Friday, May 26, 2017

Hagsploitation and Old Hollywood

At a certain point in FX’s miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan, Warner Brothers’ studio head Jack Warner throws a tantrum upon realizing that his box office strategy of pitting two aging actresses against each other in a film has been stolen by a rival studio. Warner, a relic from Hollywood’s earliest of days, feels he has proprietary rights to older women beating themselves up for his monetary and personal gain. “Hagsploitation”, he terms it. And while Warner didn’t have the exclusive rights to a plotline, he wasn’t far off from his belief that people, particularly women, were exploitable and that the best way to exploit them was to make them exploit each other.

That nuance is emblematic of the entire miniseries which was sold as a camp-fest featuring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford respectively, but ended up being a much more thoughtful meditation on aging, the role of women in the professional space, and how hubris, that old favorite of screenwriters everywhere, is ultimately an ambitious person’s worst enemy.

Dahhhling, what say we finish these drinks and then go talk to that handsome Mr. Draper we're hearing so much about?

Feud: Bette and Joan is the latest from the mind of Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, and just about everything else on television. While Feud revisits many tropes that Murphy loves (anything set in the 1960s, Los Angeles in general, Jessica Lange), it’s arguably his most mature work, outstripping even The People v. O.J. Simpson. By relying on events that are either confirmed to be true or at least strongly sourced, often from original sources themselves, Murphy is able to present a much more coherent storyline and develop more nuanced themes than when he’s cooking up his next creepy ghost scene or figuring out which musical number to get his cast to sign. Murphy loves high concept television, but clearly he does best when pairing those high concepts with real events.

And the reality of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is the stuff of legend. Feud finds time to present not only the big ticket items from Joan manipulating the 1963 Oscars to humiliate Bette to Bette’s statement upon learning of Joan’s death in 1977 (“You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good,” Bette was quoted as saying. “Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”) And yet it also finds the time to show us both of these characters at their best. Joan moving through the studios and the awards ceremonies, a pro expertly glad-handing the studio bosses, schmoozing with the talent, and mentoring the younger performers, illustrates how she attained the heights that she did. Likewise, Bette uses her outsider status to churn the press and manipulate from behind the scenes to improve her status.

Clearly, the real life Bette and Joan were not catty stereotypes perpetuated by gossip and later movies like Mommie Dearest. In keeping with the nuanced take on them, Susan Sarandon and, in particular, Jessica Lange give compelling performances that bring out all those qualities, good, bad and ugly. While the actresses bear only a passing physical resemblance to their characters, both actresses wisely aim to create breathing characters instead of just relying on physical mimicry.

Original still for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Feud's recreation

Where Feud excels the most is in underlining the ultimate tragedy of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: that, like the line from Baby Jane, all this time they could have been friends. Had Bette and Joan partnered together, as indeed they halfheartedly tried to at times, they could have exerted tremendous pressure on the studios. Instead, they fell into waring with each other, seeing each other as rivals rather than co-conspirators. And while machinations on the part of male studio heads certainly facilitated that rivalry, the miniseries gives us a sense of how the women’s insecurities factored in.

In one of the show’s best scenes, the two square off against each other in a verbal fight scene that ends sorrowfully. Bette, perennially viewed as one of the most talented actresses of her era but never one who was pretty enough to truly be a star, spits at Joan, “How did it feel to be the most beautiful actress in history?”

“It felt great,” Joan spits back before pausing and adding quietly, “And it was never enough. How did it feel to be the most talented?”

“It felt fine,” Bette returns, venomously, but clearly shaken. “And it was never enough.”

These were two actresses who, by rights, could have been a forceful duo but were both undermined by feeling inadequate in the face of each other. Joan, always seen as a Hollywood beauty, struggled to be appreciated for her talent and not just her face. Bette, somewhat resigned to being the character actress because it was bringing her Oscar nominations and wins, was never going to be awarded the approval of her industry because she didn’t look like a cover girl. And through it all was a studio system run by men who understood that the only way to make sure that these women didn’t kick them all out of their precarious positions was to keep them at each other’s throats.

This picture need more sexism and misogyny, I say! MOAR!

As such, it’s tempting to try to watch the show through the lens of modern Hollywood which, despite being 40 years on from the final scenes, is still very much stuck in the same mode. It’s not news that finding roles for women over the age of 40 is difficult, nor is it a surprise that Hollywood remains enraptured by the next “it” girl before turning her over for someone new within a year or two. But if anything, Feud takes pains to keep the story tight and focused and avoids underlining the comparisons to modern Hollywood too much. That approach works in its favor by allowing the audience to stay with the story instead of seeking out any too-clever-by-half references to the modern world. In fact, the show avoids irony almost entirely with the possible exception of a few lines in the final episode where an aging Joan admits that the only actress she sees in Hollywood in the 1970s with the kind of real star power that her generation of women had is Faye Dunaway. (In fact, that was a sentiment that Crawford voiced in real life before she died, obviously unaware of Dunaway’s eventual role in defining Crawford’s legacy for a new generation of people.)

Feud tells a remarkably restrained story about how women fight each other to the benefit of men and how hard it is to deviate from that pattern so long as men control the money. Watch it for the social commentary or just for the utterly on-point production design which faithfully recreates not only the 1960s but the specific looks that two titans of early Hollywood both cultivated for themselves. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Yes, It Is Wrong You Think Gilbert is Kinda Hot (and Other Observations)


Yes, here we are, folks. Netflix (and CBC's) long-awaited (dreaded?) Anne With an E is finally available, streaming stateside on Netflix. 

   I talk way too much and have all kinds of codependency and anger issues. PLEASE KEEP ME.

This adaptation has been subject to a pretty unfair tongue-lashing by the chattering classes. There has been a lot of propaganda against this adaptation in the press, and so what I will do here is try to give the positives and negatives of this new version and let you thinking, autonomous adults make up your own minds about whether or not to watch or if you like it.

Let me first start off by saying that there is no bigger L.M. Montgomery geek than yours truly. I was legit OBSESSED with L.M. Montgomery. I read all of her books, anthologized short story collections, several biographies, and her personal published journals. I visited P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, and I have been to actual Green Gables. I spent most of junior high watching the Megan Follows Anne and its subsequent sequel, and I spent a good portion of my time imagining I was Ilse Burnley in an adaptation of Emily of New Moon. I also was a YUUUUUGE fan of Kevin Sullivan's Road to Avonlea series, watching all of the episodes multiple times. 

I have cred.

Here's what I do like:

AmyBeth McNulty was born to play this role. That is all there is to it. This girl is mad gifted. She looks exactly like Anne, it's true, but beyond that, her performance -- please don't throw rocks at me -- surpasses that of Follows. I understand that a lot of the differences between the performances have to do with script and direction, but I see McNulty showing a wider range of emotions. For instance, during Anne's first scene at Green Gables, McNulty bursts into tears upon being told by Marilla that there has been a mistake. Anne has been deprived of love an acceptance her entire life and it is so clear and so sensitively and beautifully portrayed by McNulty. Compared to Follows, who was directed to be upset, but what really comes through in Follows' version of this scene is Anne being like, "But wait! I'm kooky."

This kid made me cry. Legit. She has been breaking my heart. The way she inhabits this role is on par with Follows -- she is Anne.

Also outstanding is veteran actress Geraldine James in the role of Marilla. It's not easy stepping into Colleen Dewhurst's shoes, but James does an outstanding job as the no-nonsense Marilla, portraying her as a woman disinclined to tolerate shenanigans but doesn't come off as a cold-hearted bitch. This is no small task. 

I also love RH Thomson (FAN SERVICE!!!!) as Jasper Dale -- I mean, Matthew Cuthbert. Of course, die-hards know that Thomson played a very similar role on Road to Avonlea as bumbling inventor/town recluse (and later husband to Olivia King), Jasper Dale. So, this is familiar territory for Thomson. His Matthew is spot-on and so lovable. 

For the supporting cast, Walking Trigger Warning Rachel Lynde is deftly handled by Corinne Koslo; Odd Squad actress Dalila Bela portrays a very believable Diana Barry. 

And...what about Gilbert Blythe? 

How can I make Anne not hate me?

Maybe I could brood harder.

The writers have ramped up the tension/attraction between Anne and Gilbert in this version. In the Sullivan one, it's there, but it's a lot more subtle. In this version, Anne is a little more honest with herself and she knows she'd like Gilbert to maybe pull on more than her hair. They've also made him more attractive by killing off his father and making him into an orphan. That makes him sad. Men become substantially hotter when they are sad. Fact. 

I really like this portrayal of Gilbert. He is played by Lucas Jade Zumann and he is just...a dude. He seems very real and very believable. 

So, let me digress here and address some complaints.

Here's the thing: It's been thirty years since the Sullivan adaptation. It was already several years old by the time I saw it. Anne of Green Gables is one of those books that has been getting remade over and over and over again; the first film version appeared in 1919. The Sullivan version is considered the definitive Anne, and I would actually really like Netflix to put it on streaming, but that doesn't mean that there isn't room for new takes on the story. 

As for complaints that Anne is a family story and that this version is too dark and depressing -- like, did we read the same story? Anne is a victim of systematic abuse and neglect. She's an orphan in a world that has very little sympathy for orphan children. The only reason she has survived up until this point is because she has created this fantasy world around her. If she hadn't, she wouldn't have been able to deal with reality. She did have to live in an orphanage (and orphanages at this point in time were not nice places), and she was put out into service with a family where the father was a drunkard who got so mad at times that he broke mirrors and windows, and they had more children than they could realistically care for. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that, during this time period, and considering the situation she was in, Anne could very well have been beaten. I do not see anything wrong with directly addressing Anne's emotional and psychological scars because they are part of her story. The whole point of Anne is that she is able to overcome her past and succeed through the love and support of her new family and friends in Avonlea. 

Personally, I would simply like to know when we are going to find out that Anne is a wizard. I mean, think about it. She's an orphan. She was mistreated by people who were supposed to be caring for her. She has visceral reactions to what she perceives are injustices. I'm not saying that Anne and Gilbert are Harry Potter's parents, I'm just saying they're probably his parents. 

"Mum, he called you 'Carrots.'
"I know, son. Stand back while I cut this bitch."

Moving along here, a couple other things I actually like are the fact that the Avonlea kids are actually kids and they look like kids. Megan Follows portrayed Anne as a 16-year-old, while the late Jonathan Crombie played Gilbert at 19. While I know that playing down is done all the time, sometimes it adds more to a piece when the youth roles are filled by young and extremely capable actors. 

The young cast is very impressive -- on the same level as the child actors on Road to Avonlea. It's also nice to see the "minor" characters like Ruby Gillis and Josie Pye getting more screen time. The Sullivan adaptation didn't seem to have much room for the other kids in Avonlea, focusing primarily on Anne, Diana, and Gilbert. 

With all of that said, if you are on the fence about whether to check the show out or not, I would suggested watching at least the first episode with an open mind. It follows the book pretty much verbatim, and it is full of fabulous performances and lush scenery. I also really enjoy the flashbacks not just to Anne's life, but to Matthew and Marilla's childhood, especially Marilla's aborted romance with John Blythe.

Having gotten my gushing out of the way, here's what I don't like: 

I understand that the producers want to make the show modern and relatable, and want to bring in some issues relevant the present day. However, what the writers and producers have misunderstood is part of Anne's appeal is that it is a timeless story, so there really is no need to bring in "modernizing" influences. Granted, this is not my show, and so if I wanted to make my historical drama more pertinent, I think I would not go about it in such a heavy-handed fashion. There's a really adorable feminist club in Avonlea, but it's run by a bunch of bitchy hypocrites. Anne gives lectures to straw-man type characters about the capabilities of females etc. 


Look. For those viewers seeking moral validation in their entertainment: This story is already feminist. It's about a brother and sister who ask for a boy and are given a girl instead, and they decide to keep the girl. Anne is smart, sassy, independent, and capable. She doesn't chase after boys, and she dreams of being educated and having her own life. It's not necessary to beat us over the head with a stick about how forward-thinking she is.

Oh, Matthew! This view from my moral high horse is so virtuous!

I feel like this has been done with period pieces. A lot. There's a spunky, outspoken heroine who shocks everyone by telling them that women can do things men can't. Like she's the only one who's ever thought of that before. And she's gonna blaze a trail. Because well-behaved women rarely make history. Right. That's why we've all forgotten completely about Queen Victoria. 

Ladies, you can work! You have so many choices! Yes, Anne who was forced to work from the time she could walk is going to go around demanding the right of women to work. And what about female servants like Mary Jo, WHO HAVE TO FUCKING WORK? The fact that Anne can choose between a career and family have NOTHING TO DO with her being female. AND IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH FEMINISM. They have to do with her social class. That's it. She got a class promotion. Poor women have always had to work. Period. Now, if she wants to go be a suffragette, that's great, but I'm guessing she doesn't want to go back to scrubbing floors.  

Secondly, I don't understand why Anne has to give the reverend a bunch of attitude about religion. L.M. Montgomery was married to a minister.  I also don't understand why the Avonlea reverend was changed from a kindly, gentle man in the novel to an insufferable, closed-minded sexist. 

I understand that the writers want to bring a new take on Anne, but is this the best they've got? Anne spouts pandering platitudes about how girls are just as good as boys and people should be accepted because they're different. This is coming from someone who is a complete jerk to Jerry Butte upon their first meeting because she doesn't want him there because she's afraid that will make her place at Green Gables precarious. She only starts to be nice to Jerry after he gets his ass kicked in Charlottetown. Again, this is someone who has to work for a living; he gets no say in whether or not he goes to school.

Honestly, sometimes these lines were making me cringe. What artistic purpose does it serve? Anne was never in the business of giving moral lectures to people. She was too busy fucking up puddings with dead mice and dyeing her hair green to get all up on her high horse and spout sanctimonious harangues. Anne never thought she was better than anyone else. 

Except Josie Pye. 

Please let her throw more shade at Josie Pye. 

I bind thee, Josie Pye. I bind thee from doing harm to yourself or other people.

And why is Billy Andrews a punk?

Please nobody get mad at me, but why is Aunt Josephine a lesbian? I get it; let's be inclusive. But...why? Is there an artistic purpose that's served? You can't just reboot a story and say, "Oh, this time, so-and-so is gay" and have that be considered a bold creative move. Gay people aren't signifiers of how progressive you think you are. They're people.

I also do not like the Stranger Danger plotlines. Similarly, I really felt uncomfortable with the Matthew suicide plot. Richard Farnsworth, who portrayed Matthew in the 1985 version, did commit suicide in real life and he did use a gun, and I just thought that was really not cool. 

Don't get me wrong; some of the new plotlines and writing are very compelling and very good. It's just sometimes the show jumps the rails and the Morality Police jump out, reminding us all about some trite popular notions. I do feel that there is enough in the book to fill out several episodes. There were many incidents in the Sullivan version that were blended, or cut altogether. 

One other thing is, and I know this is nitpicky, I don't like the contemporary dialogue thrown into the episodes. For instance, like "Bud" and "Seriously, what's your problem" and "A cute girl is a cute girl" are out of place. Your audience isn't stupid; they'll understand if you use more complicated vocabulary and words that have more than two syllables. 

To wrap up: If you're curious about the show, do yourself a favor and watch it. It has a lot of positive points, and they more or less outweigh the negatives. What I see here is a show trying to find its legs, and I think it might be a good idea to bring in some of the writing team from Road to Avonlea. The incidents that are taken from the book are really nicely adapted, so I would like to see them doing more of that and following more in the footsteps of the successful Sullivan series. 

"But what DO boys want, Marilla?"
"Cheetos and beer, my child. And video games."