Feud: Bette and Joan

Coming very late to ‘Feud’ (2017) from Ryan ‘Glee’ Murphy, I was thankfully saved from a trek across the internet for it by the BBC, I was very keen to get hold of this; Davis, Crawford, Sarandon & Lange, what’s not to love?  My formative years were spent watching old movies and most of all my go-to was Bette Davis.  She would tear up the screen in ‘All About Eve’, tear me up (emotionally) in ‘Now, Voyager’ and then in her later years come to define the wicked old crone in ‘The Anniversary’ and ‘The Nanny’.  Many actors remain the same person throughout their career but Bette Davis adapted beautifully as she aged, never seeming to attempt to remain young and never being afraid to be the grotesque.   The only movie I’d seen of Joan Crawford’s happened to be ‘Baby Jane’ (unless you count ‘Mommie Dearest’) which I’d seen a number of times. I also knew of the rivalry that came between these two contemporaries from an autobiography I’d read some 20 years ago about Bette Davis.

Previously, I’d only ever seen Joan Crawford portrayed as a monster and I went into this show with that bias in mind.  To begin with, my bias was reaffirmed; Joan comes across as vain, temperamental, manipulative and difficult, whilst Bette is fun, sociable, creative and more intent on doing a good job rather than being seen as the great beauty Joan still thought she was.

I loved the synchronicity between Bette’s animosity with Joan and her later dislike of Faye Dunaway who went on to portray the monstrous version of Joan in ‘Mommie Dearest’; and as with the titular feud, she really never forgot:

I think this clip exemplifies the main difference in perception I have with Bette Davis & Joan Crawford.  They both had times when they were truly awful, but with Bette I find it funny and with Joan I’m more disturbed, it seems to be coming from a much darker place.

As the show plays out, the characters deepen and you gain some understanding of Joan’s motives and how she was created through a will to survive an industry that only seems to love its’ stars for 5-10 years then turns them over for the next big thing.  You also then see Bette’s dysfunctional life at home, mostly through her relationship with her daughter B.D., and the games she plays at work to manipulate people to propel herself forward at the expense, professionally and emotionally, of her co-star.  The skill of this show is that you end up maybe not loving but definitely understanding Joan & Bette; seeing less of the star and more of the person – that’s basically the whole point of factual drama.

The secondary characters are more variably portrayed, not having seen Olivia de Havilland interviewed, I totally get why she may be upset by her Catherine Zeta Jones’s version of her.  I felt she came across as being callous and to re-use the word she’s tried to sue FX for maintaining she used about her sister, a bitch.  Hedda Hopper (the amazing Judy Davis) and Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) also seem one-dimensional and unsurprising, I expected both of them to come across that way and I learnt nothing new.

As an insight into behind-the-scenes production of movies and as an historical record of Hollywood during the 1960’s, this is as good as any I’ve seen.  Even with all its negative qualities, it still looks glamorous and everything you want it to be.  It also leads you to investigating more for yourself.  Straight after this, I went to my movie collection and pulled out the DVD of ‘Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte’ that I’d never got round to watching.  That one isn’t going down as an all-time fave but it was gloriously over-acted and hammy (not easily going to forget the magnificently fake chopped off hand at the start of the movie).  It was also a revelation to see how beautiful Bruce Dern was in his late 20’s.

If ‘Feud’ does nothing else but make you want to watch or re-watch an old movie then it’s done a good job.

CastJessica Lange, as Joan Crawford
Susan Sarandon, as Bette Davis
Alfred Molina, as Robert Aldrich
Judy Davis, as Hedda Hopper
Jackie Hoffman, as Marmacita
SeasonS1 (2017): 8 episodes

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Welsh librarian, working in London and living in Brighton.

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