Sunday, March 5, 2017

REVIEW: 'Feud: Bette and Joan' - Joan Crawford Recruits Bette Davis for Her New Film in 'Pilot'

FX's Feud: Bette and Joan - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Cast aside by Hollywood, screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis battle ageism, sexism and each other when they sign up to make What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

FX's new anthology series Feud: Bette and Joan could easily slide into becoming a campy mess. It tells the behind-the-scenes story of the infamous feud between screen legends Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It also comes from prolific producer Ryan Murphy, whose projects tend to go campy and off-the-rails at some points. And yet, Murphy is also famous for giving actresses of a certain age phenomenal roles to play. He has already given new life to Jessica Lange's career through the American Horror Story franchise. And now, he welcomes even more Oscar winners to the cast of Feud - including Susan Sarandon, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates. All of this could easily turn out to be too much to handle. The scope of the actual story and the writers' willingness to go to the extreme could become erratic and ridiculous. However, this opening does a strong job in being very deliberate and measured with its craft. It knows the details of this story. It understands the personas behind these women. It digs deeper into the tension in the feud. It allows the campy moments to happen but it's also providing the backstory that fueled these women into these actions. It's a fascinating hour to watch. One that also hints at much better things to come in the future.

There was also the concern that the show might be too meta. All inside Hollywood stories tend to be that way. This is an industry that is constantly fascinated with itself and the stories of people they know. The careers of Joan and Bette are historic and legendary. Their talents revolutionized the film industry early in their careers. They each won Oscars. And yet, it's fascinating to see Hollywood turn against them as they age. In a male-dominated industry, their talents were no longer enough to keep getting lead roles. As studio head Jack Warner says frankly, these two women are no longer fuckable. The use of that word - and later calling Bette a cunt - shows that Feud isn't afraid to cross the language barrier in order to drive its point home. This was a tough time for older woman. In many ways, that has gotten better in the years since. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are iconic actresses as well. They both have Oscars. And now, they are no longer getting leading roles in films but have found new life in their careers by transitioning to television. It's given them newfound relevance. But more importantly, it's given them roles to really sink their teeth into. It would be easy to do the broad strokes of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in their performances. But both Lange and Sarandon want to analyze their psyches a little more. They appear to dig deeper to the truth and the human beings these women were. It paints a much fuller story than a tale of Hollywood simply congratulating itself once more.

This hour does a strong job in showcasing how Joan and Bette were alike in many ways but their key differences are what drove their feud. They are phenomenally talented actors who have respect for each other's craft. Their differences are pretty striking though. Joan is obsessed with outward appearances. It's the life she has crafted for herself after a lifetime of abuse by men. She desperately wants to be seen as Hollywood royalty at all times. So, she lives in an extravagant mansion with lots of paid help. She pays a woman, Mamacita, to follow her around at all times as her maid/assistant. She's very self-involved and wants to remain beautiful forever. And yet, she's also terrified by returning to the set after not filming a movie in three years. She needs to be the woman everyone expects her to be and that pressure often leads her to drink and double down on the need to be beautiful - even though it doesn't fit the character she's playing. Meanwhile, Bette has no concern for outward beauty. She lives in a more quaint and inviting home. Her love for her craft leads her to work all of the time - even if it's just a small part on Broadway. Her profession is the only passion she really has because she's not the traditional wife and husband society or herself wants her to be. She's unafraid to be seen as ugly on camera. In fact, he goes delightfully over-the-top with the makeup in the episode's most stylized moment revealing her grand look for the film. And yet, that moment shows that she believes herself to be right all of the time. She has respect for other actors but her beliefs on the roles are always the best ideas to her and everyone else should just listen.

And yet, both Joan and Bette need What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to revitalize their careers. Joan is looking for another Oscar win. She demands it. She's the one who puts this film together. It's astonishing to see how much work went into actually making this film. The scripts weren't coming in with interesting roles. Joan had to find this novel herself. Then she had to find and convince Bette and Robert Aldrich to join her. And then, Robert had to sell the film to one of the major studios - and even then they wanted to recast the leads with younger stars. Everything only worked out once Jack Warner agreed to the film after most of the financing was already in. Bette Davis put a crack in the Hollywood system during her time working with Jack. That's still something he is recovering from. He has the power to cast her aside if he wants to. And yet, the deal that Robert is presenting is just too good to pass up. It shows just how high the pressure is to get this project right. This is the last attempt for all of the people involved to show to the world that they are still relevant and worth obsessing over. It's an emotional time for all. This project could add renewed interest in their careers. But there's no guarantee that it will work out for them. Plus, it means Joan and Bette being at each other's throats for reasons that are much more nuanced than they ever seemed before.

Of course, a lot of this premiere plays as set up for this feud as well. It's interesting to see it as a whole and the amount of detail that went into recreating the lives of these famous people. Joan and Bette's world views are completely different and that comes across in the direction. Joan's world is more transparent and fantastical with her extravagant life and trying to win over people's affections. That means she lashes out in ridiculous ways once she believes others are trying to trick her. Meanwhile, Bette's world is much darker and more realistic in tone. It's dark and depressing. It doesn't get stuck up on trivial details. She just wants her whiskey, cigarette and the ability to do amazing work. Despite their differences on set and within the show, they still have similar reactions to seeing themselves onscreen in the film. It's rough footage from the first day. But it's emotional for both of them. This story is about pitting them against each other in order to entertain the masses. That's what journalist, Hedda Hopper, is trying to do by encouraging them to talk poorly of the other. But it's still emotional for them to see themselves on camera in these roles. They are not the people they used to be. That can be an adjustment. But they are hopeful that this new reality will lead to brighter futures - even if it means sharing the screen with the other.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Jaffe Cohen, Michael Zam & Ryan Murphy and directed by Ryan Murphy.
  • What does everyone think about the framing device of famous actors like Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell talking to a documentary film career about the feud between Bette and Joan? It's interesting because it involves Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kathy Bates. But a ton of it is exposition as well and informing the audience of the lives and careers Joan and Bette have had up to now.
  • It's also fascinating to see Bette and Joan take offense to being cast aside for younger starlets. For Joan, it's Marilyn Monroe after she wins a Golden Globe. For Bette, it's her younger co-star in the play who gets flowers from the audience. 
  • It sure does seem like Robert has a handful in trying to manage both Joan and Bette on the set. They both have big ideas about what the film should be but he also has to keep it all on schedule and make sure that it all actually happens too. That could easily be a frustrating and thankless role for him.
  • Of course, Joan was willing to walk away from the film completely once she learned that Bette was going to be making more money than her. She uses that to negotiate a raise for herself. And yet, she's willing to give Bette top billing because she's playing the title role.
  • That's Alison Wright (from The Americans) as Robert's assistant Pauline and Kiernan Shipka (from Mad Men) as Bette's daughter B.D. Both stellar actresses cast in minor parts here that should become more important later on. Plus, it's fascinating to see them both remain in period dramas.