Sunday, March 26, 2017

REVIEW: 'Feud: Bette and Joan' - Baby Jane is Released While Pauline Reveals Her Career Aspirations in 'More, or Less'

FX's Feud: Bette and Joan - Episode 1.04 "More, or Less"

On the eve of its release, bad word-of-mouth plagues Baby Jane. Bette and Joan brace for failure. Pauline tries to break gender barriers. Oscar nominations are announced.

All of the major characters of Feud were so hopeful about What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? being the film that would turn around their respective careers. There was so much optimism and hopefulness surrounding this picture. It was work that Joan, Bette and Bob believed in. Bette and Joan were willing to put aside their differences because they respected the material. They hoped it would revitalize their careers. Meanwhile, Bob believed this could be his masterpiece that would allow him to be more respected amongst his peers. And thus, it's devastating to watch as all three of them deal with their own insecurities as it comes time for the film to be released. So many expectations have been set. This film needs to be a success. And yet, everyone is hoping it will fail. Bette and Joan are breaking out of the mold and doing something that seems crazy to the people in charge of the studios. The film seems destined for failure. But it doesn't fail. It succeeds. It's on a path towards Oscar nominations. It's a hit. "More, or Less" explores what success means to all of these characters even though it doesn't really change things for them at all.

It's startling to watch Joan throughout this hour because she seems incapable of handling the success of the film. Jack Warner notes that she has a personal stake in the film and should want it to succeed. But instead, she gets hung up on all the reviews praising Bette more than her. She's a very self-centered person. So, it's very devastating that the person Hollywood has constantly pitted her against has once again bested her. This time it's more personal because they worked together. It was a grueling production. They both survived. They explored the personal depths of each other. And yet, they walked away with no larger respect for the other. In fact, there is only more resentment. Joan loves being at the top again. She welcomes people asking for her signature once more. This is the world she has always known. She loves the law of the land because it's been the environment she has spent her whole career in. She doesn't want to be the trailblazer forging a new path. This film succeeded. She hopes it leads to more offers. But it doesn't.

The same is also true of Bette. Both she and Joan went in to their respective agencies looking to field numerous offers. And yet, they don't have a single one. It's depressing. Bette even takes out an ad looking for work. However, Bette knows how to appreciate success better than Joan. With Joan, she spirals into alcoholism because she's not the one getting all of the attention. She sees Bette perform on variety shows and make passive aggressive comments on talk shows and gets furious. Meanwhile, Bette loves the attention. It's still not leading to any big roles in films. But she's willing to put in the work no matter where it is. She's a prominent fixture on television now. She's doing several variety shows as well as a guest spot on Perry Mason. She's turning the film's success into something even though it's not as glamorous or rewarding as she would hope. She too fears that this is it. And even when she finds a new film script she likes, she no longer has the support of Bob. He too has become a man who believes it isn't wise for people to repeat themselves even when those opportunities are plentiful.

Unlike Bette or Joan, Bob is presented with a number of opportunities for his next project. He's able to move onto his next production fairly quickly. He has his choice of project. He doesn't want to repeat himself. He doesn't only want to do B-movies starring two actresses who hate each other. That worked with Baby Jane but it really was exhausting. And yet, he is going to run into difficulties no matter what he does next. His next production is a film starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. It's amusing to see Toby Huss do Sinatra. But it also gets into a much deeper issue as well. One's expectations and the struggle to accept their reality is a difficult process. It's the true test of feeling loved and special versus disappointment. Bob believes he has an Oscar-winning film in him. He's proud to be given that chance now following Baby Jane. But he has to accept the reality that he still may not be given the ability to direct what he really wants. Jack wants Baby Jane to succeed and get as many Oscar nominations as possible. And yet, he doubts that Bob can get one. He's a realist who just doesn't see the potential for greatness in Bob. He's a reliable director who gets the job done. But he's not a visionary.

That's similar to Bette and Joan in a lot of ways. They both saw this film as their comeback but it only set new tests and obstacles for them to overcome. Joan needs an Oscar nomination to feel validated about her performance while Bette needs an actual win in order to be doing the work she loves once more. That's what makes the conclusion of this episode so rewarding and devastating. It plays almost as its own horror movie. Joan wakes up in her bed and finds that all of the phones in her extravagant house aren't hung up. It's the dial noise that really sets the scene for devastation. She wanders in the isolation not sure what's happening or where everyone has gone. It's only after she hangs up the final phone that Mamacita appears. Joan knows that it's Oscar morning. She knows that things didn't go according to plan. But Mamacita knows the truth and Joan doesn't. She knows the news will destroy her. It will confirm her deepest fears about this project. The hour doesn't have to tell the audience that Bette got an Oscar nomination and Joan didn't. It's written all over the way Mamacita says Joan should sit down. That moment is heartbreaking and sets Joan up to fall even further down her despair.

While all of this is happening, Pauline makes her ambitions clear as well. So far, she's just been a secondary character. Someone by Bob's side to help him navigate production of Baby Jane. And now, she's hoping to have her shot as well. She wants to direct a film. She has a script and wants Joan to star in it. She's very hopeful and confident in her ability to do this. She can plead her case for why she should be given this shot. And yet, it's so crushing when Joan tells her she can't ask for this opportunity without seeming ungrateful to the people who have given her so much already. It's the mentality that Joan grew up with in this business. She sees men as directors because that's the way the studio system has always done things. She doesn't want to help another women break through. She's riding high on Baby Jane. She hasn't spiraled into alcoholism yet. She doesn't risk her newfound success for someone who might not even be good. She's not ready to stoop to that level for her career yet. However, this story takes an even more tragic turn later on. On one hand, it is devastating when both Joan and Bob crush Pauline's hopes and dreams. But the story ends on the hopeful note that the studios will need more women directors and stories in the future because of population growth. It's a hope that Mamacita gives Pauline. It's something they both believe in. One day, they'll get their shot to truly do what they want. It's devastating because the audience knows it's not true. To this day, women still struggle to be taken seriously as directors. Sure, things are better now. Television is making more of an effort to be inclusive than film. This episode is directed by Liza Johnson. But women directors still aren't being handed the reigns to a billion dollar franchise film nor are they the ones who typically get nominated on Oscar morning. Feud is hopeful that one day things will be different. But it also highlights how things really haven't changed in the past fifty years. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "More, or Less" was written by Gina Welch & Tim Minear and directed by Liza Johnson.
  • Olivia and Joan return in this hour as well. They too comment on the hopes that the success of Baby Jane would have led to more female stories. And yet, they remark on the cynicism of the studios and the easy ability to deem it a fluke. That's still a practice all too common nowadays as well.
  • It's lovely that Mamacita gets more focused this week as well. She's truly supportive of Pauline's dream of directing her own film. She sees it as the personification of the American dream. How in this country anyone can do whatever they want and not be forced onto a certain path.
  • It's not shocking that Joan doesn't remember who Pauline is or why she doesn't even want to read her script. She's a big movie star who has no time for the common person. That's what makes Bob's casual dismissal later on more devastating. He respects her and believes she can direct. He just doesn't make any time to actually read her script.
  • It really is surprising that Joan wanted nothing to do with the actual promotion of the film - especially once Jack reminds everyone of her own financial stake in it. That scene between Joan and Jack is really intense but really great to watch.
  • This week's episode ends with Oscar nominations and next week's will include the actual ceremony. After that, I'm not quite sure what the show is planning on doing with its story. It will still have three hours left. And yet, I'm sure it will be great because the creative team has established enough trust.