Sunday, April 9, 2017

REVIEW: 'Feud: Bette and Joan' - Bob Brings Bette and Joan Back Together for A New Film in 'Hagsploitation'

FX's Feud: Bette and Joan - Episode 1.06 "Hagsploitation"

Hungry for another hit, Warner pressures Aldrich to bring the original team back together for a follow-up hag horror pic. Someone from Joan's past poses a threat.

It's been fascinating to see Feud focus on the pressure that creative types put on themselves to be in a hit and stay relevant to the world around them. Every single character on this show is trying to remain important even though they are past their prime. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis are Hollywood royalty. But they are struggling to find work that they are passionate about. Jack Warner is the last man standing from the studio system era of Hollywood. He feels like he can be pushed out at any time if he's not too careful. And finally, Robert Aldrich is desperate to be seen as a visionary director and not someone who simply created a new genre of film. All of these are important themes and stories for the show. It truly digs deep into who these characters are and what they want from their lives at this point in their careers. They look back and are envious of everything they have done. They feel the pressure to keep doing great work. There is just nothing there for them to find though. Everyone thought that the success of Baby Jane would change everything. As is all too common though, the success of one film simply isn't enough to change a whole industry.

It's also been clear that this season is trying to tell a lot of story in regards to the feud between Bette and Joan. It could have just focused on the production of Baby Jane and how it all culminated in that epic moment at the Academy Awards. That was such a thrilling and pivotal event in last week's episode. And yet, it's not the end of this story. It wasn't the end of the feud. It was simply the point of no return for the two of them. They got along alright during production of Baby Jane. But the fiasco at the Academy Awards made them actively hate each other. The season is going to spend its last three episodes focusing on that aftermath. That includes production on Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte which was envisioned as a follow-up film to Baby Jane that reunited the creative team once more. It's an extremely telling move as well. Whenever something breaks out in Hollywood, the other studios will try to copy it hoping to tap into similar success. Baby Jane inspired a new genre of movies with horror films centered on aging woman. So, that's what makes this sequel of sorts seem appealing to everyone involved. They see it as their next opportunity for success and to continue to be seen as legitimate creatives in Hollywood. Again, it probably won't change anything but the feeling that it will is so seductive that it sweeps everyone up into it even though they should know better.

But again, both Joan and Bette need a film like this to still be relevant in Hollywood. After the Academy Awards, Joan wasn't getting any offers for nine months. She finally signed on to Strait-Jacket, which seems like an absolute farce that eventually leads to her putting on shows before the movie screenings. It's ridiculously campy but it's also hilarious to see how Joan thinks all of this is beneath her. She believes she's better than all of this. She believes she's better than Bette as well who is finding work on television. All of this is important information to have when Bob comes to Joan and Bette offering them this new film. It would seem crazy for either of them to consider working together again. And yet, they agree to it in the hopes that it will be better. They have to believe that. They need to believe that this isn't it for their careers. There still needs to be some life yet otherwise they are as good as dead. Joan won't even go out to parties if she doesn't have a film to promote. That's how much perception and reputation mean to her. She needs to get top billing in this film. That's what she needs to believe that production will be different than Baby Jane. Vanity is what's important to Joan. With Bette, it's the quality. She wants complete creative control over the script. She wants her opinions to be taken seriously. That's what she cares about most.

With Bob, he needs to prove that he's still got it as a director. His film with Frank Sinatra was a massive flop. He hated it every step of the way. He did it just to spite Jack Warner and his opinion that he'll never be seen as a great director. He wants to be involved in something he is incredibly passionate about. He wants to do a movie he loves. He wants to be respected on set. He wants control over his films. It's nice to see Bob seemingly get that here even though his life is a complete mess. It's great to see Jack get his comeuppance as Bob takes Sweet Charlotte to a different studio. That scene is so great because it's Bob "getting his balls back" and really screwing Jack - just like Jack has done so many times to Bob. And yet, Bob is screwed as well because his wife, Harriet, wants a divorce. He had envisioned this film as the thing that puts his life back together again. He would be creatively happy while also being surrounded by his family. Yes, he would be working with Bette and Joan again. That could be a giant headache for him - which it is the first moment the table read starts. But he was hopeful that the future would be better than the past. It still could be. He has Bette by his side who'll support him through this difficult time. But it's also so radically different than what he had hoped.

All of this is fascinating emotional and thematic material. However, most of this episode feels transitional. It's the show coming off its best hour yet and moving to the final part of the narrative. It already went through production of one movie with these characters. So, there isn't a whole lot new that it can do with this one. But there are still some key details to get right knowing just how complicated this production is going to get. The table read was tense because both Joan and Bette had a ton of notes about the script. Production was similarly awkward because it included location shoots in New Orleans and Joan doesn't feel like she is being treated fairly. It continues to be so surprising how much sympathy Jessica Lange can depict in her portrayal of Joan. She continues to do such awful things. She cancels a check she gave to her brother moments after learning he has died. She throws things at Mamacita whenever she criticizes her. She's resentful of everything that people have to say about her behavior and her view of the world. She's an incredibly isolated woman with a fear of being alone. That's why she holds onto this industry and the ideals of the past. She wants them to continue to fulfill her life in a way that makes her feel important. It's easy to understand that - even when she's yelling or constantly promoting Pepsi Cola.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Hagsploitation" was written by Tim Minear & Gina Welch and directed by Tim Minear.
  • Death is hanging over this story as well. Perhaps the season is building to the deaths of its two lead characters. But in this hour, Joan's brother actually dies from his appendix bursting. Plus, Hedda reveals that she has a problem with her heart that could kill her at any moment. So, it really is close to the end for all of these characters.
  • Judy Davis is just really terrific as Hedda. The moment where she enjoys all the memories of the people she's taken down instead of built up is incredible. It shows just how cold and calculating she is. But it's for a purpose as well. She appears to be Joan's friend but actually just wants the scoop on the latest story she is working on.
  • All of the stuff with a secret film starring a young Joan Crawford is a little unnecessary. How important is it going to be in the future? Right now, it largely just seems like a way to introduce more of her family just to kill them off and isolate her even further.
  • Of course, Jack Warner would believe he coined the term "hagsploitation." He views himself as being the creator of this new film genre. And yet, he also just doesn't get its appeal. He would rather have movies with younger stars. He's coming off a big hit but is very worried about the future because he has nothing promising on his slate.
  • It definitely seems like Joan is getting more focus lately than Bette. Joan dominates most of this hour. It confirms that she really is a tragic character of sorts. Of course, Bette has a couple of solid moments as well - especially when it comes to that table read and Joan not being able to be an ally.