Sunday, March 12, 2017

REVIEW: 'Feud: Bette and Joan' - Joan and Bette are Pitted Against Each Other by Robert and Jack in 'The Other Woman'

FX's Feud: Bette and Joan - Episode 1.02 "The Other Woman"

With production on Baby Jane underway, Bette and Joan form an alliance, but outside forces conspire against them.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had so much in common. They were both Oscar-winning actresses who had big opinions about their work. They both carried numerous affairs over their lives. They both struggled to stay relevant in an industry that they helped define. Aging is difficult in any profession. The desire to hang on for as long as one can is palpable throughout this series. "The Other Woman" also digs deep into the systemic problems in the industry that Bette and Joan had to face. They would have been a powerful duo if they could work together as friends and allies. Joan sought Bette for the part in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Bette had that great moment in the premiere where she told Joan that she respected her craft. That admiration could have allowed them to tolerate each other and get through production with very few complications. The opening sequence to this episode shows how formidable they could be working together as they get a young starlet thrown out of the cast. But it's also brutal to watch as the forces in power conspire to keep them at each other's throats to keep publicity high. How the talent, fame and pride of the stars fueled the feud more so than any legitimate hatred towards each other.

It's also important to recognize that all of this remains problematic in the present day. Women are still constantly being pitted against each other. It's a narrative with clear stakes that engages the audience. It's an easy story to write and accept. It's why it's so important to see women as friends encouraging each other and celebrating each other's successes. It's why it's great to see actors like Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as sexual beings onscreen. Much like Davis and Crawford, they are aging actresses in Hollywood where films still rarely know what to do with women of a certain age. That's why it's been such a flourishing time for television. The characters of this show mock the idea of slumming it in TV. They see it as a step down from the glamorous world of the movies. That's a mentality that has constantly been a part of the medium. Film and television have always been at odds. But now more than ever before, the differences between the two are almost non-existent. Yes, movies still favor young stars. It's either action blockbusters or indie films. The death of the mid-range film is very real. But the rise of nuanced and complex roles on television is also phenomenal. This show proves that in giving so much great material to an extremely talented cast.

This is all a part of the mentality that Bette and Joan have always been in. They are aware that actresses are cast aside when they get older. Both Bette and Joan were confident it would never happen to them. And yet, they are still hoping that this film will relaunch their careers and make them relevant once more. They are clinging onto that fame. That's what makes it brutal when the people in power force them into conflict. They were constantly being used against each other. Studio head Jack Warner has always been at the center of that. In the 1940s, he signed Joan Crawford to his studio just to piss Bette Davis off. He wanted to show her she wasn't the only star at the studio. And now, he continues to revel in pitting the two of them against each other. He was reluctant to sign onto this film because of his history with both women. But now, he's excited by the sparks he's seeing onscreen. He's encouraging Robert Aldrich to add fuel to this feud because it will make for an entertaining story that will ultimately get people into the seats at the movie theaters.

Robert does come across as sympathetic throughout this hour because he is juggling so much. He needs this film to work out to revive his career as well. He's just as desperate for fame and attention as Joan and Bette are. And yet, he's also a man. A man with power. A man that both Bette and Joan want to please and look to for guidance. These actresses need to know that they aren't embarrassing themselves. They need the validation that they are doing strong work and that they won't become the laughing stock of the industry. They need Robert's opinion. They are big personalities with big ideas about the film. But they also have their own insecurities. Robert preys on that a little bit. He sees all of this happening firsthand. And yet, he still goes to Hedda Hopper with a false story about Joan just to add to the animosity on set. He knows he shouldn't do it. There are women in his life who tell him it's cruel to make Bette and Joan fight like this. But he still does it because the appreciation of a hit film is just too tantalizing. He craves that feeling. He believes he can please and handle both Joan and Bette. They wake him up in the middle of the night desperately needing his love and affection. He gives it to them while also ignoring his wife in the process. He's a cruel man trying to make the most of an unfortunate situation. But he's still a man in power manipulating it at the expense of two women hoping it will ultimately make him successful.

And this entire episode ultimately comes down to that phenomenal scene between Bette and her daughter, B.D. Neither Bette nor Joan were great parents. Their kids would eventually release memoirs detailing how difficult it was to be raised by narcissists who were more in love with their work and the spotlight. And here, B.D. really has a great moment in yelling at her mother for standing in her way as it's her time to rise. Bette is still clinging on to fame and jealous of the attention her daughter is getting by the crew members on set. She remembers the days where she was the one they all cared about. And now, she's just the diva star of the film. B.D. is happy to be sent away by her mother because it means she can finally step out of her shadow. Bette's star is too all-consuming and she refuses to let any of it go which ultimately takes attention away from her daughter. That's not healthy parenting. So B.D. is right to lash out at her mother and say that it is her time to shine. Bette is known for always getting the last line in. But here, she has nothing to say because the words are true. That is exactly what she's doing. She can't lash out at her daughter for saying them. She can't be jealous. She just has to accept that she is no longer the young star getting the attention. That's difficult for her to grapple with. She can still get the attention of men whenever she wants. She certainly gets Robert's attention when he comes over to comfort her that same night. But it's also fascinating to see this issue so plainly spoken of while knowing it's still something the industry really struggles with. It's a complex issue made even more complicated by people in power manipulating those who desperately crave it in the systems that were set up to allow one women to shine while the rest are cast aside.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Other Woman" was written by Tim Minear and directed by Ryan Murphy.
  • Of course, Joan gets an incredibly devastating and grounded moment too when she confides in Hedda about just how broke she actually is. She loves her extravagant life. She has a lifestyle to maintain. But she also has massive debts associated with Pepsi Cola that could send her spiraling to irrelevance even quicker if the film doesn't work out.
  • Hedda Hopper is such a hoot. Judy Davis is having an absolute blast playing her. She is the show's lone voice of the media. She's the gossip columnist who fuels Bette and Joan into action. It's fascinating to see how much power she wields. The men in charge can decide the fates of women but it's up to Hedda to actually write the stories and stir the pots of animosity and resentment. Plus, she is allowed to carry her own grudges as well.
  • Olivia and Joan's continuing narration of the events of the story from a decade in the future continues to be a good structure for the show. It allows them to speak with confidence of what transpired while also being a little bit out of time as well. They also get to just bluntly describe the overall themes of the episode.
  • The intimacy between Bette and Robert really started with that private rehearsal scene in front of the mirror. That shows that Robert has a strong command of the film he is making and the confidence to pull great performances out of his leading ladies. But it also shows how intimate he is willing to get with them.
  • The other actors in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? are just such minor parts on this show. They pop up with purpose. The actress cast as the next door neighbor shows how powerful Bette and Joan can be when they work together. And then, it's important that the leading man who'll work opposite Bette happens to be a big, gay guy - who doesn't go quite as easily.