Sunday, April 23, 2017

REVIEW: 'Feud: Bette and Joan' - Joan and Bette Reflect on Their Legacies in 'You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?'

FX's Feud: Bette and Joan - Episode 1.08 "You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?"

Joan accepts a leading role on a new film despite her deteriorating health. Faced with a new rival, Bette reflects on her misplaced feud with Joan.

It didn't take long for this season of television of Feud to absolutely transcend the opinion that it largely wanted to be a campy showcase for the inner workings of Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s. That element was still apparent in this show. But it strived to reflect on more things as well. Themes that surpassed this simple feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Themes of lose and aging. The need to feel important and surrounded by love and acceptance. The ideas that the actions we put out into the world ultimately reflect back on us in the end as well. This first season of Feud was some phenomenal television. Between this and American Crime Story, Ryan Murphy has really stepped up his game in making prestige dramas. He's been able to take stories that are wildly popular and known and give them new energy and nuance. He's allowed the audience a new perspective of this world. The glitz and glam of Hollywood may seem envious but deep down it's the same kind of world that the rest of us face on a daily basis as well. The things that Joan, Bette and their colleagues dealt with are still things that every single person has had to worry about as well. They lived in the public eye. But they were multi-faceted people as well who strived for perfection even though it frequently came at great personal cost.

Joan's downfall is completely of her own making. She was difficult to work with and very much in love with herself. And yet, this finale illustrates a huge identity crisis for her as well. She has lived her life being Joan Crawford completely. It's a persona she put on for the entire world. Whenever she went out, she made sure that people got the full Joan Crawford experience. She bought into that idea with so much conviction. However, she had no idea who she was in her private life. It's a struggle that torments her throughout her final years of life. Again, it's easy to see this as her getting everything she deserves. She was abused as a child but she was just as abusive as an adult. She put vanity above all else even though it would eventually compromise her health. But it's still profound that the show can make her a sympathetic figure. It's painful to watch as she works on the set of Trog. It's working conditions she has never had to endure in her life. But she still puts in the work. She still puts in the effort of being Joan Crawford even though the person is fading away.

That's what makes it so rousing when Joan gets some victories throughout this finale. It's rewarding when Mamacita returns to work for her. That could seem very disingenuous. Mamacita was right to quit because Joan kept throwing things at her head. She was justified in her departure from Joan's life. And yet, the pull to be there for Joan was tantalizing as well. She returned because she loves Joan and wants to be there for her when no one else is. That's powerful to see. Joan is incredibly isolated and lonely in her final days. Mamacita is there for her. But more importantly, her daughter Cathy is there for her to tell her that she was a good mother. During this time, she is also plagued by the scandal of a book her eldest daughter, Christina, is writing about her. It's apparently a scathing memoir about how difficult it was to have Joan Crawford as a mother. The idea of that being out there is depressing to Joan. That's what makes it so rewarding for her to hear validation that she was a good mother. Of course, the audience knows the impact Mommie Dearest will have in Joan Crawford's legacy. But right now, it's just important that Joan finds peace with this as she's looking back at the life she lived and wondering how people will remember her by.

It's also important to note that Bette is filled with these thoughts as well. She too is tormented by the reveal that a trusted loved one didn't care for her very much. She discovers notes from her mother saying how controlling and narcissistic she was. It's devastating to her. Additionally, her daughter, B.D., is now grown with children and wants Bette out of her life completely. Bette doesn't believe anything she did could have possibly traumatized her daughter. And yet, the look on B.D.'s face confirms that she did. It's a brutal point in time. Bette is still working because she's saying "yes" to every project that comes her way. But she no longer has respect for her co-stars. She doesn't see Faye Dunaway as a professional. That allows her to say something nice about Joan. To the public, their feud is legendary because of all the catty lines they traded back-and-forth in interviews. But as Victor points out, Joan is the only person in the world who can understand what Bette is going through. It's tragically too late though. The pain of this feud is just too much. Bette can make the phone call but she can't actually talk to Joan about any of this.

It's fascinating that the show presents a very neat resolution to this story as well. It plays out in a fantasy sequence in Joan's apartment. A week before she dies, she has a vision or a dream about a dinner party where the guests are Bette, Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner. It features all of them in their Hollywood prime. They're ripping each other and having a grand old time. But the conversation pivots to something more meaningful as well. They would all like to apologize to each other for the things they did in the past. And yet in doing so, they would no longer be the big personalities that make this story so exceptional. It's really quite something to behold. These are clearly the relationships Joan wishes she had with these people. The awareness that they each made their lives more difficult but that they were respectful and friendly to each other as well. That's the biggest regret that Joan and Bette have. They spent their whole lives feuding with each other. The Hollywood system they came up in forced that dynamic. It made them each become obsessed with their insecurities to the point that it became toxic to all of their personal relationships. They were the only two people who could possibly understand those feelings. And yet, they never were friends. They let their egos get in the way of that.

The season ends with Joan's death. All of the interview segments that have been used to give this season a structure were a part of a potential documentary being filmed on the night of the Academy Awards following Joan's passing. Her death put an end to this feud. Bette believed in not speaking ill of the dead. But more importantly, she shows a newfound appreciation for her colleague as well. When the "In Memoriam" segment reduces Joan to a mere two seconds, it's a travesty that everyone noted. A lifetime in the business and an icon on the screen. This is all she gets in the end. It's all that any of them will ultimately get as Bette points out. They raise a glass to Joan. They remember to honor her career in a profound way. It's a fitting ending for the show. One that showcases the pain that fueled this feud in some remarkable ways. These characters were over-the-top and unique. They frequently clashed with each other. They did horrible things in order to embarrass or one up the other. But in the end, they are all reduced to the same two seconds as a legacy. They hope for more but agonize over what will happen after they're actually gone.

Some more thoughts:
  • "You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?" was written by Gina Welch and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton.
  • The finale actually ends on a flashback to Bette and Joan's first day on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It once again shows a desire to be friends. Two actors who got along as professionals and who respected each other. It's a little unnecessary given everything this season has shown for why they didn't ultimately be friends. But it's still a powerful statement to end on as well.
  • In addition to Mamacita, Pauline returns as well to share that her career in film didn't end just because she moved from Hollywood to Michigan. In fact, she reveals that she has found more success working on documentaries than she ever could have in the superficial world of Hollywood.
  • Joan putting on Trog's head could be a very laughable and weird moment. And yet, it lands in a very profound and insightful place because it highlights the isolation Joan feels in this moment. She's working on a movie that isn't great and she feels all alone in a world that has essentially turned against her.
  • It's interesting that the show doesn't go into detail about Bette's own death. It was similar to Joan's in that she was in failing health and her daughter was releasing a scathing memoir about her. But it also makes sense to end things here considering the feud essentially ended once Joan died.
  • This show transcended the idea of two women fighting with each other for some coveted prize. It dug much deeper with these personas and central themes. And yet, that narrative will likely continue when it comes to the awards circuit. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon were stellar throughout this season. I expect both to get Emmy nominations. But the decision between them for the win is going to be very difficult for any potential voter.