Feud: Bette & Joan

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Lost Highway
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Feud: Bette & Joan

#1 Post by Lost Highway » Sat Jan 06, 2018 6:21 am

I approached this with caution as I thought this would just be gay fan fiction and I'm not always the biggest fan of Ryan Murphy or Susan Sarandon. I also recently listened to Karina Longworth's serialised podcast on Joan Crawford, which is one of her best and I wasn't sure what else could be added. Now I'm half way through this season and so far this has been a blast.

I read The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine when it came out in the late 80s. It was fun but about 70% appeared to be made up or at least wildly exaggerated. Davis and Crawford probably didn't waste that much time worrying about each other, Davis' hatred for and rivalry with Miriam Hopkins was far more intense and Crawford probably saw any female as a thread. The show actually dials back on that a little and is an improvement over the book. No doubt it is highly fictionalised and tongue in cheek but it feels like it gets a lot right about ageing divas in Hollywood. It gets to the gist of the characters, Lange and Sarrandon are perfectly cast and simply huge fun to watch, this is among the best work both have done. This isn't just one long catfight as I feared, it's always clear that the biggest obstacle for both is a Hollywood run by men which exploits and objectifies women and is ready to throw them out with the trash once their tits start sagging.

Lange's Crawford, alternating between grand dame pretensions, vulgarity and crushing vulnerability is a lot more plausible than the gargoyle of Mommie Dearest (but then what isn't ?). There is a scene where during a ceasefire she confides to Davis how she lost her virginity, which is one of the most chilling moments of the year in a TV drama and brilliantly handled by both. Sarandon perfectly captures Davis' mannerisms, no-nonsense manner and her sharp wit, even if she isn't any less intimating or manipulative when she has to be. Her friendship with Victor Buono is delightful.

There are quibbles. Both actresses are around quite a bit older than both stars were at the time and the casting of the far younger Catherine Zeta-Jones jars. de Havilland, who should have been flattered, promptly sued the production. Behind the nice girl image she probably always was the toughest and most ruthless of them all. Kathy Bates is great as always, but odd casting as Joan Blondell.

There are some aspects which are no doubt made up to introduce contemporary notes, like the friendship between Robert Aldrich's assistant and Crawford's maid. It's a bit of feminist revisionism, but it still works and makes for a nice contrast to the female warfare. Alison Wright plays a character in the tradition of Mad Men's Peggy trying to break out of her assigned role but still too far stuck in the patriarchal stoneage for her to be taken seriously as an aspiring film-maker. Jackie Hoffman's Mamacita starts out as a caricature but becomes she possibly the most likeable and wisest character on the show.

Art direction, costumes and production values are gorgeous and there is a cute title sequence too.
Last edited by Lost Highway on Sat Jan 06, 2018 4:10 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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thirtyframesasecond
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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#2 Post by thirtyframesasecond » Sat Jan 06, 2018 11:52 am

I really enjoyed it but accepted it on face value and in the same mould as Murphy's The People vs OJ Simpson - it's real life but exaggerated. Given the 'bitchy' reputation of the relationship between the two, I don't feel it really exploited that and focused as much on the inherent sexism of the industry. Both have been chewed up and spat out and are having to rebuild their careers themselves. The problem is though that they typecast themselves into those kinds of roles. Aldrich too, can't break out of being known as a 'cat fight' director - witness the farce of 4 for Texas (Sinatra bullying the hell out of Aldrich). The talking heads didn't really work for me, though perhaps CZJ can return as Olivia De Havilland in Feud: Olivia and Joan (Fontaine).

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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#3 Post by Lost Highway » Sat Jan 06, 2018 12:02 pm

thirtyframesasecond wrote:The talking heads didn't really work for me, though perhaps CZJ can return as Olivia De Havilland in Feud: Olivia and Joan (Fontaine).
I'd happily watch that, though the second season will be about Prince Charles and Diana. Odd choice considering in a couple of years The Crown will have to go over the same story.

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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#4 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Jan 06, 2018 4:59 pm

Yes, though (without having seen the first series) I get the impression that The Crown is meant to be a more 'classy' series that if dealing with the same material might be more focused on the Queen's reactions to her 'annus horribilis' and would not quite as gleefully dive into some of the more salacious tabloid aspects of the Charles and Diana story (the stuff like the taped phone calls between Charles and Camilla with Charles wishing he could be a feminine hygiene product so as to be closer to her; the 'cellulite scandals' surrounding snatched paparazzi photos of Diana leaving her gym and diving into her car; or the rugby player friendship) with the relish that the gloriously gossipy Feud series would seem likely to do, at least based on the treatment of the Davis and Crawford material in this season. Which obviously means that Earl Spencer and Paul Burrell will be the flawed wraparound interviewees equivalent to Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell here! :wink:

I have very much enjoyed the Bette & Joan series too (though still have the last two episodes to watch), though agree with thirtyframesasecond of it feeling a little heightened (the subtext is very on the surface, and characters are constantly talking about their motivations for their actions to each other!), and the slightly shoehorned in aspect of the friendship between the assistant and maid that Lost Highway notes (add in Bette's daughter's arc throughout the series too). Though while it felt as if it was sort of repeating the central idea of the show of women having to fight a constant battle just to stand still in the industry, with few if any opportunities to advance, I did like that those scenes with the supporting characters feel more important for the way that they reflect back on the main characters, being so caught up in catfights and insecurities and their own need to keep their careers going that they ignore (and get fired) younger women instead of supporting them. And that heartbreaking scene between Aldrich and the assistant when she asks him to read her script at the worst possible time, causing him to react badly and the implied potential of much better projects coming Aldrich's way in the future getting lost, replaced by Sinatra abuse and a return to Gothic melodramas! Lost opportunities for reconciliation feels like the theme of the series, which is full of scenes of clashes then one party seeming to be about to relax and decide to treat the other better, only to find that the other has performed their own tit-for-tat piece of revenge in the meantime, which starts the feud up all over again!

The main thing that I really like about the series though was that while it uses Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? as the springboard, it has not been afraid to namecheck (and re-enact!) a whole swathe of other films surrounding the pair. That sense of the times moving on (and the John Waters cameo as William Castle introducing Strait-Jacket!) and the film sets changing around the actors, reflecting the changing mores of the times, have been worth the entire series in itself! (And the casting of Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell is, I think, an intentionally amusing nod towards a future star of a film in the same vein, Misery! Just as Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland is working the other way, foreshadowing the 'shock twist' of de Havilland taking over Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte role!)

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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#5 Post by R0lf » Sat Jan 06, 2018 6:55 pm

Lost Highway wrote:I approached this with caution as I thought this would just be gay fan fiction
So you avoided this because you thought it would be a masterpiece?

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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#6 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Jan 06, 2018 7:34 pm

As a horror nerd, I did find a slight problem with the last episode in the way that it condensed Joan Crawford's British B-movie years, jumping over her first role for producer Herman Cohen, 1967's Berserk! aka Circus of Terror (in which Crawford plays a circus ringmaster!), which was three years before she returned to the UK to make the infamous Trog. It makes sense in the context of the episode to condense the low budget British period to focus on the really goofy final film co-starring with an ape man, but it does mean that a lot of the culture shock aspect doesn't exactly seem plausible as suddenly happening with Trog if we know that Crawford previously worked in Britain, for the same producer albeit with a different director, a couple of years before that! (And also the episode missed another chance for a Crawford-Davis parallel by not noting Bette Davis's own British horror period post-Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, where she at least got to work on actual Hammer Films!)

But I did think that that last episode dealt with the 'heightened for television' aspect of the show really well in the areas where it really counted, with the resolution to the relationships dealt with in a heartbreaking manner, particularly Joan's party scene in her apartment, reminiscing with old acquaintances in a fantasy sequence in lieu of having any real ability left to communicate with the figures who had defined almost every aspect of her past (and I thought it was very appropriate that Mamacita is the only real person left to make amends with at that stage). Though just as heartbreaking was that scene with the fan at the book signing who legitimately appears to love Trog's goofiness, but Joan at this stage of her career can only see it as a mockery of her demeaned circumstances rather than a new way of connecting with a fresh audience who find her as entertaining as she ever was.
Last edited by colinr0380 on Sat Jan 06, 2018 8:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#7 Post by Lost Highway » Sat Jan 06, 2018 8:07 pm

R0lf wrote:
Lost Highway wrote:I approached this with caution as I thought this would just be gay fan fiction
So you avoided this because you thought it would be a masterpiece?
Ha!, good call.

I barreled through the entire second half of the show tonight and it was just great. At the time the book was required reading if you were gay and it struck me like it hit those notes too hard, inventing an entire history of mutual rivalry before Baby Jane which in all likelihood wasn’t a big deal. I think the series improves on that by dropping most of the supposed early history.
colinr0380 wrote:As a horror nerd, I did find a slight problem with the last episode in the way that it condensed Joan Crawford's British B-movie years, jumping over her first role for producer Herman Cohen, 1967's Berserk! aka Circus of Terror (in which Crawford plays a circus ringmaster!), which was three years before she returned to the UK to make the infamous Trog. It makes sense in the context of the episode to condense the low budget British period to focus on the really goofy final film co-starring with an ape man, but it does mean that a lot of the culture shock aspect doesn't exactly seem plausible as suddenly happening with Trog if we know that Crawford previously worked in Britain, for the same producer albeit with a different director, a couple of years before that! (And also the episode missed another chance for a Crawford-Davis parallel by not noting Bette Davis's own British horror period post-Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, where she at least got to work on actual Hammer Films!)

But I did think that that last episode dealt with the 'heightened for television' aspect of the show really well in the areas where it really counted, with the resolution to the relationships dealt with in a heartbreaking manner, particularly Joan's party scene in her apartment, reminiscing with old acquaintances in a fantasy sequence in lieu of having any real ability left to communicate with the figures who had defined almost every aspect of her past (and I thought it was very appropriate that Mamacita is the only real person left to make amends with at that stage). Though just as heartbreaking was that scene with the fan at the book signing who legitimately appears to love Trog's goofiness, but Joan at this stage of her career can only see it as a mockery or her demeaned circumstances rather than a new way of connecting with a fresh audience who find her as entertaining as she ever was.
I thought it was fine to condense her British horror movies after all there also were two William Castle movies. Trog is the more notorious of the British films and I was pleasantly surprised it featured at all and not just to be mocked. They too were just a bunch of people making a movie and in some ways it was more honest than Hollywood.

Crawford apparently hated Johnny Guitar and that would have been the lobby card to be signed had I been standing in that queue.
Last edited by Lost Highway on Sun Jan 07, 2018 4:25 am, edited 4 times in total.

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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#8 Post by Ribs » Sat Jan 06, 2018 8:51 pm

I deeply hate almost all modern television, but Feud was a show after my own heart and I think the fifth episode in particular, spending the entire 50 minutes elaborating on an all-time infamous Oscar moment, is easily one of the most deliciously entertaining television episodes I can recall ever. I think it's a bit of a shame that Murphy didn't stick to his original pitch of "Hollywood Feuds" as he said a while back and is stretching out further (S2 is Buckingham Palace as above, S3 is about a famous gay feud of some sort). I also entirely blame the utter nonsense of Olivia De Havilland's lawsuit for this show getting beaten in literally every single category by Big Little Lies at the Emmy's - Tucci in particular seemed like such a sure thing for his astoundingly over-the-top Warner and having him passed over really bummed me out.

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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#9 Post by Lost Highway » Sat Jan 06, 2018 9:08 pm

Ribs wrote:I deeply hate almost all modern television, but Feud was a show after my own heart and I think the fifth episode in particular, spending the entire 50 minutes elaborating on an all-time infamous Oscar moment, is easily one of the most deliciously entertaining television episodes I can recall ever. I think it's a bit of a shame that Murphy didn't stick to his original pitch of "Hollywood Feuds" as he said a while back and is stretching out further (S2 is Buckingham Palace as above, S3 is about a famous gay feud of some sort). I also entirely blame the utter nonsense of Olivia De Havilland's lawsuit for this show getting beaten in literally every single category by Big Little Lies at the Emmy's - Tucci in particular seemed like such a sure thing for his astoundingly over-the-top Warner and having him passed over really bummed me out.
I haven’t read anything about S3, but if it’s a gay feud it has to be Capote and Vidal.

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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#10 Post by R0lf » Sun Jan 07, 2018 2:14 am

Ribs wrote:I think it's a bit of a shame that Murphy didn't stick to his original pitch of "Hollywood Feuds" as he said a while back and is stretching out further
Yeah. It seemed like after casting Zeta Jones the obvious progression should have been Feud de Havilland & Fontaine.

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Re: Feud: Bette & Joan

#11 Post by Lost Highway » Sun Jan 07, 2018 5:49 am

R0lf wrote:
Ribs wrote:I think it's a bit of a shame that Murphy didn't stick to his original pitch of "Hollywood Feuds" as he said a while back and is stretching out further
Yeah. It seemed like after casting Zeta Jones the obvious progression should have been Feud de Havilland & Fontaine.
I’m sure Olivia & Joan could have been fun but Murphy probably realized it would have covered a lot of the same ground, Oscar jealousy etc. The two sisters never appeared in a movie together which means the behind-the-scenes gossip is less juicy and the rift is less well documented and of course de Havilland is still alive and already has sued for slander thanks to her depiction in Bette & Joan.

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