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“Feud”: A Bittersweet Beauty
by Emily Nussbaum
Originally appeared in The New Yorker, March 20, 2017
[art by Luci Gutierrez]
Why did white women vote for Trump? ["White woman" web editor's note: Please. Enough with the ongoing and tiresome gratuitous anti-Trump digs, New Yorker.] For one source of insight, try “Feud,” on FX, a barbed and bittersweet fable about female self-sabotage. The latest provocation from Ryan Murphy, “Feud” is a dramatization of the making of the 1962 camp-classic movie “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” which starred Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Beneath the zingers and the poolside muumuus, the show’s stark theme is how skillfully patriarchy screws with women’s heads—mostly by building a home in there.
A prolific auteur with an abiding interest in glamour and cruelty, Murphy is a thrillingly ambitious risk-taker, bending old genres into fresh forms; he’s also famously inconsistent, a Rumpelstiltskin who can spin seemingly offensive concepts into gold—as in last year’s outstanding “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story”—or fly off the rails, sometimes in the same show. “Feud” is his most recent franchise, and, like “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story,” it’s designed to tell one narrative a season. (Next up: Charles and Diana.) Murphy deserves credit as a pioneer, having revived the anthology model and queered cable. But his other achievement is equally impressive: on FX, he’s nurtured older actresses underserved by Hollywood—among them Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates—and given them grand and often gloriously strange roles. (Murphy couldn’t write a dull go-girl role model if one stabbed him in the eye.) Last year, he launched Half, a foundation that pushes for diversity among directors; he’s committed to having half of his own directors be female, L.G.B.T., or people of color.
A woke Ryan Murphy is a tricky proposition: as anyone who watched late seasons of “Glee” knows, didactic camp can be a nightmare. “Feud” has its flaws—a jokey song cue here, blunt exposition there. But Murphy lets the contradictions sizzle: he knows that schlock can double as great art; that self-loathing can work both as a goad to ambition and as an emotional crippler. “Hollywood should be forced to look at what they’ve done to her,” Geraldine Page (Sarah Paulson) remarks of Joan Crawford late in the series, but not unkindly. Like all great horror, “Feud” loves its monsters. It’s also a lot of fun.
As Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, we get Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, casting that’s also sly meta-commentary. Two A-list movie stars, who were sex symbols in their youth, play two A-list movie stars, who were sex symbols in their youth, as they grasp for the kinds of roles—not dirty-talking grannies or fading beauties but star parts, with prize-winning potential—that Sarandon and Lange find in “Feud.” The price is that they must be willing to play their aging bodies for shock and for laughs, an act the world condescends to—at least, when women perform it—as “brave.”
This was precisely the bargain that Davis and Crawford struck as their careers waned. In 1961, when “Feud” begins, the actresses, legendary rivals from the nineteen-thirties through the fifties, were considered uncastable dinosaurs. Determined to make a comeback, Crawford builds her own vehicle. She finds a novel to adapt, a psychological thriller about two elderly sisters living in a Hollywood mansion who torment each other; she woos a director, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina); and she convinces her enemy, Bette Davis, to co-star. The women knew that their mutual hatred would be a lure. Even Jack Warner (a hilariously nasty Stanley Tucci, ranting behind a desk the size of a beach) buys in—although, naturally, his first question to Aldrich is that eternal query: “Would you fuck ’em?” The show is at once blunt and compassionate about the Realpolitik of this situation, in which any alliance was doomed. The press manipulates the women; so does the studio. They compulsively try to seduce every man in charge, because that’s the customary path to control. As the columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis, in a series of redoubtable hats) says with a shrug, midway through blackmailing Crawford into giving her a bitchy quote, “Well, men built the pedestal, darling—not me. There’s only room for one goddess at a time!”
As in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”—in which Bette Davis got the juicier part, as the delusional former vaudeville star, Jane—Sarandon initially seems to get the sweeter deal here. Popping her huge eyes and chain-smoking Lucky Strikes, she plays two equally fun Bette Davises: the saucy, pants-clad actress, a radical clown who smears crazy makeup all over her face, then struts out with her arms in the air like an M.M.A. champion; and the legendary villainess Baby Jane, an old lady who is also a cruel, spoiled little girl. Sarandon’s apprehensive look, as Davis, when she watches the dailies of herself, as Baby Jane, is one of many mirror-within-mirrors moments. Davis knows that putting on gargoyle drag is an artist’s choice, but it’s a gamble, too. The joke might be on her.
For several years, on “American Horror Story,” Murphy has reimagined Jessica Lange’s doelike vulnerability as steely theatre. For the “Asylum” season, she wore a nun’s habit and carried a switch; on “Freak Show,” she sang “Life on Mars” as a Weimar German ringmaster/amputee, blue glitter smeared from her lashes to her brows. Joan Crawford is equally larger than life, but hers is a tougher role—she’s a big-shouldered beauty whose stiff intensity is hard to translate to a modern era. In “Feud,” Lange is forever rubbing lemons on her elbows or doing jittery calisthenics, haughty with overcompensation. It’s a performance that makes the viewer anxious, too, but that queasiness becomes its power. “Feud” is Crawford’s tragedy, and, by the final episodes, when she’s trashing her prospects in a mad quest to punish her co-star, Lange finds something wriggling and alive inside Crawford’s hunger to be seen, her lipsticked rictus as amused as it is seductive. Spraying herself silver before attending the Academy Awards, she’s a kamikaze of femininity, determined to look her absolute best even as she flies straight into the Hollywood sign.
Amid the bitchiness, the saddest sequences aren’t catfights but flickers of intimacy. Three episodes into “Feud,” Davis and Crawford go out for drinks. It’s a chess move: Davis hopes to soften the news that her daughter, B.D. (“Mad Men” ’s Kiernan Shipka), has been cast in a minor role. But, perversely, they bond. Crawford describes her abject childhood; as Davis listens with shocked empathy, she gives a matter-of-fact description of how she lost her “cherry,” at the age of eleven, to her beloved stepfather. Both women went to brutal boarding schools. “I loved it,” Davis confesses. “It made me tough.” They talk about their mothers. “I think maybe she was my only true female friend,” Davis muses, and the two lock eyes. “You’re lucky,” Crawford responds, with a small smile. It’s a line full of ambiguity. Is she saying that Davis was lucky to have had even one true female friend? Or that she’s lucky she never had more?
The success of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” led to copycat films, dubbed “psycho-biddy” and sometimes “hagsploitation.” There has long been a debate about vehicles like this, which provide actresses with work but are fuelled by the notion that their bodies are by definition a horror show. The critic Molly Haskell, in her biting collection “From Reverence to Rape” (1974), describes “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” as “society’s final revenge on Davis’ and Crawford’s star image and on their power: the implication, by the exaggeration of their exaggerations, that they were never real, never women, but were some kind of joke, apart from women and a warning to them.”
“Feud,” like “Baby Jane,” does occasionally veer into an eerie voyeuristic space, getting off on closeups of wrinkles while defending our right to stare. And yet choosing to be grotesque can be a form of liberation, too. Decades after Davis pulled on a doll’s dress, grotesquerie has been key to modern female comedy, as self-assertion, not self-loathing. Sometimes that means letting one’s face swell up, like Ilana on “Broad City,” drooling from a seafood allergy, or puncturing an eardrum, like Hannah on “Girls.” One of “30 Rock” ’s most magnificent moments had Tina Fey embracing full repulsiveness: on the subway, she became a mentally ill hag, wearing a gray wig and a mole, and hissing, “I’m pregnant with a kitty cat!,” like Baby Jane, Jr. Nothing scares people so much as a woman letting herself go; once you can scare them or make them laugh, you’re in charge.
For older actresses, TV has been a godsend. On HBO’s “Getting On,” it was a transgressive jolt to see an elderly actress like June Squibb wrestle naked with an automatic door—in an all-biddy ensemble, no one has to play the hag. Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, is a more old-fashioned sitcom, but it’s also a welcome mirror for an audience long deprived of one. (Why are all these women white? In part, because playing “gross” is a riskier move for women of color—a subject for a different essay.)
One of my favorite small examples has been running on HBO, where Tracy Ullman is airing the latest iteration of a sketch show she’s done since the nineteen-eighties. Ullman’s forte is transformation: she uses all-concealing makeup to do cross-race, cross-gender drag. The only thing that’s changed is Ullman’s age—and I found myself startled to realize how many older women she now imitates. Growing up, I saw elderly British women on Monty Python all the time, but they were men in dowdy housedresses, old bats who were funny precisely because they were interchangeable.
In contrast, Ullman does older women who are intensely specific: she’s a vain Angela Merkel and a sociopathic Dame Judi Dench, who plays pranks in the guise of being a “national treasure.” She’s Maggie Smith filming amateur audition tapes for herself as James Bond; she’s Germaine Greer ranting about her “gray minge.” Ullman’s body gives her permission: she can joke about sagging breasts one moment and be seductive the next. She also plays Kay Clark, a character she’s done for four decades. A shy dork, put-upon but hopeful, Kay is the caretaker for her elderly mother. In other hands, she’d be one of Monty Python’s grannies: a provincial biddy. In Ullman’s, she’s a heroine. You can laugh at her, but her meek capacity for joy, her decency in a world that can’t see her, is a flag planted, as bright as lipstick.
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