Sunday, March 19, 2017

REVIEW: 'Feud: Bette and Joan' - Production Wraps as Joan and Bette Focus on Being Parents in 'Mommie Dearest'

FX's Feud: Bette and Joan - Episode 1.03 "Mommie Dearest"

As the production of Baby Jane reaches its climax, the feud becomes physical. Bette's relationship with her daughter becomes strained when she bonds with a new cast member. Joan reveals an intimate detail about her past.

Both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were over-the-top personalities and Hollywood royalty. They each came from humble beginnings. They understood the value of a hard work ethic. That's what makes it so gripping to watch as they try to hang on in this profession for as long as they can. They believe they still have terrific performances left to give to the world. They still want to work. They just haven't been given the opportunities. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? changed that for them. They see this as the film that will breathe new life into their careers. It's already received a ton of buzz and attention from the studio and the press. And yet, production wraps in this episode and neither Joan nor Bette have more work lined up. They once again return to their respective lives unsure of what the future will bring. There's the hope that they just created a masterpiece film that will earn them Oscar nominations. Their films will be an impressive legacy. But now, it's hitting them that that won't be enough. Bette has the line of the episode in saying that "children are the real legacy." This episode delves further into who these women were as mothers and how their fame affected their children.

The public perception of Joan and Bette in 2017 is certainly clouded by the fact that both of their daughters would go on to publish scathing memoirs of their mothers. Those books paint the two of them as horrible parents. And yet, "Mommie Dearest" hopes to dig deeper into the psyches of these women. It examines the upbringings they had and how they viewed being parents. It's remarkable to see Joan and Bette sit down for drinks and talk about their childhoods. It shows that the two of them really were capable of being friends who respected each other. And yet, there is tragedy in this scene as well as Joan goes into detail about the sexual relationship she had with her stepfather when she was 11. She sees it as a consensual relationship. However, there's no way to justify this as anything other than abuse. Bette reacts in horror. This gives Joan more sympathy as a human being knowing that her parents abused her. She didn't learn a strong work ethic until she was sent aware to a boarding school with nuns. Bette didn't have it as bad but she learned how to work hard once she went away for school as well. Again, the parallels between the woman are so striking.

It's also fascinating to see how their parenting styles differ. Joan has almost a compulsive need to be a mother. She has no template for what good parenting looks like. And yet, it's clear she wants to be a better mother to her kids than her own mother was to her. She makes a big deal about her mother not sending her flowers during an opening performance. But she does still ultimately send some for her daughter. Underneath all of this is a fear of being alone though. In the first few episodes of the season, Joan's children weren't seen. She was simply in that extravagant house with Mamacita by her side. She enjoyed the lifestyle of being Joan Crawford and put on a show for everyone who came into her world. That's a lot of pressure to subject children to. But it's also fascinating to see how restrained and disciplined they are. She has control over them. But she also fears that they will all leave her. She has serious abandonment issues made even worse by her being refused to adopt another child after production wraps. Just like her career, she is being denied what she wants because of her age. She's still clinging onto her youth and relevance. And yet, it's fleeting in ways that are terrifying to her. That's such a compelling story told throughout this episode.

Meanwhile, Bette's daughter has been seen in every episode of the series so far. It's definitely weird to see Mad Men's Kiernan Shipka as a sexualized teenager of the 1960s. And yet, she has been able to go toe-to-toe with Susan Sarandon in some tremendous ways. It was heartbreaking last week when the two of them got into a fight. And now, Bette is trying to reign in B.D. a little bit. However, her efforts to get her into acting are disastrous. B.D. doesn't have acting talent. She is in the film as the neighbor girl. It's a small but noticeable part. It definitely brings her closer to her mother. But it's also fascinating to see Bette appreciate talent more than family. She is there for her co-star Victor because she respects his craft. She still comforts B.D. when she believes her performance ruins the film. But she also chooses to run lines with Victor instead of her daughter in that pseudo-sibling rivalry. She's there for Victor when he needs it the most - bailing him out of jail after getting arrested. Meanwhile, she's just struggling to connect with B.D. Of course, it's also heartbreaking to learn she has another child with special needs who needs special attention. Bette wants to believe she's doing all of this for her children. She wants to give them everything they need. She just isn't getting any kind of appreciation or reward for doing that which is difficult to embrace when it seems like her last chance at relevance has just ended.

All of this is poignant, emotional and heartbreaking material. And yet, "Mommie Dearest" is also incredibly funny - especially when it comes to the antics on the set of the film. This series easily could have been all camp in depicting the crazy antics that happened between these two women. That quality is still there. The series is just very mindful of the fact that these were multi-faceted women who were often pitted against each other by the media and corporate elites. However, it's just so amusing to see the little tricks they pulled to get on each other's nerves. Plus, the realization that they could have gone farther with them as well. It's great to see the moment of Bette kicking Joan in the head on accident. It's also wonderful to see Joan narrate the events of shooting her death scene to Hedda while also being the over-the-top diva on set. It's hilarious to think that between takes she was returning to her trailer to make herself look younger. That's just the wrong mentality to have going into a death scene. It's what led to the film needing reshoots and a recreation of the beach on the set. That's insightful and humorous information to have. But it's all building up to that final shot of the two actresses leaving the set for the final time from opposite sides of the studio. This experience could have brought them closer together. They did have some good times. But much like the characters they played, they don't come to that realization until the end of their story.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Mommie Dearest" was written by Tim Minear and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton.
  • This is the first episode of the series without the framing device of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell telling the audience a bunch of exposition to understand the lives lived by Joan and Bette. It still includes a ton of backstory for both of them as well. This time though it's the two of them sharing it with each other. 
  • Joan and Bette are already clashing about Oscar categories. They are both being billed as the stars. And yet, should one go supporting and the other lead? That's a good source of tension that will probably only intensify now that the picture is wrapped and heading towards release.
  • Joan doesn't even do a great job at hiding the fact that she's trying to appear younger while on the beach. Bob's assistant has to point it out to him. Meanwhile, Jack knows that what she's doing is effectively ruining the ending of the film.
  • Joan isn't all alone in this world because she has Mamacita. Just imagine how lost she would be without her! Her presence is comforting as well though. It's clear that she has support and love even though it doesn't come from her children.
  • It's fascinating to see Hedda go to Bette for her side of the story about the film. She gets so much of her intel from Joan because they seemingly have a friendship. Of course, Hedda reveals herself not to be that great of a friend. But it's also important that Bette doesn't really sink to that level of gossip - even though she does make a hurtful comment about her daughter's performance.
  • It is surprising that production on the film has already wrapped and its only the third episode of the season. How much story is this season going to try to tell? It's been entertaining and insightful so far. So, I'm onboard for the ride. Just curious about where all of this is going?