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Feud: Bette and Joan. "Mommie Dearest"

Ch. 1 "Pilot"
Ch. 2 "The Other Woman" 

Feud's writing team is nothing if not devoted to playing to a single theme per episode. All but a couple of scenes in chapter 3 of Feud are devoted to the notion of mothering (though Victor Buono's more generous notion of "legacy" might have been a smarter move for retroactive potency). Or at least the show spends this hour playing with our pre-conceptions of the mothering skills of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. That's evident in the way it pulls the episode title from the infamous Christina Crawford memoir that damned Joan forever in the public eye as a psychopath and child abuser. In one of the earliest scenes we even get a potent reminder of this memoir as Joan pretends she's not going to send Christina a card congratulating her on the opening of a play until she reads reviews, but then signs the card "Mommie Dearest," as soon as two of her other children are out of sight.

I know what you think of my mothering...

...Joan says to Bette in one of the less combative moments of the episode, and it's as direct to audience a statement as such a line would have to be in 2017. Feud is full of mixed messages when it comes to Joan Crawford painting her as more of a victim than Mommie Dearest does (she's just passing on the abuse rather than originating it after a hellish childhood). At the same time its has a small-minded fixation on taking her down on a notch in the talent department, which is a great pity for a show whose target audience would have to be actress-obsessives. Curiously, though Bette Davis's daughter B.D. Merrill (played by Keirnan Shipka) also wrote a scathing memoir about her movie star mother's awfulness, the show goes easy on Davis to a fault, painting her as absent, unsupportive, and hot tempered but nothing like a monster. 

"She means well," it seems to say, with a tight grin, "...but she's an artist!" The show goes to great lengths to underline Davis's brilliance as an actor every chance it gets. (Not complaining about the latter since Bette Davis was often a truly inspired woman, just observing. But why couldn't Joan be afforded at least a little kindness when it comes to her filmography which is also not without freaking amazing performances?)

Best Film Reference

Joan Crawford, Miss Crystal Allen herself, is losing her nerve." 

Judy Davis continues to own the show as the constantly maneuvering gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She reacts to Joan Crawford pulling a bitchy quote by referring to Crawford's arguably most famous "bitch" performance in The Women (1939). Hedda wants those claws out, JUNGLE RED.

You'd think the scene where Bette and Joan argue over Lead and Supporting Oscar campaigns (a valuable lesson to young fans that STARS used to be utterly mortified at any suggestion that they were "supporting!" but now they eagerly claim to be even when they're not just for more personal glory!) and then segueway into a bitchy argument about who deserved the 1950 Best Actress win (Lange's line reading about Judy Holliday's "winsome performance" is split-second bliss) but I haven't been able to love Feud: Bette and Joan in the unreserved way I hoped. It seems to be operating from a place of pure miserablism about Movie Stars, Old Hollywood, and The Oscars so it's hard to fully enjoy the geekier aspects we'd normally fawn on.

Best Susan / Bette Moment
This episode about the souring last days on the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? shoot is by far Susan Sarandon's best. From her wonderful reactions to Joan's confession of sexual abuse  -- a heady mix of sympathy, horror, disbelief and battle-weary survivalist processing -- but especially her very well played scenes with her screen daughter. "I'm sure you'll do your best B.D." she says in an insightfully curt manner, brushing off the child that needs her both because she's embarrassed at her lack of talent, and because she's otherwise engaged with actual talent: her own and that of others (in the form of her new friend / costar Victor Buono currently buttering her up). We even get to see Susan Sarandon playing Bette Davis playing "Bette Davis" when she does "what a dump" at Buono's request.  

Best Jessica / Joan Moment
I have been made aware that the common gay consensus online is that Jessica Lange is giving the show's best performance. This has everything to do with Gay Diva Worship and years of Ryan Murphy Brainwashing and, from what I can see, literally nothing to do with what's actually happening on Feud. I've personally rarely seen a biographical performance this disconnected from the real person being portrayed. Only if you view this as an entirely fictional production with no intended relationship whatsoever to the actual Joan Crawford is this a great one. (And then even then... great seems generous. Neither star is completely nailing this series). There's not a single moment that screams "Crawford." Now, as someone whose oft decried the world's fascination with mimicry, I'm not suggesting that Lange should've gone there just that a happy medium would have sufficed.

But best moments, in addition to the Judy Holliday line, I loved her tossed off self-regarding "that's not why they're staring" to her embarrassed daughters and her only incredible scene in the series thus far, a recounting of losing her virginity. She's also good in the drunk scene at the beach but good Christ, is that scene vicious about Crawford. In addition to the show's endless barrage of insults at her acting, it uses Baby Jane's final scene to humiliate Crawford who realizes that Bette Davis is in another league altogether when everyone is stunned at how she looks so much younger when freed of Blanche at last, entirely from her acting, while Joan has been trying to fake it by tying her skin back for a DIY facelift. 

None of this grousing is to suggest that Bette Davis isn't far greater than Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? just that this show is mean-spirited when it comes to Joan. (As someone who loves both Davis & Crawford as movie stars, I was hoping for a more balanced approach)

Best Bob Aldritch Moment
Aldritch's pragmatism even in the face of all the diva warfare is on steady display. That wonderful aside "Did you get it?" to his camera-man while one star is screaming for help from an alleged headwound. Ha! Alfred Molina heading for that Emmy nomination.


Most Eyebrow Raising Moment That Has Nothing Whatsoever To Do With Feud
That "loads of potential" joke in the XXX gay theater. So gay / crass! But most importantly: Dylan Wittrock playing a gay hooker. He's Finn's younger brother. You may remember that Finn Wittrock first won real attention (before his Freakshow breakthrough) playing a gay hooker in Masters of Sex. Guess Dylan is following in big brothers footsteps? (dick print?.... hey, Ryan Murphy started the gay crassness, not us!). His career is so new he doesn't even have a bio photo up on IMDb yet, but it's easy to spot the resemblance.

The Punchline
This ending.

Like much of Feud, it's strangely subtle where you expect something more diva theatric. Bette putting out her ashes on Joan's Pepsi machine as the wrap on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane's wrap day is hilarious in concept but much more understated in execution.   

Next week: the movie comes out. How will the stars handle the reviews and public fascination with it?


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Reader Comments (28)

The episode was about humanizing the women and their struggles with mother hood. My favorite scene was Victor Buono and the gay hustler.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I can't watch this show because the writing is terrible and the "stars" are nothing like the originals. Boo.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarie

I still can't wait but can see where my problems will lie,are we supposed to take this all as fact or what.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordon

I thought the beach scene was hilarious. Honestly, Joan Crawford *was* terrible in the original scene, and she looked younger than in the rest of the picture. I don't think the series is saying that Crawford was a TERRIBLE actress, just that she wasn't half the actress that Davis was, and that she was riddled with insecurities of every sort, which is true.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFeud

This was the best episode so far for me, probably because a) no De Havilland/Blondell exposition, b) directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton (The Americans, Justified, The Shield etc.) and c) the focus on shooting the movie. Also, while I agree that Lange was miscast, she was serving more Joan realness here than in the first two installments. And I really like the way Sarandon seems to be gradually increasing her use of Davis' speaking mannerisms from episode to episode; I think it's an astute choice.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

To Paul, Sarandon said it took her a month to get into the role so I agree she's getting better at the role as it goes on. This third episode was my favorite so far but I do agree that the constant Oscar talk is a bit exhausting. It'll be important later when the show tackles the actual Oscar campaign but for now it seems exposition focused.

I watched reruns of Robert Osborne on TCM this weekend and enjoyed his interactions with Bette Davis at her AFI tribute. I'm guessing the show is moving towards that since Olivia de Havilland was involved in that and they've got to get more use out of Catherine Zeta Jones.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJames

Preach, Nathaniel! Jessica is doing Jessica. It's AHS whatever level acting. Poor! Joan was quite good in pics with Gable and The Women. I would not undervalue her.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

Lange's lack of Crawford-ness is approaching the bizarre at this point. Which is not to say it's a bad performance, it's just objectively dissimilar from the historical subject.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

I think many of us feel that the show is, sadly, not living up to our expectations. I agree with Nathaniel that Davis is still MVP. I also agree that Sarandon really stepped up her game this week. I did think her scenes with Shipka were hilarious (sidenote: Shipka is such a wonderful young actress hey!) But yeah, I do not understand what Lange is doing. I swear to God she was doing her accent from AHS Freak Show for most of the episode. It's not a bad performance per say, but there is nothing of Joan's essence present. Also how are any of us supposed to by Davis being past her prime with Sarandon in the role, who looks incredible. On a superficial level, Lange appears much older than her.

Also do we agree that most of the writing is abysmal.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

But that scene where Crawford talks about losing her virginity sure wss somethin'.

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I think Lange is coming off as too matronly for Crawford. Watch YouTube videos of Crawford later in life and you can see she loved to play the coquette. Sarandon really did step up her game this episode - she needed to. Guys, how amazing would Judy Davis have been as Bette Davis!?

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

This is more simple as the show goes on, Lange is a great actress but it lacks something that Crawford ( the ultimate Queen Diva ) had, she had star persona, even at her worst moments Crawford was so calculated that it's hard to follow her she created the Star persona that attracted everyone back in the 20s like Swanson, Pickford, Bow or Hepburn, Leigh, Davis , DeHavilland , Shearer and Goddard, the secret of Crawford is that she played that part for 50 years, Lange it's a great actress but she doesn't have that Star persona, she is from a time in movie history when that start to fade, Lange Crawford is someone that you could ran at the supermarket, while the real Crawford never went to the supermarket!!!
About Sarandon performance, she is quite good as Davis, we have to remember that is hard to get into the skin of a great actress like Bette Davis was ( look at Blanchett performance of Hepburn) but she is doing a great job and even as I don't like Sarandon after the election and all those awful comments she made about Hillary ( YAAAS QUEEN ) I have to admit she is good and I'm glad that my generation is rediscovering this great actresses from the 70s and 80s and 90s and realizing that Meryl is not the only one around and most of the great actress as her are forgotten and relegated to tv.
Judy Davis is the best in the show she is great as Hedda Hopper, Catherine is too young to playe a 60 year old Olivia de Havilland and Kathy Bates looks like a piece of ornament...
I would recast Crawford with someone like Weaver or Pfieffer because let's face it Crawford looked always 10 or 15 years younger and Lange looks old for playing the woman who inspire the Evil Queen of Snow White lol ...
I hope they could do the Shearer/ Crawford, Moore/Bow and Swanson/Negri feud those ones where epic too !!! And would be interesting to look really back at how the 20s treated female stars .. still is a dream and it's Hollywood !!! Mary Pickford hasn't get her well deserved biopic or an honorary Oscar named after her ! And remember she put the foundation of everything that is Hollywood !!!!

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterluis15

Feud is a failure. I'll watch it till the end because it ain't unwatchable. But the potential for what it could have been had someone with a stronger vision other than the camp appeal and making a plea that the patriarchal Hollywood system that ages women out of leading roles and commercial viability has not altered one bit from the bygone golden era – just isn't enough.

I have been made aware that the common gay consensus online is that Jessica Lange is giving the show's best performance. This has everything to do with Gay Diva Worship and years of Ryan Murphy Brainwashing...

What about the Meryl Streep supremacy we're stuck in where her boring banality is celebrated as incomparable?

March 20, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Oh, 3rtful. Do you have to make every thread about your obsession: Meryl Streep?

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterViola

of course now i'm obsessed with the wittrock stud factory. are there more coming?

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Totally agree with you Nathaniel. This show had so much potential but, star quality aside, it's playing more like one of those "unauthorized story of" TV movies about "Full House" or "90210". It's so bizarre how Sarandon is slooooowly starting to channel Bette, while Lange simultaneously regresses more and more in the opposite direction. It's no wonder Julie Davis steals every scene she's in, she's striking the right tone of just enough camp but still keeping it real. Hell, she should have played both parts a la "Dead Ringer".

And as fun as it to hear the Oscar talk, the whole "lead/supporting" conversation was way too filtered through modern awards chatter. At the time, "lead" was for Movie Stars, "supporting" was for character actors and ingenues, period. NOBODY would have even considered putting either of these stars, even so-called "faded" ones, in the "lesser" category. (And besides, if any of them was supporting is was Crawford.)

Still, I can't wait to see what they do with that infamous Oscar night.

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKirby

For me the only way to watch this show is that it is not real but "based on true events". No one is doing a good job of imitation so if you take that part away it becomes more watchable. In doing this I always thought Lange was doing a great job but that scene in the bar sealed it for me. However this was Saradon's best performance. Her scene with Hedda where fir a brief moment she puts her in her place is wonderful.

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom

this is literally the only hellhole that dont stan for this epic show lol

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMARIAHHHHHHH

It's watchable, but takes itself way too seriously for what it is. It could be so much more fun.

Susan Sarandon is the reason to watch, though.

Jessica Lange is confusing me. I don't know if I'm watching Jessica Lange play Jessica Lange, or Jessica Lange play Jessica Lange on any given season of American Horror Story. It's strange. And thus, i can't tell if she's even doing well or not.

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I still say Murphy should have gone to Sigourney for Crawford.Lange didn't learn anything from all the research she supposedly did.

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMARKGORDONUK

I think "Feud" would have been much easier to take if it had been done as outright fiction.

Is it me, or does Susan suddenly sound more like Bette in Ep. 3?

And Jessica. Nothing against her, but Lange would have never been cast as Crawford if it hadn't been for Ryan Murphy. Totally miscast.

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterrick gould

Rick -- it's not just you. She was definitely doing the voice more.

March 21, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

"This has everything to do with Gay Diva Worship and years of Ryan Murphy Brainwashing and, from what I can see, literally nothing to do with what's actually happening on Feud."

Ha! Your recaps of this show are awesome. I only hope this show doesn't take the Emmys from Nicole and Big Little Lies (I never thought I would have said that before both shows premiered).

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Gwyneth Horder-Payton....now that's a name straight out of Rupaul's Drag Race.

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSoSue

I'm having the same reaction as a lot of people. Sarandon seems to finally be connecting more with Davis' vocal inflections, mannerisms, and the way she used her eyes. Lange is giving a really interesting performance, but the problem is she's not capturing Crawford at all for me. I think Crawford is the harder one to capture. Once you get past the brows, the lipstick, and shoulder pads, there's not as much to work with vocally or in terms of mannerisms.

Davis is clearly having a ball as Hat Woman Hopper, and Molina is also really growing on me. And every episode needs more Mamacita!

When Olivia de Havilland becomes a prominent character starting in episode 5, I'll be curious to see what Zeta-Jones does with her. The brief glimpses in the first two episodes weren't promising.

March 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJames from Canada

I have to step in here and defend Jessica. I agree that she isn't doing the traditional image of Joan Crawford. But I have to say that I don't think it's all that important. This show is so tonally wack and chaotic that I believe this is a moot point. I feel that what she's offering is something altogether subversive and daring. She is seeing Joan at a particular period of life in which she was most vulnerable and impulsive, and very possibly, for the first time, not the Joan the public saw, and shaping that experience into a raw honesty about what this woman suffering extreme mental torment went through. This performance possibly could be accurate--and it's definitely truthful.

March 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Lange is more Crawford than Sarandon is Davis. Apparently during the filming of Baby Jane, Bette Davis was a beautiful knock out sexpot? Huh? Very confusing. Susan is all wrong for the part and it's so distracting. While Lange may not be 100% Crawford, I at least appreciate her effort in crafting some sort of a character. Sarandon is trying to do Davis but only giving it 60%, apparently too tried to go full on.

March 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAlbert

Finally caught up with this series. I do think this was the best episode so far, though it's still uneven and, per Ryan Murphy, way too hamfisted in its messaging. There is no subtext; it's all text.

I'm with brookesboy - y'all are harsh on Lange. I'm not as familiar with Crawford (beyond the Cliff's Notes version) so I'll accept the consensus that Lange isn't capturing her persona/presence at all. But I think if you set that aside and treat this as a portrait of Crawford's inner psyche, she's doing a very convincing job. Her Crawford is maddening, maybe a little pathetic, but also quite moving. I feel for her. And I'm not getting the takeaway that she wasn't a great actress, too, just that she was overly obsessed with maintaining her movie-star aura (which everyone knows is true).

Davis, of course, is the more likable character here because she shows more backbone and wit and artistic integrity and doesn't take anyone's BS - and Sarandon is doing a better job channeling her. But is anyone else distracted by the fact that Sarandon looks WAY too young and attractive (even at age 70, yowza) for any of Joan's putdowns about Bette's haggard appearance to make any sense? If we're supposed to be buying that Joan still has more of her looks left at that point than Bette, this casting isn't selling it. Lange may be technically younger than Sarandon, but she looks older, and certainly looks older than Crawford was at the time (because she is), whereas Sarandon looks younger than Davis was (despite being older).

March 24, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

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