Pop Culture Princess

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The fabulous fury of Bette & Joan's Feud

Ryan Murphy took pop culture watching to the next level with his American Crime Story miniseries, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, last year and for our shiny new year, he's launching another multimedia sensation with Feud, that looks at celebrated bouts between famous folk.

For the opening season, Feud is subtitled "Bette and Joan" as in Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who did only one movie together and clearly once was more than enough.

As played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, both former leading ladies were at a decided low point in their acting careers. Most of that was due to their growing older and the lack of quality for women of a certain age(the more things change, the more they stay the same sadly). Crawford was particularly motivated to work again as her widow's pension from Pepsi-Cola wasn't as massive as many assumed it was.

So, she went in search of a script for herself and came across the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? by Henry Farrell, a story about two sisters who were once entertainers and now at each other's throats. Crawford jumped on that property hard and fast, recruiting Robert Aldrich as the director and Davis herself as the demented title character.

While the making of the movie became a cutthroat competition between the two leading ladies, as Davis took a more of a theatrical approach to the part while Crawford wanted to maintain some of her movie star glamor, the completed film was a box office success and even earned Davis an Oscar nomination for Best Actress:

That success,however, didn't take either actress down the road towards better roles. Instead, Hollywood went with a spree of Gothic thrillers featuring older women known as "hagsploitation".

Bette Davis was able to make cinematic lemonade out of those casting call lemons,however. She was set to team back up with Crawford for another Aldrich fear flick called Hush...Hush,Sweet Charlotte but her co-star backed out at the last minute,claiming illness.

Crawford was replaced by another former diva, Olivia de Havilland, and that movie went on to critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations. Davis kept on working for many years after that, in whatever part she could, some of those parts being notable such as The Whales of August and Death on the Nile. The last movie that she did work on,Wicked Stepmother, had to use stock footage as Davis passed away during the production.

 Crawford , on the other hand, made a few low budget horror movies on her own and then did a little TV work before withdrawing from public life. A sad end for both talented women yet in the grand scheme of things, you could say that at least they did their damnest to keep that spotlight shining on them for as long as possible:

The on-set rivalry between Davis and Crawford was a key selling point for the movie and is the focus of Feud, but not in a catty camp way. Instead, the show gives a nuanced portrayal of what it meant for these women to try to revive their careers amidst sexism, ageism and their own egos.

I saw the first episode this past Sunday and am truly eager to see more. Sarandon and Lange fully embrace their performances here, bringing out the humanity as well as the diva power that these screen legends wielded like a double edge sword:

 Feud: Bette & Joan is airing in eight parts on FX and is already getting rave reviews from both audiences and critics, much like the real life cinematic collaboration that Davis and Crawford made Hollywood history with.

I do hope that this show does lead to a revival of interest in both women's careers as they did create some of the greatest film roles of all time. From Mildred Pierce to Margo Channing, these powerhouse ladies paved the way for many future film stars in their wake. It's just a shame that they never realized that together, they could have been a major force to reckon with against all who stood in their artistic way:

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