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