Rohan Stephens looks at why the new TV mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan asks more questions about the Hollywood system than answers them.
The new series airing on FX this month, Feud: Bette And Joan, turns the camera back on the film industry examining the legendary grudge between actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
It’s anyone’s guess as to why Hollywood doesn’t like to look at itself in the mirror more often, because when it does, we are generally gifted with something brilliant. From Sunset Boulevard to La La Land, when it’s guard is down, the film industry has the ability to offer itself as the foundation of some of the most fascinating and harrowing narratives of our time. Reflection, however, does require a truthful, unvarnished glimpse at oneself, and so for an industry that can at times be nothing but varnish and half-truths, this can be a tricky exercise.
In Feud, we get a double whammy of reflection with a behind-the-scenes look into the making of a classic Hollywood film, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, and a very much behind-the-scenes look into the making of a tumultuous Hollywood relationship, Joan Crawford’s and Bette Davis’.
The series explores the coming together of Crawford and Davis for the first time on the set of Baby Jane in 1962. Both women had been involved in one of the most famous mudslinging campaigns in Hollywood history, despite never having worked together (Davis once publicly stating, ‘I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she was on fire’).
Despite how much they had in common and how often they were compared, the root of their hatred seemed to stem from the fact that, ultimately, they were the professional antithesis of one another. Davis was a caustic, grassroots actress born from the stage and revered for her ability to harness difficult roles; Joan a poised, timeless beauty from the age of silent film, who had become famous through Hollywood’s contract era.
In Feud, both actresses are portrayed to be forced to confront the unfortunate reality of what happens to ageing women in Hollywood, when their only chance to redeem their fledgling career is to star together in a film.
The focus of the story is placed firmly back on the industry that helped create and subsequently profit from the younger incarnations of their celebrity, but that later refused to acknowledge their relevance. A telling scene in the first episode shows executive production honcho, Jack Warner, face-down on a massage table, addressing the film’s producer, Robert Aldrich, when he is approached about distributing the completed project. Warner’s response to Aldrich simply is, ‘Would you fuck ’em?’
Another layer to the self-referential Hollywood cake that Feud constructs is captured succinctly on IMBD: “Jessica Lange, who has won two Oscars in her career, plays Joan Crawford, who won one Oscar in her career. Susan Sarandon, who has won one Oscar in her career, plays Bette Davis, who won two Oscars in her career.”
Lange and Sarandon are both famous, mature actresses playing two other mature, famous actresses and there is something to be said for their willingness to take on such roles. Both women are absolute forces of nature when it comes to talent but at the same time have been vocal about their experience of ageism at the mercy of the industry. Sarandon once stated in an interview, “When people say, ‘Do you think you’ve lost work because of your politics?’ I say, ‘No, you lose work because you get old and fat.’ That’s when they write you off in Hollywood.”
Worthy of note is the fact that both Lange and Sarandon are actually both almost 20 years older than the characters they are playing in the series, but worthy of note also is the idea that Baby Jane was shot in 1962 and the issues embedded within this narrative, still unfortunately seem as relevant to the film industry today as they did 50 years ago.
So in piecing together this brilliant tale, Feud effectively exposes not only the unfortunate attitudes that women faced in Hollywood ‘back then’ but right now. It’s a glimpse into an opulent, bygone era that forces the viewer to question, really, if anything has actually changed since.