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. 

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