FEUD: Bette and Joan

I Didn’t See That She Was There: FEUD ‘And the Winner is… (The Oscars of 1963)’ (Recap)

Feud’s fifth episode is simultaneously its most anticipated, alluring installment and its most disappointing and brazenly cruel production, too. It sets ‘em up and knocks ‘em down — and for the first time in the series’ run, Feud allows the women to take the brunt of the blame for their own demise.

It’s the 1963 Academy Awards, and beneath the surface are a litany of feuds waiting to be fought. It’s Lawrence of Arabia versus The Music Man; young actresses pitted against the seasoned; Hollywood glamour railing against East Coast snobbery. At the center of it all is, of course, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), nominated for her third Oscar, and her unacknowledged co-star Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange).

Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta Jones, who is the epidoses’ shining star) flies all the way from Paris to accompany her friend Davis to the ceremony. To the documentary film crew (still the unexplained framing device for the show), she describes herself as someone Davis “didn’t see as competition,” as that she didn’t desire any more Academy Awards — a dubious claim, as she eyes the two Oscars in Bette’s living room. When they ask about Havilland’s own feud — the one with her sister, Joan Fontaine — she walks it off with an unnatural and slightly unnerving calm.

“I wasn’t turning my back on my sister in that photo,” she says, “I just didn’t see that she was there.” It’s a half-truth, exactly what Feud dabbles in; Olivia hasn’t outwardly attacked Joan, but she hasn’t acknowledged her presence, either. At the outset of the episode, Davis asks a reporter to “define snub,” and Havilland essentially asks it again. Am I snubbing my sister simply by not seeing her? The logic of this show suggests, yes, and that showing a lack of care for a fellow female is perhaps the worst thing any real “feminist” woman could do.

Notably absent from this episode are any of the men who’ve come to pull the strings prior. Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) and Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina) are only mentioned in passing. Even Frank Sinatra, who hosted the 1963 Oscars, can only be heard in voiceover (I for one, was genuinely disappointed that Toby Huss wasn’t back to reprise the role). It’s a strange choice, if not inherently problematic, to exclude the men who fanned the flames and planted the seeds (in most cases). It’s a choice that leaves only one villain to blame for the destruction of multiple women’s self-esteem, careers and identities: other women.

Crawford commits to this vilification full throttle, seeking to accept the Best Actress Oscar in any manner necessary. She and Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) plot to get 100 Academy voters to throw the award for anyone other than Bette. Crawford calls a stunned Geraldine Page (Sarah Paulson) to essentially bully her out of showing up to the ceremony, and flies to New York to meet Anne Bancroft (Serinda Swan), where more bullying wavers into an overwhelming sadness. When Bancroft asks Joan if it would mean something to her to accept on her behalf, Joan’s reply — “Desperately” — is both devastating and frightening.

Dressed in all silver, Crawford arrives to the Oscars as the literal embodiment of second place, yet she effectively steals the gold statue from her costar and rival. Though friend and The Women director George Cukor (John Rubinstein) tells her that she’s “better than this,” Joan admits without pause that she is not. The sting of the moment is guttural, both for Bette in the wings, and the audience left to cringe as Joan makes her “little speech” and poses for photos as though the honor is her own.

It’s an uncomfortable indictment of women that Feud has been flirting with, but one that the series hasn’t fully committed to — until now. While men may act as puppeteers — pulling all the strings, setting women up for failure — it is the women themselves who commit the most petty and egregious acts of terror. While there’s some resolve in Page’s conclusion that “Hollywood should be forced to look at what they’ve done to her,” (her being Crawford, specifically, but all women, metaphorically), it’s still inviting the public to look upon the monstrous feminine and fear it.

When Feud ends this time around, it’s with a furious and distraught Bette Davis who believes she’ll never have another chance, and a broken, silent, Joan Crawford, who sits alone on her bed looking at an Oscar that isn’t hers. It’s a sad state of affairs, where no woman is happy, and there is not a man to be seen.

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.

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