Tuesday, March 07, 2017

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN -- My review

Make no mistake – I love a good Hollywood catfight as much as anybody. The bitchier the better. And if it’s a little camp, hey, that’s okay too. You can talk about your “Thrilla in Manilla” but take two over-the-hill Hollywood legends whose heyday was back when stars meant something more than contestants on a dance reality show, put ‘em in furs, give ‘em sharp claws, get ‘em both plastered, and you have the makings for a battle royale.

So I went into FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN with high expectations. (It premiered Sunday night on FX.)   Plus, it was produced by Ryan Murphy who knows a thing or two about sensationalizing showbiz cheese. The stars are Susan Sarandon at Bette Davis (complete with the requisite Bette Davis eyes) and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford with the thick signature eyebrows that could only mean Joan Crawford or Jack Elam. Both women were terrific although Joan Crawford without wire hangers is like Traci Lords with clothes.

I’d say that Susan was better than Jessica but that might start another feud.

The mini-series (or anthology or limited series or variety special or whatever they call it to maximize Emmy chances) depicts the true story of when Bette and Joan were in such sad career straits that they decided to bury the hatchet (in each other’s back) and finally do a movie together, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? The fact that these two divas hated each other from the days of silent pictures made their collaboration that much more of a powder keg. And the film itself was a schlock black-and-white horror film, geared less for Imax and more for the local Drive-In. (Ironically, the movie became a big hit. It played very well to backseats.)

So you’d figure that FEUD would be loaded with fireworks. Well, as of the pilot, they were still unlit. Maybe things pick up, but I found the first episode to be long and quite frankly, dull. There was nothing in the maiden voyage that was particularly startling or delicious. They resented each other, they respected each other, they were trying to be on their best behavior because they both needed this movie to work. We got that from the :30 second promo. 

Where’s the hair pulling? Where’s the drink spiking? Where’s the paid assassins? Joan buys ties for members of the crew so they’ll light her more favorably. Bette wears ghoulish make-up that upstages Joan. Big yawn.

So far the feud is not mean enough, not fun enough, not camp enough, not compelling enough. It’s also not lavish enough. Very few extras. There was a scene during a Golden Globes award ceremony and it looked like there were four tables. Since when did they hold the Golden Globes at Leonard's of Great Neck?  I think the most money spent on the production so far was on Hedda Hopper’s hats (which looked like a condor died on her head). Judy Davis was terrific as Hedda, by the by. And maybe my favorite character was Joan’s Nazi German personal assistant, who she called “mamacita.”

I’ll give it another try, but if I don’t call out “MEOW!” at least twice I’m gone. What did you guys think?

30 comments :

normadesmond said...

jessica looks nothing like joan & the only time susan rang true as bette was when she sashayed onto the set of "baby jane."
nevertheless, that anybody is making anything about two wonderful movie stars from 10,000 years ago is terrific.
you think jerry & dean would've been better?

VP81955 said...

"The fact that these two divas hated each other from the days of silent pictures..."

Ken, what the heck are you talking about? AFAIK, Bette never made a silent film and didn't come west until the start of the '30s. And as anyone who knows film history could tell you (RIP Robert Osborne), each had celebrated feuds with other stars. Crawford (who rose to prominence in the final years of the silent era) despised Norma Shearer, her principal rival at MGM, perhaps with good season -- Shearer's marriage to mogul Irving Thalberg enabled her to get the studio's prime roles. And Davis feuded with Miriam Hopkins, and in fact stole one of her men. But hey, who remembers Shearer and Hopkins? Certainly not casual film fans, who only know of Joan from "Mommie Dearest" and Bette from Jackie DeShannon's song title.

Not a big fan of the Grand Guignol that's the setting for this -- thankfully, Myrna Loy wanted nothing to do with such nonsense when she was offered these roles in the early '60s -- but alas, many of my friends who are gay live and die by such camp silliness. My question to them, without coming off like a backward southern fundie: Why?

Peter said...

My first reaction on seeing the photo of Lange was: Who's the Chinese actress?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I don't expect to watch it. For one thing, it falls very far afoul of my deep-rooted feeling that it's wrong to fictionalize real people; aside from anything else, the false facts stick, and I care a lot about facts. For another, although I like both actresses, I can't imagine why I would want to watch a series that can do nothing with two highly accomplished women (both current and historical, real and fictional) except make them fight. The way you would like to see the series go would undoubtedly make it more dramatic, but not at all more interesting to me.

An independent filmmaker and screenwriter friend of mine often attributes unexpected success in movies and TV shows to stories about women collaborating and fashioning interesting relationships. I think he has a real point. THE GOOD WIFE intended at the beginning to make Diane an enemy to Alicia and soon realized there was more mileage in letting her be won over and become more of a mentor; one of the most successful relationships on that show was Alicia and Kalinda's friendship (which looked to be rebuilding until the actresses stopped working together mid-season 4). One of the great pleasures of MOM is watching the friendships and mutual support among those five female characters, especially because only one of those actresses is under 40 (by very little), and several are in their 50s and 60s.

So, like I say: I can't imagine wanting to watch this.

wg

DuckBoy said...

I liked it. I think it captured the era. Alfred Molina played his part well, too. Trying to accurately portray two giant stars on screen is difficult at best. It was once told to me that telling a story is like peeling an orange. You allow the story to unfold one peel at a time. It held my attention and I think it is worth it to take the time to see how it unfolds. Let's see how that works.

Mike Schryver said...

"but alas, many of my friends who are gay live and die by such camp silliness. My question to them, without coming off like a backward southern fundie: Why?"

Got me. I'd be more interested in a special about Jack Elam.

DB Cooper said...

Jack Elam! I'm still laughing.

And still baffled that NBC launched a sitcom around Jack Elam in the late '80s.


(Volunteer Copy Editor says: I think it's "straits," not "straights.")

Anonymous said...

"but alas, many of my friends who are gay live and die by such camp silliness. My question to them, without coming off like a backward southern fundie: Why?"

A significant number of American Gays are committed or aspiring nihilists, so they're generally entertained by female heterosexual, or closeted gay, tragic figures, whether they're unapproachable celebrities, or the far more common, "confused boy," "fag hag." Celebrities are followed, and fag hags are tolerated or manipulated for the personal entertainment and/or sport of it, or conversely, in the case of tragic women celebs, because some gays identify with tragic female figures as spiritual "brothers in arms." One might tell someone off the way darling Bette would. You will sometimes find gay men affecting a black minstrel dialect for the same reason. Sometimes they mix the two, affecting the verbal effect of an old southern black woman.
In any case, there's often a sub current of condescension entrapped in their devotion. It's like a concealed resentment, for some reason. See Shakespeare's Iago. For my money he's THE gay male archetype, who enjoys being devoted to, while deconstructing, his straight "better," simply because he's bored, and he can.
Not all gay males are like this. Not all find straight female train wrecks to be entertaining.But many gay men do.
They just do.

Bob Local-Lee said...

Totally in agreement. Roger Corman and American-International would have concocted a better production. The 45-and-under somethings prolly won't even fully understand it.

Maverick maverick said...

I always worry if what I'm seeing in these, based on real events, movies. So I'm always on my iPhone looking up actual video/film, photos, quotes, etc... It's like I'm playing along with the home version.
I had a guilty giggle when "Joan Crawford" was in her dressing room with her daughter "Christine", as she looks at the coat hangers in the closet.

Roseann said...

I know Leonard's of Great Neck. That really made me laugh!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

DB Cooper: Volunteer copy editor is correct. Straits, in this case.

wg

Ray Arthur said...

I enjoyed it a bit more than you. As Part 1 of 8 I expected more set up than fireworks. Jessica is passable as Crawford but I thought Susan was excellent as Davis, from the walk to the attitude to the snark to the voice to the cigarettes. Plus I haven’t thought much about these two for decades so it was a pleasant reunion of sorts. And Stanley Tucci’s brief scenery chewing was well worth the price of admission. I do agree with you that the action needs to be amped up to keep me for 7 more weeks.

Anonymous said...

In her day, no one was a better movie actress than Bette Davis. Far superior to K. Hepburn.
And probably no one today- and that includes Streep and Mirren.

And for my money, as good as they were in WHBJ, the guy who makes the film is Victor Buono. Just getting warmed up for King Tut. He was a very funny guy.

Cap'n Bob said...

I was going to watch it until I learned it was going to be a Republic Serial. Maybe I'll tune in to the next one.

VP81955 said...

To Wendy: Anna Faris turned 40 last November. (And she'll be remaking "Overboard," from earlier comic icon Goldie Hawn -- but it'll be gender-bended, so she'll play the Kurt Russell handyman.) Hope it works; Anna deserves a big-screen hit.

Johnny Walker said...

VP81955: I think it's fair to say that Davis's and Crawford's feud was beyond the pale. Whole books have been dedicated to it. I find it as interesting as the next person (although maybe not the average commenter here).

Ken, I'm surprised you published Anonymous's sweeping comment on gay men. Even with the half-assed disclaimer at the bottom, it was pretty inflammatory.

Given that the EP is Tim Minear, I feel this deserves a good chance.

Graham F said...

Wendy Grossman: You should give FEUD a try. I've seen the first three episodes (I'm writing a piece on the show) and this is not a campfest about divas screaming at each other. While there's some camp (not enough for Ken, obviously ;) , it's more of a character study of these two women and the obstacles they faced - ageism, sexism, misogyny - in an industry that was trying to marginalize them once they reached an advanced age. And the bigger theme of the series is addressing gender inequality in Hollywood.

I personally enjoyed the show immensely - dialogue is wickedly funny, performances are great, and both Bette and Joan are humanized. Period recreation is stellar, right down to Joan Crawford squeezing lemon juice on her elbows to keep them supple.

Dan P. said...

Actually, we've been hearing a lot from Anonymous lately. I thought we were supposed to be discouraging that.

VP81955 said...

I'm not arguing Davis and Crawford feuded, but I'm guessing its genesis came in the middle '40s, after Joan left MGM for Warners and won an Oscar for "Mildred Pierce," then followed with several other hits that revived her career. Davis could envision another rival at the lot, one with more in her arsenal than Ann Dvorak (who for a brief time in the '30s battled Bette for supremacy in Burbank).

The difference between Davis and Crawford? Bette could do comedy, though she rarely did (post-Code Warners was not a good studio for screwball, as the lady in my avatar found out when she went there and made the miserable "Fools For Scandal" -- it was so poorly received that Lombard spent the next two years doing dramas). Aside from "The Women" and a few other things, Joan lacked the subtlety for comedy, though she evolved into a superb dramatic actress.

Unknown said...

Could b wrong, wasn't daughter in betty Davis dressing room when putting on white face mom do u really want to go out there like thst5

Stone Phillips said...

Bette Davis Eyes was a hit for Kim Carnes ,

Anonymous said...

I found Jessica Lange annoying. She sounded NOTHING like Joan Crawford or even looked like her. Surely they could have found someone better. Totally miscast. Susan Sarandon on the other hand is perfect. Looks so much like Bette with those eyes, plus she is a great actress. Jessica was still acting the same as the weird mother in the first season of American Psycho.

So far FEUD is a lost opportunity to portray this feud effectively. Perhaps it will pick up in episode 2 but on the whole but the miscasting of Jessica Lange has ruined it for me.

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: Anonymous's sweeping comment on gay men ... was pretty inflammatory.
I don't know. Seems like an accurate description of Will & Grace.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

VP18955L: Indeed, but Jaime Pressly is still only 39. :) In any event, the point is that a great pleasure in MOM is seeing all these actresses together on screen at ages (40-70).

Graham F: There's still the fictionalizing of real people thing. It really, really bothers me.

wg

Bobby said...

What a pitiful observation. The first episode sets us up, gives back story, establishes a storyline. I thought the pilot was very good and am along for the ride.

Paul Duca said...

I watched the first episode and liked it...I was struck, though, by a truth I don't know if Ryan Murphy intended. When asked why Davis and Crawford hated each other so much, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia De Havilland said "Feuds aren't about hate...feuds are about pain". Could that be the meaning behind her rivalry with sister Joan Fontaine?

Graham F said...

Wendy: I'm not sure what bothers you so much about real people being portrayed on screen - it's not like the producers here took tremendous liberties with Bette and Joan.; they come to life here as real, humanized people. Why not give the show a shot, instead of letting preconceived notions dictate your responses?

Barry Rivadue said...

Sarandon should have done both roles. Now THAT would have been interesting.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Graham F: what bothers me is that it *isn't* real people portrayed on screen but fictionalized versions of real people. That being the case, and because I write non-fiction, it's important to me not to get the fictional versions stuck in my head as being real. In this particular case, I do not have time right now to do what I would feel I had to, which is read biographies of the two actresses to find out how far to trust the screenwriter. There's also a lot of stuff on TV right now that I'm more interested in. You are not required to agree with me.

wg