In America, there is an “opportunity to be anything you want.” The American Dream is alive and well in Feud, though it may be buried deep below the surface of in-fighting, old rules and men that can’t see the tide rolling in. It’s a timely statement to make, especially as it comes from one Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) — a German immigrant with a Spanish nickname — in secret from her employer, and amidst an order of pancakes and syrupy sweets in an All-American diner.
She’s meeting with Pauline Jameson (Alison Wright), assistant to the director, who has a screenplay of her own to pitch. One she wants to direct; one she wants Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) to star in. They are two “right-hand ladies,” as Pauline has referred to them, helping each other out. Mamacita, pulling out census reports ripped straight from their library books, has brought the receipts: statistically there are now less men than women, the trend only moving upwards, and women aren’t the minority anymore — men are. It’s a gorgeous, winning moment for both the characters and viewer; eyes widen at the revelation that studios will now have not just a moral but an economic obligation to make at least half of their pictures for women. By women, even. It only makes good, numerical sense.
Mamacita may as well have read the line straight to camera, for how damning it is. More than 50 years later, that truth still hasn’t come to pass. As Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) says, “dreams are delusions,” and perhaps the notion of true opportunity (blind of gender, race or age), ascending the ranks in this industry, is fleeting at best. Pipe dream at worst. For Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina), it seems to be, as he fights Warner and his own B-list cinematic reputation.
Does Jack see “potential for greatness” in the director? There’s a genuine sadness for Bob when Warner curtly answers, “No.” But it’s erased almost immediately as he walks back his promise to produce Pauline’s film. Why would he take a chance on a woman when he can’t even get one for himself? Feud most often portrays Aldrich as a “good guy” — but, there are moments of glaring nastiness when his ego gets the best of him. His dismissal of his right-hand lady (and on a side note, B-movie horror, which creator Ryan Murphy holds in highest regard) is the worst yet.
Watching Feud, there are times when I am positive the “feud” we are all supposed to be paying attention to is not the one between Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford, but between absolutely everyone else. Feuds happen between men and women, young and old, studio and director, actor and representation. For three episodes, we’ve been treated to the fantastic, emotional feuding of two female stars; their conniving tendencies, on set bickering, even a bit of friendly violence.
But this time around, the worst behavior stems not from any woman, but from Frank Sinatra (Toby Huss). In less than 10 minutes of screen time, he changes a hundred pages of lines, refuses to take direction, calls a script supervisor a “stupid bitch” and demonstrates for all of us that men can behave as badly as Crawford and Davis — only they can do it all by themselves. It’s all but cemented when he questions our beloved Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess) and his character choices; for all her flaws, Bette recognized and respected his talent. And Joan, for all her insecurities, poured herself into making Blanche a believable character. Sinatra can’t be bothered, jetting off (literally) between takes. He leaves Aldrich in the cold, with a Western — a real film — that’s doesn’t look like it’s going to be any good, and a bundle of complex emotions bubbling under the skin.
Meanwhile, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? soars at the box office. It sells a million tickets: the millionth Aldrich has, bizarrely, preserved in an ash tray for Davis (a great metaphor). It’s apt to garner its stars (or at least one of them) an Oscar nomination. But for Aldrich, it’s still just a horror picture: a stepping stone to that real film. Much the same for Davis and Crawford, only even more dire, it’s a chance to continue their careers in an industry that offers nothing for women of a certain age. As the men of William Morris remind Joan and viewers, “the landscape hasn’t changed.” Though Baby Jane may be a success, just because two “old broads” carried one film doesn’t mean they’ll be allowed another.
Despite receiving no other offers, it should come as no surprise that Joan doesn’t want to star in Pauline’s picture. In fact, she doesn’t even care to read it, lest she gain an opinion. We hear it again and again as feminism takes hold, both in Feud and in current events: women have a tendency to tear down other women. Why, when we could lift each other up? Crawford means it when she says, “My last chance is not going to be your first,” because her ego, amplified by years of Hollywood’s fawning, now devastated by its unfair retreat, is just as big and fragile as Aldrich’s — as any man’s.
But it’s also because of men like Bob and Warner that women, who have ascended the ranks of their industry, have some attitude — a necessary attitude. It speaks to every woman now who has found comfort in the current system; why be feminists if we’re comfortable as we are? Why change the system, even if it isn’t ours, when we’ve finally risen somewhere near the top? As Davis enjoys her time on nightly talk shows and Crawford the return of fans asking for autographs, she’s not wrong in her observation that they’re “not any worse off for it.” They’re not. And any topple of the system would topple these legendary women, too.
It’s a hard pill to swallow for Pauline, and for all contemporary feminists who wish to make change. A woman director and the forging of a new world isn’t something Crawford, at this stage of her career, is willing to bet her legacy on. It’s hard to blame her. But as her drinking becomes more debilitating, her loneliness more pronounced, it’s Mamacita, right-hand lady, who is there to take all the phones off the hook in preparation for the day we all know is coming. Oscar nominations are in. And whether old Hollywood is ready for it or not, a new day is coming; it’s just the right-hand ladies who’ll be bringing us there.
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.