Ryan Mur­phy’s take on one of Hol­ly­wood’s most fa­mous feuds com­bines black com­edy with a hor­ror story

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Feud: Bette and Joan,

You have to hand it to in­de­fati­ga­ble writer and di­rec­tor Ryan Mur­phy, who gave us the out­ra­geous Nip/ Tuck, reimag­ined the TV mu­si­cal with Glee, and pi­o­neered the con­tem­po­rary an­thol­ogy se­ries with Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story. His 7½-hour The Peo­ple v OJ Simp­son: Amer­i­can Crime Story is a bril­liant new take on the true crime genre with of­ten alarm­ing con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance. (The sec­ond sea­son fea­tures Mur­phy’s take on the Bill Clin­ton im­peach­ment saga and the birth of the alt-right move­ment.)

And his lat­est show, Feud, will also surely prove to be an­other rat­ings hit — Mur­phy has an un­canny gift for be­ing able to rein­vent TV for­mats and find mas­sive au­di­ences. It is an­other an­thol­ogy se­ries for ca­ble net­work FX, this time of­fer­ing a se­duc­tive look at what lies be­hind leg­endary per­son­al­ity con­flicts.

It be­gins with the de­vi­ous and quite delicious eight-part Feud: Bette and Joan, the story of the leg­endary ri­valry be­tween Hol­ly­wood sirens Joan Craw­ford (played by Jes­sica Lange) and Bette Davis (Su­san Saran­don) dur­ing their col­lab­o­ra­tion on the black thriller What Ever Hap­pened to Baby Jane?, which con­tin­ued well af­ter they had fin­ished shoot­ing. (Mur­phy is al­ready pre­par­ing his next se­ries; 10 episodes fo­cus­ing on the Charles-Di­ana break-up.)

Bette and Joan ex­plores how the two once seem­ingly in­de­struc­tible women en­dured painful ageism, sex­ism and of­ten vi­cious misog­yny — in­equities in­flicted by the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem and cul­ture that had cre­ated them as god­desses — while strug­gling to hang on to suc­cess and fame, as well as any sense of self-worth, in the twi­light of their ca­reers.

Mur­phy, it seems, was in­spired to do the se­ries by the dearth of women in Hol­ly­wood, af­ter sev­eral re­ports last year pointed to the star­tlingly small num­ber of women and mi­nori­ties be­hind the cam­era de­spite the pro­lif­er­a­tion of shows in this so-called golden age of TV.

Though the se­ries is some­times as out­ra­geous as the du­elling di­vas, and cer­tainly as camp, it is also an in­ci­sive and of­ten con­fronting study of two women who found them­selves un­will­ing vic­tims of what writer Stephen Har­vey called “the gilded servi­tude of Hol­ly­wood”, sub­ju­gated and dis­dained by men and ex­ploited by the me­dia. It is a thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing but nonethe­less cau­tion­ary fem­i­nist story, adapted by Mur­phy from Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam’s script Best Ac­tress, that just hap­pens to be su­perbly writ­ten and di­rected by a man.

“There was never ri­valry like this,” says Olivia de Hav­il­land, played with rel­ish by Cather­ine Zeta-Jones, as she is set­tling into an in­ter­view for a doc­u­men­tary in 1978 at the Dorothy Chan­dler Pav­il­ion in Los An­ge­les. Re­cur­ring se­quences of de Hav­il­land and other movie queens from the grand days of the Hol­ly­wood stu­dios pro­vide a fram­ing de­vice for Mur­phy to fill in the back­sto­ries and bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails of his spar­ring di­vas, es­pe­cially for those too young to re­mem­ber their ca­reers. It works well, adding a kind of lit­er­ary, al­most lush, fairy­tale qual­ity to the nar­ra­tive and mar­vel­lous comic mo­ments from some great ac­tresses, scenes in which they revel and frolic, such as Kathy Bates as ef­fer­ves­cent, scene-steal­ing Joan Blon­dell.

We first see a soz­zled Craw­ford at the 1961 Golden Globes where she glow­ers from the ta­bles, cig­a­rette twitch­ing in her fin­gers, as Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe sashays through the clam­orous crowd to breath­lessly ac­cept a best ac­tress prize, fu­ri­ous, even at 57, that she is no longer the so­called It girl. “I’ve got great tits too, but I don’t throw them in ev­ery­one’s face,” she scowls, fe­male jeal­ously beautifully estab­lished as a theme in one bril­liant comic mo­ment.

She is co­erced to go on record by in­fa­mous gos­sip colum­nist Hedda Hop­per (Judy Davis), also known as “Hedda Hell”, who wore ex­otic hats and per­se­cuted any­one she sus­pected of be­ing gay or com­mu­nist dur­ing the Mc­Carthy era, com­plain­ing that Mon­roe is ru­in­ing the in­dus­try with her “vul­gar­ity”.

What is really dis­turb­ing Craw­ford, though, is the lack of roles for a star who had man­aged to sur­vive more than four decades of shift­ing public taste, seem­ingly a per­ma­nent fix­ture on the screen. “There’s only room for one god­dess at a time,” the gos­sip queen tells her, while her agent says, “You have to find a role for your­self be­cause the parts just aren’t out there.”

Once act­ing royalty, she is now a joke to stu­dio bosses such as Jack Warner (Stan­ley Tucci), whose ap­proach to cast­ing is sim­ple: “Would you f. k her; would you give her a roll in the hay?” Craw­ford had stopped at noth­ing to prove to her­self and her public that her range was lim­it­less, but now she hides in her op­u­lent man­sion, un­able to even pay the gar­den­ers. In a lovely campy mo­ment Mur­phy has her maid (Jackie Hoff­man) tell her she has in­formed them “that it was an hon­our to trim Miss Craw­ford’s bush and to shut up”.

Now she is treated al­most as a liv­ing anachro­nism by the men of Hol­ly­wood, many of whom she seems to have had li­aisons with, the sub­ject of many a dry throw­away re­mark. (“She slept with ev­ery male star at MGM ex­cept for Lassie,” Davis is sup­posed to have said.) So she de­ter­mines to go her own way. She sends her maid to the lo­cal li­brary to scout for books, “any­thing with women on the cover”, and in a rather lurid pile dis­cov­ers Henry Far­rell’s novel What Ever Hap­pened To Baby Jane?

Sent to jour­ney­man di­rec­tor Robert Aldrich (Al­fred Molina) — who be­came leg­endary for di­rect­ing genre flops, then fol­low­ing them up with ca­reer-sav­ing crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial tri­umphs such as The Dirty Dozen — the script is dis­cov­ered by his as­sis­tant: “This one has po­ten­tial — hor­ror thriller, two broads, for­mer movie stars, a crip­ple and her crazy sis­ter bat­tling it out in this Hol­ly­wood home.”

But to get the movie made, Aldrich and Craw­ford need to find an­other star. En­ter Bette Davis, with whom Craw­ford had been feud­ing since 1935, when they both fell for ac­tor Fran­chot Tone while Davis was shoot­ing a movie called Dan­ger­ous but Tone had eyes for Craw­ford in­stead. Their col­lab­o­ra­tion on Baby Jane is of course volatile and dra­matic, Lange and Sar- an­don riv­et­ing to watch in their com­plete ab­sorp­tion in their com­plex char­ac­ters, both car­ry­ing a freight of hurt. They are also at times hys­ter­i­cally amus­ing.

While it picked up many awards, What Ever Hap­pened to Baby Jane? is mainly re­mem­bered as a camp clas­sic — critic Pauline Kael called it “this con­fused mix­ture of low camp and Grand Guig­nol” — and it re­mains a favourite of gay sub­cul­ture. But it is also an in­tense psy­cho­log­i­cal black-comic hor­ror story that looks at the emo­tional dam­age and in­san­ity that fame in­spires in some.

And that is what Mur­phy is up to with Feud. While he is al­ready fa­mous for bring­ing camp into TV’s main­stream, and the feud be­tween the two great ac­tresses has plenty of that, he is less in­ter­ested in the ex­ter­nal trap­pings of their an­i­mos­ity than in look­ing at what causes it. There is a lot of pain be­hind the painted faces of these archetypes of Hol­ly­wood iconog­ra­phy.

And he is as good at nu­ance as he is at over­the-top, his por­trait of old Hol­ly­wood glam­our re­alised not only quite beautifully but with an af­fect­ing ele­giac un­der­tone, the fate of its great­est stars so of­ten tragic and in­ex­orable. These are stars, he tells us, who for all their in­sa­tiable egos have a kind of in­no­cence about them, an oth­er­world­li­ness, a self-de­struc­tive in­sis­tence on an at­ten­u­ated self-def­i­ni­tion. In­sist­ing they are or­di­nary peo­ple, they find it im­pos­si­ble to breathe when they can’t control the con­di­tions in which they find them­selves when re­moved from their re­mote worlds.

The critic Roger Ebert once said Davis “was a char­ac­ter, an icon with a grand style, so even her ex­cesses are re­al­is­tic”, and that is what Mur­phy con­veys as a di­rec­tor: noth­ing is spared in his ap­proach to em­u­lat­ing the grand style of clas­sic Hol­ly­wood movies — there are even touches of Aldrich in the deep-fo­cus mas­ter shots and the screen-fill­ing close-ups of his ex­act­ing stars — but some­how he man­ages to make it seem an au­then­tic set­ting for these larger-than-life spar­ring movie queens. Show­case. Sun­day, 8.30pm,

Su­san Saran­don as Bette Davis and Jes­sica Lange as Joan Craw­ford in Feud: Bette and Joan

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