Feud: Bette and Joan. "Mommie Dearest"
Monday, March 20, 2017 at 6:15PM
NATHANIEL R in Best Actress, Dylan Wittrock, Feud, Finn Wittrock, Jessica Lange, Joan Crawford, LGBT, Oscars (50s), Oscars (60s), Screenplays, Susan Sarandon, TV

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?


Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (http://thefilmexperience.net/).
See website for complete article licensing information.