From the get go, things are a bit different in the second episode of Feud, “The Other Woman.” Forming from the privacy of their dressing rooms, there’s a united front between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It’s an alliance that gets young ingenues fired for being a bit too pretty, keeps directors from sleeping with starlets and has the means to keep a movie set rolling. But for the men of Feud, that alliance is unholy. Horrific, even.
In the dark of the screening room, the dailies are good, but perhaps something better seethes under the surface. In a fervor over hatred, rage and good old American competition, Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) salivates over the potential of these stars on-screen — but mostly off. To pit two women of this caliber against each other is a sure-fire hit. His encouragement of Robert Aldrich (played with kind eyes but rather wicked intentions by Alfred Molina) to bait the gossip columns and hurl the film into a kind of over-the-top narrative netherworld is pure cruelty, and the director knows it. But he calls up Hedda Hopper and does it anyway, because Warner isn’t wrong when he says that “horror’s the future.” In genre, celebrity and the way these women will be treated, the horror is about to shine through.
The initial point of gossip — that Joan wears a “false front” — may or may not be true; that Bette Davis said it at all seems to be an invention of Aldrich. It may be false that Crawford pads her bra or has tits “hard as rocks,” but what if? It’s terrifying the way it’s worded: “Davis is afraid she’ll fall on them and knock a tooth out.” They’re not only false, they’re unseemly, un-ladylike, alien. So Feud spends the rest of the episode focusing more on Crawford’s neckline, asking viewers to think about how breasts should be, and how Joan’s are different and strange. And so, one can imagine how fans, executives and men would have scrutinized Crawford just a bit harder than usual. The news crawls deep enough under Joan’s skin to interrupt Bette’s scene, falling into the arms of Aldrich for some sense of redemption or protection, with Crawford retreating to her room to place her own call. If she’s a horror, then it’s only fair to make one of Davis, too.
The concept of the “false front” haunts much of “The Other Woman”; the way Davis totes her daughter B.D. around set like a pretty prop (but fails to connect with her in any meaningful way), Crawford’s admittance of millions in debt despite her lavish lifestyle, and the pretense by Aldrich that he won’t allow Davis’s performance to look ridiculous (or to be exploited) when he knows that Warner intends precisely that. And on a larger scale, the greatest false front of all is the feud itself.
In fact, Feud seems to be driven as much by male insecurity and fear of failure as it does anything to do with the women. Hopper reminds Aldrich that he’s no John Ford, a lasting director with scope and clout who can manage his starlets (great press included). Warner may seem the picture of inflated ego, but for all his talk, he can’t resist bedding down the “washed up” Crawford, or chasing Hitchcock’s Psycho at the box office. And of course, there’s Aldrich’s wife, privy to his multiple affairs, who says it plainly: “Not even you can satisfy two women at once.”
But who can satisfy Bette and Joan? Who beyond themselves?
It’s Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess), the actor to play Davis’ love interest, who provides the first kernel of an answer. “Not what you expected?” he asks Bette. Not so handsome, no one special, and a homosexual, no less. He’s the very definition of a false front; a horrific realization for Davis that her time as a certain type of star is up. With one vicious bite into a donut, Buono says something about Feud that should not go unnoticed: the relationship of gay men to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is as central to the show as women’s rights and feminism.
In a vulnerable moment, Aldrich tells Davis that Buono is “a brilliant artist,” and he won’t have him fired. Davis doesn’t ask him to. She sleeps with Aldrich instead; a love that is physical, a bit too vulnerable and ends as soon as the sex is over. It’s a certain type of male love that provides some security and relief from a reality defined by straight men and their desires. It’s also exploitative, inappropriate and fleeting.
That’s not the type of love on offer from Buono, who as a scene partner leaves a promise of respect, admiration and real work without demand for sex. It’s the kind of love that Aldrich, Warner and the status-quo of the studio system could never offer Davis or Crawford. And it’s a symbolic reminder that Feud is as much about feminism as it is about the LGBTQ community that helped two women ascend from a certain type to legendary women.
Alex Landers (@1CriticalBitch) is a critic and playwright writing about women, feminism and truly tasteless horror movies. She received her B.A. in cinema studies from the University of Illinois and an M.F.A. in dramatic writing from Florida State University, believing that great filmmaking is always entwined with great criticism. Also a visual artist, Alex spends time working and painting in Chicago and the east coast of Connecticut. You can read her film criticism weekly at onecriticalbitch.com and get to know the full scope of her work at alexandralanders.com.