Feud: Bette and Joan
Cast - Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci
Rating - 4/5
One of the most iconic moments in movie history comes at the end of Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond, a forgotten movie star of the silent era descends down the grand staircase of her Hollywood mansion. She lives there in isolation, delusional, having created a fantasy in which she is still the world’s most attractive starlet. And with garish, self-inflicted makeup slathered on her once-magnificent face, she floats down the staircase, only to be greeted by policemen and reporters, gathered there to arrest her for murder. She takes a breath, hits her mark, soaks in the light, and delivers the classic line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Sunset Boulevard has a lot in common with the new anthology show from the terrifically prolific Ryan Murphy, called Feud. In true Murphy fashion, it’s a highly addictive, shamelessly melodramatic, and casually insightful 8-episode series about one of the most bitter rivalries in Hollywood history. It answers the question ‘can actresses get along?’ by cackling gleefully in its face and sabotaging its entire career for good measure.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis would have both been contemporaries of Norma Desmond’s. Both were two of the most celebrated stars – and in many regards, still are – of Hollywood’s golden age. But in 1961, they were in the twilight of their careers. The good roles – heck, all roles – were drying up. The once-starstruck fans who used to think a million times before asking them for autographs still stared, but with only pity in their eyes.
But then Joan (Jessica Lange), ever the hustler, despite years of living like a queen, took matters into her own hands. If no one was going to offer her roles, she’d find her own. She picked a pulpy thriller out of a pile, took it to director Bob Aldrich (played here by Alfred Molina), who brought it to studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci having a blast) and demanded he let them make it into a movie - because ‘Hitch just did it with Psycho and he’s still raking it in’.
After the brief coercion of Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon, who doesn’t look a day over 40, but is, unbelievably, 70), an actor whom Joan had admired over the years, but perhaps out of fear, or insecurity - probably both - had never approached, they decide to make Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and set into motion one of the strangest tales in showbiz history.
Of course, there’s a very palpable meta narrative in play here. And while it would be foolish to say that stars Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are has-beens (They’re anything but. They are, in fact, the history-defying, trends-bucking anomaly, doing some of the best work of their careers towards the end of it), they are, the both of them, of a certain age. And just like it used to be in the 1960s (or any other decade for that matter), even today, for men, age brings character, but for women, it’s usually a sign to wipe off the makeup, and to call it a day.
But Feud, aside from being yet another winner of a show from Ryan Murphy (only last year, he delivered the brilliant American Crime Story), is also an astute statement on the role of women in entertainment. Not much has changed in Hollywood since the ‘60s. But back then, for Bette and Joan to do TV was seen as a sign of defeat. And this irony – this newfound respect that TV has earned for itself today – isn’t lost on the show, which casts Sarandon and Lange, who are, at least as far as acclaim goes (not so much the manic vengeance), their modern counterparts.
And this casting greatly elevates the pulpy storytelling, just like it did with American Crime Story, and the recent murder mystery Big Little Lies (which is, like Feud, another path-breaking show starring women).
Sarandon plays Bette Davis in a more reserved manner. She is just as cut-throat as Joan, but is methodical about it – just as she is in her acting, and her approach to work. She never makes the first move, but isn’t above revenge - and most insidiously, she is patient.
Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford however, is a bitter, jealous, petty, and disturbingly devious human being, destroyed by success, glamour and alcohol. Her delusions of grandeur drive her to do some truly controversial things in the show . Her desire to be loved, to not be forgotten, her desire to keep fighting, blinded by the idea of success, having tasted it for so many years, is uncomfortable to watch.
And by most accounts, this is how she behaved in real life. Years after her death, her daughter’s expose of a memoir painted her to be a ruthlessly ambitious woman who would abuse her children - the same children she adopted (perhaps to improve her public image) and disinherited from her will.
In her later years, Joan Crawford became a recluse in her Hollywood mansion. She stopped having visitors over, tragically vain till her final moments. She gave up her pets, because, like her children, she realised she could not care for them.
You could almost picture her descending down a grand old staircase, coated in thick makeup, ready for her close-up.