange is rounder and less brittle looking - she captures both her fragile ego and outsized vulnerability with a vividness that is heartbreaking. With each episode, Lange's Crawford becomes more and more of her own worst enemy. The MILDRED PIERCE Oscar winner couldn't get past the slights the biz forwarded her for over 30 years, and she let it ruin even her victories like BABY JANE. It's understandable especially, when in her 50's, she had to battle to keep youthful nude photos from hitting the gossip pages. 

Ultimately, Murphy has really hit on a big idea with FEUD, as it can easily tell the stories of famous public fights for a dozen seasons. And, as with all of his productions, the set direction, costumes, scoring, and performances are all top-notch. It should clean up at the Emmys come September, and Kyle Cooper can probably write his acceptance speech now for his sublime title sequence. Murphy is at his most disciplined here with the themes of Hollywood sexism fully in focus throughout each episode. Still, some critics have called his latest efforts here high camp, but that itself is an egregiously sexist critique. Yes, it’s a genuine howl at times, but the sadness is always there as well. This story is not a joke. It's actually a various serious work, despite its huge entertainment appeal.

And it serves as a scathing commentary about how little has changed today. Look no further than the recent interview Emma Thompson gave and she told stories about being intimidated into weight loss by a town that values youthful bodies over talent or brains. At least a backlash is starting against such outdated thinking. There's been quite an outcry in the past years about how studios and production company's still offer young actresses roles that are meant for older actresses. Case in point - despite winning an Oscar for her efforts, Jennifer Lawrence was still a decade too young to be playing the female lead in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. And she was 20 years too young to be playing the role she took in AMERICAN HUSTLE. Yes, she was great in both roles, but that doesn't change the fact that she was still miscast. The parts should've gone to women in their 30's or 40's.  

But in a show biz world that is still slow to change, and has taken  forever to call out the likes of serial predators like Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, at least the tide is starting to shift. Cosby is reviled now, and Bill-O may not return to his show after his sudden "vacation announcement" following the story about he and Fox paying off women he's harassed. Also, A list stars are sharing their stories, and the sexual abuse testimony of those like Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Lady Gaga, Ashley Judd and Megyn Kelly at the hands of powerful entertainment execs, is getting a lot of ink. The white-hot lights of justice are finally being shone on the continuing plague and it seems that there is now a more urgent sense of propriety and moral obligation in Tinsel Town. It’s a tragedy that Hollywood treated Davis and Crawford so shabbily, but perhaps by telling their story in FEUD it will help fuel more to join the battle. 

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