Bob: There’s room for both of you to succeed.
Joan: In this town? Are you nuts?
Bette: Fuck off, Bob!
I’ve just finished binge watching the utterly incomparable series of Feud by FX Networks (the same people that brought you American Horror Story and more). Created by writer Ryan Murphy, the series focuses on the long standing, real life feud believed to have developed between Hollywood giants Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in early Hollywood. A feud that was only exasperated when the two began to work together in 1962 on the critically acclaimed movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
“Feuds are never about hate, they’re about pain”
Without ruining the plot, the story touches on what it was like for women in Hollywood in the early days. What it was like for older women, women with ambition, women with ideas, women who were at the top of their game and also, quite inadvertently, women of colour.
I stan for Jessica Lange at the best of times, I just wanna see her in everything. I find her an incredibly skilled actor, (I say actor rather than actress because as I think either Sigourney Weaver/Susan Sarandon once said – we do not say dancer-ess for a female dancer, or musician-ess etc). I have loved Jessica all the way since Tootsie up until American Horror Story (which, by the way, needs her to survive so….)
As someone in the industry, it is rare that we can just sit and enjoy a movie or episode without analyzing the work. The direction, the lighting, the text, the edit, the soundtrack. We look at everything! I find Jessica to be a wonderfully accomplished technical actor. She has a unique, trademark style. A style some find a little expositional, however we have to look at film history to understand this. Her technique lends itself well to the style and genre of the piece. Feud and AHS are not naturalistic by any means.
Feud, set in old Hollywood, when naturalism and ‘method’ was still in it’s teething stage. then we have American Horror Story with aliens, ghosts, witches and vampires… what about that in particular screams naturalism?
In old Hollywood, actors understood the purpose of ‘pictures’. It was no secret that they were intended to be used as a psychological tool to improve the mindset and morale of the masses. America had gone through the Depression, World War 2 and were just getting into the Civil Rights movement. Heightened drama, heightened glamour, heightened acting was then (and in many ways still today) used as a pain killer for the masses to escape their ordinary lives. Back then it was big everything, Jessica understands this and uses it.
Then we have another acting giant Susan Sarandon who has cleverly realised that branching out from movie to episodic is the future. (By the way can I mention Susan is apparently 70! – like girl! Get ’em). From ‘girl-next-door’ Janet in Rocky Horror Picture Show, to Thelma and Louise, to Grandma Lynn in The Lovely Bones. What an utterly amazing actor and who on earth better to play the razor sharp Bette Davis? Politics aside coz 😌, politics aside, she is truly one of the best actors of her time.
So why the boot lickin? Feud, as Baby Jane, to me was perfect and timely because it shows exactly what happens to women in the industry. How we are made to believe (more so then than now, but it still happens) that there is only room for one of us at the top. Even today men vastly outweigh women in the media 4:1, both in-front of and behind camera and this doesn’t even touch on men and women of colour. Although great efforts and now being made, the ratio is still not representational to our society. Davis in Feud goes on to say that ‘as soon as money was involved in Hollywood, the women were pushed out’.
It touches on the different ways women have tried to advance in their careers. Some using the only tool that was acknowledged – their feminine wiles and others using their sledgehammer talent. It also shows that after a certain age women become invisible and the struggle for women to get their fair share of the pie, especially behind the camera with female directors still being astonishingly low, (nothing to do with talent & black female or male directors or any other race being almost non-existent). Ryan Murphy makes a habit of casting older stars and using female directors for this exact reason, because the problem still applies today and I for one am glad he had the foresight to do so. Feud has quickly become my favourite FX series and is sure to be an actor’s ‘Acting 101 manual’ for a long time in the future.
I also want to give props to Maidie Norman here too. Maidie most of you may know from American series Good Times but Maidie was another accomplished actor, (with over 100 film credits to her name), whom is often overlooked when talking about Baby Jane but, Honey let me tell you… She acted the SHIT out of Elvira. Her character is the only one who goes toe-to-toe with Jane (Bette Davis) and almost wins. Elvira was omitted from the story in Feud (ironically as many POC often are). She’s not in the film ‘Baby Jane’ much either but, she absolutely shines through.
Go watch Feud, watch Whatever Happened To Baby Jane – watch them both… at the same damn time!